The man to whom many football people compare Jamaal Charles was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 as a first-ballot selection.
Indeed, Marshall Faulk was one of the NFL’s finest all-around running backs, a man whose skill as a runner and receiver is generally without peer — though few would deny that Charles might come close.
Yet Charles has some work to do if he wants to become a Hall of Famer like Faulk.
Although Charles boasts a sterling yards-per-carry average of 5.5 — best all-time for a running back, topping Hall of Famers Jim Brown (5.2), Gale Sayers (5.0) and, yes, Faulk (4.3) — he ranks 59th in career rushing yards with 7,220.
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For modern backs, 12,000 yards would appear to be the barrier for entry into the Hall of Fame — all the retired backs who rushed for that many are in, with LaDainian Tomlinson possibly next as soon as 2017.
That means Charles, at the very least, needs four more 1,000-yard seasons to get there, a task that might be tricky considering he turns 30 this December and is currently rehabbing from a second season-ending ACL injury, albeit to a different leg.
“You know, Jamaal’s a track guy — he takes care of his body,” Faulk said. “Always is in phenomenal shape.”
But Faulk also said he does not know if Charles is going to regain his old form, and he took that uncertainty a step further by wondering if the Chiefs’ success in 2015 without Charles — they were 11-1 after his injury — might cause them to move on at some point to gain cap room.
“The conversation is, ‘Why does Kansas City keep Jamaal Charles when you saw Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West? For what reason?’ ” Faulk said. “I can’t even see what reason they would continue to pay (him) if they have a way of getting up from under that contract and dispersing money elsewhere to fill some of the gaps that they have. And that’s just real talk — that’s the business of the game.
“I love Jamaal, and I think he could find another home. I think there’s a lot left in him. But looking at what went on when he went down in Kansas City, are his days possibly numbered there?”
Ware and West combined to rush for 10 touchdowns and a solid 4.5 yards-per-carry average last season. When you consider that — and the fact the business of the game is often heartless and unforgiving — it’s easy to see why Faulk might wonder that from afar. Even Jerry Rice — perhaps the greatest football player of all time — did not play for the 49ers his whole career.
Faulk’s question is one that Chiefs general manager John Dorsey has already appeared to answer. During a conference call with reporters Jan. 21, Dorsey was asked if he anticipates Charles being healthy and playing for the Chiefs next season.
“Well, as I look at it right now, Jamaal … I think he may be ahead of schedule in terms of his rehabilitation,” Dorsey said. “The guy is an extremely talented player. Love him to death. Love how dirty-tough he is. Yeah, he’s a Chief.”
When asked to elaborate on what “ahead of schedule” means, however, Dorsey did not.
“That’s more of a medical assessment,” Dorsey said. “What I have to do if they say they’re ahead of schedule, then I believe that he’s ahead of schedule, which is very positive for this organization.”
Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian, who built the Super Bowl champion Colts in 2006 and the Buffalo Bills dynasty of the early 1990s, said that approach makes sense.
“I don’t think, with a player of his caliber, you ever think about saving money,” Polian said. “The question can only be answered by the doctors and the trainers and the physical therapists. Where is he, what is the prognosis, how do you feel about where we’re headed? And then you address the contractual situation accordingly.”
Now, the Chiefs do have some key players who are about to be free agents, and yes, they could save about $5.3 million by releasing Charles.
But salary-cap expert Joel Corry says they currently have about $30 million in cap room, which is more than enough to re-sign the likes of safety Eric Berry, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and outside linebacker Tamba Hali, although retaining key players like defensive tackle Jaye Howard and cornerback Sean Smith would be a bit trickier.
And to Polian — who once allowed a 30-year-old star runner of his own (Edgerrin James) to walk in free-agency — releasing a generational talent like Charles is very different from simply allowing him to walk in free-agency. (Charles is under contract through 2017.)
“With a guy like (Charles) — and I don’t want to farm Andy (Reid’s) land — but from afar ... he looks like a good bet to me,” Polian said.
David J. Chao, who spent 17 years as an NFL team physician, agrees.
“I believe he has a reasonable chance” to be what he was, Chao said. “Twenty-nine sounds older and older in today’s NFL, but 29 in the real world is good.”
Chao added that Charles has already shown the ability to bounce back from an ACL injury, which he did in 2012 by making the Pro Bowl.
“We’d be talking about Jamaal Charles as the benchmark for ACL recovery if it didn’t happen the same year as Adrian Peterson,” Chao said. “He got 1,500 yards coming back after that. Adrian’s a special back — he got to 2,000 — so he got overshadowed.”
So Faulk’s question about whether the Chiefs should keep Charles appears to have been answered.
But the fact there was even a question might be an indication of how well Ware and West played, and a positive sign that a potential timeshare in 2016 could make the Chiefs’ offense more diverse and ease Charles’ workload a bit.
“First of all, they were ready to play,” Faulk said of West and Ware. “For guys who hadn’t had a lot of playing time, how they stepped up and shared the load (was impressive). Both having the ability to run inside and outside, they both catch the ball pretty well, and probably the most important thing is in pass protection: They understood not just who to get, but how to get guys.”