Why Jamaal Charles could have been a much, much better player

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 07: Running back Jamaal Charles #25 of the Kansas City Chiefs runs for a 63 yard touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals during the first quarter of the NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 7, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 07: Running back Jamaal Charles #25 of the Kansas City Chiefs runs for a 63 yard touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals during the first quarter of the NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 7, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Jamaal Charles is already the Chiefs all-time rushing leader, but the reality is that ineptitude and injuries kept him from being even better.

We will never know how truly great Jamaal Charles could have been.

Yes, he’s the leading rusher in Kansas City Chiefs franchise history. Yes, he’s a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. Yes, he finished his career with over 10,000 yards from scrimmage and 64 touchdowns, rushing and receiving. But we will never know just how dominant he could have been or how more amazing those career numbers could have looked—if not for ineptitude and injury.

In a way, this is an exercise that could be conducted for every single NFL player. Is there a player who couldn’t point to a particular game and say, “I was injured then and no one knew it?” Are there not multiple missed opportunities on both sides of the ball? There will always wide open pass catchers who didn’t get the ball thrown their way or talented players who are misused by their respective coaches. I get it. I understand it. I also think that’s not my concern

Every NFL player could point to a variable and say, “I’d have better stats if not for x, y or z.”

I’m also not interested in those players.

No offense to anyone else, but this is only worth it because Jamaal Charles was already such an incredible player, a truly rare gift who should stand among the best in NFL history. It’s also because because the ineptitude was so great and the injuries so devastating that it’s all worth exploring.


When we say ineptitude, we mean a coaching staff that somehow refused to let Jamaal Charles be the bellcow from the outset.

Yes, there are concerns about Charles’s slight build, and perhaps his injury history shows that asking Charles to be the lead back from the beginning was just never, ever going to happen. But honestly, there was no way of knowing at the time that Charles would eventually succumb to injuries. All we knew in the beginning is that he was arguably the single most dynamic offensive force in the league when he played.

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Larry Johnson was still hanging around the Chiefs for Charles’s first two seasons in the league, and even when it was more than clear that he shouldn’t split carries with anyone. Yet what is really insane is how they handled his third season, when it was clear to anyone and everyone that getting Jamaal Charles the football should be the entire offensive approach.

During the offseason of 2010, the Chiefs went out and signed Thomas Jones to a two-year deal. Billed as “Thunder and Lightning,” Jones could have been a nice goal line back, a relief for Charles at times used on obvious rushing downs when the Chiefs just needed to power it through the lines. By the year’s end, Jones had 15 more carries on the season than Charles did: 245 to 230.

Charles averaged 162 carries through his first three seasons in the NFL. That total of 162 would have ranked 30th overall in the NFL this year, just behind Ameer Abdullah of the Detroit Lions. In other words, the Chiefs gave one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL less carries than almost any other starting back in the NFL because they also had Thomas Jones on the roster (who averaged 3.5 yards/carry in his tenure with the Chiefs).

For even more perspective, Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing this year and had 272 carries during his ROOKIE season. It took Charles 33 career games (Week 2 of his 3rd NFL season) to even reach his 272nd career carry. It’s insane.

Remember when Chiefs fans, you and me included, were going bananas during the middle of the 2017 regular season because the Chiefs somehow decided to stop running the football? Kareem Hunt was running over everyone during the first five games. Then suddenly, the Chiefs reel off a 1-6 record during a seven game stretch against the easiest part of their schedule. During that time, Hunt averaged 14 carries per game, including three losses where he got single-digit carries. Andy Reid finally gave playcalling duties to Matt Nagy and Hunt rushed 25 times for 116 yards in a must-win against the Oakland Raiders in Week 13.

If you weren’t around for the best of Jamaal Charles, just know that the same anger and confusion you felt about the Chiefs not giving Hunt the football for games on end was how it felt watching Jones rack up so many carries over Charles.


This part is just sad. There’s no blame to go around. There’s nothing that could have been done. Sometimes players get injured and sometimes it happens more than once. Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry are very recent examples that it happens to players of all kinds at all positions in myriad ways. Charles just had some bad luck near the end of his Chiefs career.

During the 2010 season, Charles tore his ACL for the first time and was on injured reserve before September was even over. What’s amazing is that three of Charles’s four most productive seasons in the NFL came on the heels of the first ACL tear. Imagine if Todd Haley had set him free much earlier in his career. After all, if Kareem Hunt can lead the league and set records during his rookie campaign, there’s absolutely no reason why Charles couldn’t have done the same.

Fast forward four years to the 2015 season and Charles once again tears an ACL, this time in October and it would be the one that would complicate the rest of his career. Even when he returned, he clearly wasn’t the same and perhaps he came back too fast. His knee needed further surgery in 2016 and he once again was unavailable for the Chiefs. It was clear then that his tenure with the team was likely over as the Chiefs could ill afford to count on the uncertainty of Charles’s playing status—at least as a lead back.

Over his final two years in Kansas City, Charles had only 5 starts in 8 games, yet he still averaged 4.9 yards/carry and still showed that he was better than most running backs. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that he earned a look from a division rival the following year, as painful as it was to see him play for the Denver Broncos. Now, Charles is still waiting for another chance to further his career as he insists he’s got more productivity in him.

Chiefs fans are definitely privileged to have watched Charles over the last decade, and his franchise mark is sure to enshrine him in the team’s Hall of Fame in the near future. But it’s also easy to wonder whether Charles would have also set NFL marks had his coaches only recognized his greatness that much earlier.