KANSAS CITY MO - JANUARY 09: Quarterback Matt Cassel #7 of the Kansas City Chiefs hands the ball off to running back Jamaal Charles #25 against the Baltimore Ravens during their 2011 AFC wild card playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 9 2011 in Kansas City Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Let's get one thing straight: Jamaal Charles is a flat-out baller and he is a difference-maker for the Chiefs. When he's on the field and has room to run, he is unstoppable. When you have a player that important, you want to find a way to gameplan to get him involved.
I know that we're all getting over the Kansas City Chiefs' playoff loss and move on, so allow me to touch on one last point before we do that. What exactly happened to Jamaal Charles in the Chiefs-Ravens playoff game? Why did he dominate the first half and then become a non-factor in the second half? Did the coaches forget about him? Was he punished for fumbling? Was he hurt? Did the Ravens make a halftime adjustment that took him out of the game?
The only people who know the answers to these questions are the coaches and the players, and they're probably not going to tell anybody the complete story. Let me offer my best guess, based on what i saw in the game: it had some to do with injury, just a little to do with getting too cute with playcalling, and probably some to do with Charles not being 100%. But, in my opinion, the biggest factor was that the Chiefs 'players, not the coaches, effectively took Charles out of the second half.
Huh? I'll explain more after the jump.
Let's start with the obvious: it would be nice if the Chiefs gave the ball to Jamaal Charles over 300 times in a season, but realistically, even with a reduced carry load we've seen him leave the game too many times with a visible limp or injury. None have been serious... yet. But there are times when it does feel like playing Russian roulette. Every time you saw Charles limp off the field, wasn't your first thought: "Oh man, there goes our season"?
Did it affect his ability to play against Baltimore? Yes and No. He was pretty visibly banged up, but at the same time, it's pretty atypical to put an injured player in on pass protections. It's also worth questioning whether his fumble in the first half was a freak accident, or if we should be concerned that bigger, skilled defenders might have a fairly easy time taking the ball away from him.
A Change in Approach:
In the second half, I saw the Ravens come out with a different defensive approach. They were crashing a lot more guys toward the line and keeping less and less players in deep coverage. By the way, interesting to note that I saw the Ravens pretty regularly use a five-man front, especially as the Chiefs started to run the ball effectively. The Ravens' change in approach probably explains why the Chiefs were trying to find more creative ways to beat the Ravens outside of traditional runs. You saw the Chiefs start the first drive in the second half with a few quick strike dump-offs, which is something you'd expect to see from an offense trying to balance out an over-aggressive defense. As the drive progressed, you began to see the Chiefs find creative ways to get the ball into Dexter McCluster's hands. I would have to imagine that the Chiefs did this to get the Ravens to stop attacking. In my opinion, if the Chiefs gave Charles the ball more in the second half, he would have been met with a lot more resistance at the point of attack. And the last thing you want is for a gimpy lineman to get piled on by three 300-lb. linemen.
What does this mean for 2011? We'll go into further depth later, but it's pretty simple: the Chiefs can't run until they prove they can pass. You can't blame a Running Back for not being able to move a brick wall.
The Chiefs Have to, Have to, Have to, Have to Pass the ball Well
Before the Ravens game, I made the comment that the Chiefs' ability to beat the Ravens would depend on Cassel's ability to loosen up the defense. I was half right and half wrong on that. Interestingly, the Chiefs' ability to run the ball down Baltimore's throat in the first half is the only thing that kept the Chiefs in the game for as long as they did. While it would have been nice for the Chiefs to score points in buckets from the get-go, realistically, the Chiefs' best opportunity to stay in the game was based on their ability to extend drives and keep the defense off of the field. Otherwise, the defense would never get off the field.
This has a major implication for 2011. The Ravens dared the Chiefs to throw the ball, and they still couldn't do it. Most teams can pass the ball well against defenses that are committed to stopping the pass. The Chiefs were horribly ineffective at passing the ball against a defense that was paying little to no attention to them. Matt Cassel is the leader of this team and he simply cannot make the decisions he made in big games. The blame starts from up top. But yes, it would help if he had more consistent play from his receiver corps.
The Chiefs aren't even asking their passing game to do too much. They simply need to make enough plays to keep the defense honest. It reminds me of that kid in elementary school who used to cheat on tests all the time and still failed. The Ravens gave the Chiefs a "cheating" advantage and the Chiefs failed.
Limited Opportunities to Give Charles the Rock:
The following comments are more about the playoff game than 2011 implications, but they should be said anyway. The Chiefs' playcallers didn't forget about Charles in the second half. That's not why the Chiefs failed on second half drives.
I agree that the Chiefs sometimes got a little too cute in the first drive and it was technically killed by an Interception (that the Chiefs were fortunate to get back). However, let's keep in mind that the drive ultimately ended up failing because the Chiefs couldn't gain two yards on the ground in two tries. So it's hard to say that the Chiefs' inability to use Charles ruined their ability to drive the ball downfield.
On the second drive, the Chiefs took themselves out of Jamaal Charles range by intentional grounding the ball on first down. That forced the Chiefs into a 2nd and 20. Given the Chiefs' urgency to score on that drive, that was a passing down. You can blame the Chiefs for not running on first down, but it's hard to get too picky about one playcall. On the third drive, the Chiefs ran the ball with Thomas Jones on first down and then Cassel threw a pick on the second play of that drive. Again, it's hard to nitpick about two playcalls. After that point, the Ravens took a commanding lead and the Chiefs' only option was to pass the ball.
Charlie Weis didn't ground the ball on first and 10, and he didn't throw an ill-advised interception on third down. The Chiefs didn't intentionally take Jamaal Charles on the game. The Chiefs' players took him out of the game by making critical mistakes that took the ball out of his hands.
What does this all mean for 2011?
I doubt that the "Jamaal Charles needs more carries" bandwagon is nearly as strong as it was last year. Charles' carry load was just about right. But defenses will walk into the 2011 season knowing that the Chiefs can run the ball well and they know that if you give Charles an inch, he'll take it a mile. If I'm a Defensive Coordinator, I force the Chiefs to beat my offense by throwing the ball. The bad news is, the Chiefs will have a loaded schedule in 2011.
The biggest, hugest, most colossal takeaway is that if the Chiefs continue to be this inconsistent passing the ball, they are essentially taking the ball away from their biggest playmaker. if Cassel and the passing game doesn't step up in big games, there is little Charles can do to take this team to the next level.