Touchdown totals. Yardage totals. This is how fantasy football tells us we should evaluate a running back. There is no consideration for how hard a player had to work to achieve those statistics. That's why Willie Roaf and Jonathan Ogden never won an MVP. That's why Shaun Alexander was an MVP, despite having an ultra-strong supporting cast to set the table for him.
And so, a player like Jamaal Charles really throws people for a loop. He's untraditional. He's not the Chiefs' full-time running back, he's not a touchdown machine, and he may not end up leading the league in rushing.
But let's put statistics aside for a moment. Here's a question I like to ask: of all the players up for MVP consideration, which players are the most irreplaceable? I'll dive into why Charles is in that mix after the jump.
For this piece, I want to focus on the top 5 MVP candidates Peter King highlighted in his most recent Monday Morning Quarterback. I have a tremendous amount of respect for King, so his list is a great place to start. In his most recent list, he talked about five players: Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Drew Brees.
MVPs Win Games
The first criteria is that the MVP has to be a winner. Barring a truly exceptional case, putting up a great season for a losing team doesn't jive well with voters and it shouldn't. That excludes a lot of great players from the conversation, including Arian Foster and potentially Philip Rivers.
MVPs Are Typically Quarterbacks
And rightfully so, I might add. Brady, Rodgers, Ryan, and Brees are all Quarterbacks. They hold the keys to their respective offenses, so when things go right, these are the guys who deserve the credit. However, there is usually a non-quarterback or two that slips into the conversation.
MVPs Are Full-Time Players That Score Touchdowns
This is where we need to step back for a second because Charles doesn't fit conveniently into this conventional mold.
Touchdowns are a short-sighted way to measure a player. The Chiefs aren't a conventional team. They don't prefer a style of play where they score 40 points per game. I am sure that Haley and Weis get a lot more excited about a 10-minute drive that leads to a touchdown than a touchdown drive that lasts less than one minute. As I've mentioned so many times this year, the Chiefs are at their best when they control the clock and win the time of possession game.
So if Charles' job is to extend drives, shouldn't we care a lot more about his ability to get first downs? Here is an interesting statistic: Foster gets a first down on 29% of his carries and Jones-Drew on 26%. Charles is at 30%. That's good enough to put him in the top 5 of this category and better than the two RBs widely considered to be the best in 2010. What makes that statistic so remarkable is that he's not their primary short-yardage back. Excluding goal line carries, Charles has only touched the ball on 21 short-yardage situations (1st/2nd/3rd and <3 yards). It's a lot easier to get a first down on a 3rd and 1 than it is on a 1st and 10. In fact, over 90% of Foster's first downs were converted on a 3rd and short situation. Charles, on the other hand, doesn't even break the top 20 in this statistic. Some may read into this statistic and ask why Charles isn't a short yardage back. True, but think about how truly extraordinary those statistics are when analyzed in tandem. Those stats suggest that he is consistently put in situations where running for first downs is supposed to be very difficult, and yet he's among the best in the league at converting.
Charles also leads the league in big play rushes (>10 yards) and is second in yards per carry on 1st and 10 (7.1 yards per carry).Those carries not only move the chains, they also set up very makeable second or third downs. What these statistics clearly indicate is that Charles isn't just a guy who will peel off an 80 yard run and then run for 2 yards the next 10 attempts. This is a guy who consistently eeks out big play after big play after big play. He extends drives better than any running back in the league and helps assure that even if the Chiefs punt, they can limit the opposing offense's field position. For a team that is so dependent on clock management and winning the field position game, you simply cannot short-sell the importance of that contribution.
MVPs Are Important To Their Team
No matter how much you support Cassel or have throughout the year, the reality is that the Chiefs have won games this year by using the running game to set up the pass. I'm not in the room when opposing defensive coordinators devise gameplans, but I would have to imagine that the first two questions they ask are: 1) how do we stop the Chiefs' running game? 2) how do we stop the Chiefs' running game? 3) Oh, and by the way, their passing game is getting better too.
That means eight defenders in the box consistently, especially early in the season. So how do you stop a running back like Charles who averages 6+ yards per carry? Let me ask you this. How did basketball teams defend Shaq in his prime? They doubled up on him. How did defenses cover Randy Moss in their prime? They pulled all their safeties back, even if that left wide open space in front of them. And when you double up on Shaq, there's going to be a wide open guard somewhere who gets a look at an open three-pointer. Charles' effectiveness has given Cassel and the receivers a much easier path to the hoop (so to speak). There is nothing worse than giving extra help to stop a guy and still not being able to stop him. That's what Charles brings to the table for the Chiefs. Time and time again, defenses crowd the line to stop him and time and time again, he breaks off big plays.
That's the main reason Charles deserves MVP consideration. He is a player defenses load up to beat, even at the expense of lightening up their pass defense, and he beats them anyway. And not only does he beat defenses, he annihilates them. You hear a lot of talk about running backs finding a second gear--they find their holes and explode into them. All Charles has is a second gear. He doesn't have the luxury of picking a hole and bursting through it. Instead, he is a running back that has become successful at stopping and starting: Burst. Stop. Burst. Cut. Stop. Burst. He has avoided a lot of losses because of his maneuverability. I don't think many running backs would be able to replicate some of the gains Charles gets on a regular basis.
And what is the end result? A winning football team. That much is obvious. But he was also part of a rushing attack that carried the offense on its back as Matt Cassel inconsistently tried to find himself early on. And he has created a running system that sets the tone for the entire team. When the Chiefs run well, they extend drives, eat up clock, and keep the defense fresh. The entire team is better.
I wouldn't put Charles in the front of the MVP race. I would probably hand the MVP award to a quarterback like Tom Brady. But it's about time he become a part of the conversation. Few players this season have been more successful under such adverse circumstances as Charles has.