Jamaal Charles’ career should make us redefine NFL greatness

Jamaal Charles’ career should make us rethink how we define greatness.

Jamaal Charles probably won’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With time, his career might even fade into the irrecoverable archive of “very good, not great.” This is not surprising.

Charles doesn’t quite have the career stats to rival the greatest running backs in NFL history. The Kansas City Chiefs legend rushed for 7,563 yards and 44 touchdowns in his career. This places him at No. 56 all-time in terms of rushing yards, and No. 97 in rushing touchdowns. According to his statistics, he had a good career, a couple of tremendous years, but simply didn’t do it for long enough to cement his status as an all-time NFL great.

However, if I wanted to argue that Charles is deserving of the HOF, I would cite his insane efficiency. Charles averaged 5.4 yards per rush, the highest mark in NFL history. This kind of efficiency is arguably more impressive than career totals—more indicative of greatness than yards and touchdowns.

Charles also played for some truly awful Chiefs teams. The 2012 Chiefs were one of the worst teams of the decade. All Charles did that year was rush for 1,509 yards, the lone sparkplug on an otherwise destitute offense and tragedy-stricken team.

I could go even further, and make the case that volume stats should not be as important to HOF consideration as they are. I agree with this last point, but I don’t want to pursue that argument here. Instead, I argue that Charles’ greatness can be argued in a different way. Charles’s greatness lives in the experience a viewer has while watching him.

Let’s call back to January 3rd, 2010. The Denver Broncos, with their playoff hopes alive, play host to a 3-12 Chiefs team. The Broncos, with everything to gain (and lose), got blown out by that lowly Chiefs team, mainly thanks to Charles. He put on nothing sort of a Herculian clinic in dominance. The wild card hopeful Broncos were blown to smithereens by the 3-12 Chiefs by a final of 44-24, and, more specifically, the dodging, cutting, rocketing Charles. He posted an absurd stat line of 25 carries for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.

As a 13-year-old, I could detect something about Charles, but I wasn’t sure what it was that made me drawn to his game.  All I knew was I had to watch every Chiefs game, whether they were 0-16 or 16-0. At that time, my Chiefs love was centered solely on Charles, but I didn’t know why. I would listen to the games on the radio and grin from ear-to-ear whenever Mitch Holthus shouted, “Charles scores! Touchdown, Kansas City!”

Now, dominant rushing performances like the one Charles had in that game weren’t totally unusual. Massively impressive, yes, but not otherworldly. Players like Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson often had similarly dominant games. Where Peterson was a bruising, contact-loving beast, Chris Johnson was the human embodiment of the roadrunner. I understood and respected these players, geniuses at their respective crafts. But Charles’ game resisted that kind of quick classification. He was a track star, but he wasn’t purely a speed running back. He was elusive, but that label also fell short of describing Charles. All I knew was that when he had the ball in his hands, I couldn’t look away.

Now, I can’t cite Charles’ career stats to argue his greatness, as they don’t do him justice. Maybe now, many years removed from my introduction to football, I can take a better crack at explaining what made Charles great. Jamaal was an instinctual but also calculated runner. His brilliance was that each move looked natural—even gazelle-like—when in reality, each movement was measured. He ran with a kind of humble confidence like he knew no other way to run beside his natural way. He had a rare kind of rhythmic speed, a speed that seemed effortless like it was his default setting. He ran with a kind of intelligence that was immediate and instinctual, like he was both in command but wanted to enjoy the ride.

Normally when we argue that a player is great, we cite mind-bogglingly impressive career stats. If I wanted to argue that Adrian Peterson is great, no one in their right mind would argue against me. But the kind of argumentative strength statistics provides actually limits the conversation we can have about a player’s greatness—or at least, it limits one of the conversations we can have about greatness. What about what it is like to bear witness to greatness?

In a strange way, Charles benefits from his less impressive career stats. When we discuss his greatness, we are forced to dive into specific moments that caught our eye. We can reminisce about a seemingly meaningless football game from 2010 to make the case for Charles’ greatness. In the probable event that Charles does not make the Hall of Fame, Chiefs fans will still have a permanent archive of his greatness.

Ironically, the quest to solidify the legacy of a player like Charles leads to a stronger sense of what made him great, because it enriches the conversations about his legacy. Why was Jamaal Charles great? Because when he had the ball in his hands, he was great. And that means something.

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