You’re not supposed to get better when you lose your best best player, but that’s exactly what happened in Kansas City last season when Jamaal Charles went down with a torn ACL.
The Chiefs were going nowhere when Charles suffered the injury against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 11 last year, and when the club lost in Minnesota the next week, Kansas City was a dismal 1-5, the worst start in Andy Reid’s first 17 years as an NFL coach.
From that point forward, however, the Chiefs won, ending up victorious in 10 straight games to end the regular season and reach the playoffs where they shut out Houston in the wild-card round before ultimately succumbing to New England on the road in the divisional round.
Add in 2016’s 2-1 start and Kansas City is an imposing 13-3 since Charles went down a year ago.
“The (opposing) defense was focusing on ‘We’ve got to stop Jamaal Charles,’ ” Charcandrick West, one of the backs who replaced Charles so ably, said last season. “Now they’ve got to stop a team.”
Charles and what the Chiefs were able to do without him, in fact, might be the greatest example of why football is the ultimate team game.
From a micro standpoint his well-rounded talents simply can’t be replaced but from a macro standpoint, his absence forced the Chiefs to look inward and improve in other areas to become a better team as a whole.
“It is really a compliment to Jamaal when I say: I feel like we got more complex when he was out,” quarterback Alex Smith told The MMQB.com back in August when explaining the difference. “Because Jamaal is such a freak player, he gets you out of stuff. When you run into bad looks, it doesn’t matter, because Jamaal will sometimes break those into his longest runs. I felt like we grew not being able to always lean on him.”
With Charles set to return to the lineup on Sunday night against Pittsburgh, the question now will be whether Kansas City plans to go back to leaning on the superstar or mix him back into a more well-rounded offense.
To date, much like last season, the Chiefs have relied on the committee of Spencer Ware (41 carries, 202 yards) and West (12 carries, 63 yards) and it’s been okay, but nothing like the juice Charles brings to the run game as the NFL’s all-time leader in yards per rush.
The receiving aspect, which Charles also excels at, has been just fine as West specifically has been a difference maker early this season with 10 receptions for a gaudy 185 yards.
West, though has already been ruled out for Week 4 with an ankle injury, meaning Charles will likely be mixed back into the lineup as a compliment to Ware.
If healthy and the same guy physically, it will become evident very quickly that Ware isn’t exactly in Charles’ league so Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress have to be careful not to fall for the siren’s song of the superstar.
If the Chiefs start leaning on Charles like they used to, you are going to see some spectacular efforts from the former All-Pro back but you’re also going to see a team moving in the wrong direction again.
-John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com and TodaysPigskin.com. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @JFMcMullen — Also catch John each week during the NFL season ESPN South Jersey, ESPN Southwest Florida, ESPN Lexington, KDWN in Las Vegas, and check @JFMcMullen for John’s upcoming appearances on SB Nation Radio, FOX Sports Radio, CBS Sports Radio as well as dozens of local radio stations across North America.