Greatness in sports is a funny thing. A lot of the time, people mistake longevity for greatness. They see a guy who has been "good" for years and say, "Hey that guy must be great!" There are a million examples of that phenomenon (stares hard in the direction of Thomas Jones and John Stockton, two players who were never top three at their position at any given time yet get remembered as great).
Almost as often, people mistake team success with individual greatness. Yeah, the Dallas Cowboys were a great team for a long time. But I'll say it flat-out: Troy Aikman was NOT a great quarterback (yes, I'm fully prepared to be flamed by people who disagree. He wasn't. I have spoken!).
What does make a player "great?" I believe that it's not just a matter of longevity (although that's certainly a relevant aspect) and team success (again, a factor to consider, but not the end-all-be-all), nor is it simply a matter of impressive stats (for example, despite his incredible stats, I have a hard time calling Terrell Davis "great" when other, lesser RB's saw success in the same system. Well, OK, maybe he was. But who cares? He was a Bronco!).
At the end of the day, I have to go with the legendary Supreme Court definition of hardcore porn... I might not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.
And I'm seeing it right now, happening before our very eyes. And if we so much as blink, we might be unfortunate enough to miss it. Yeah, I'm talking about our "scatback" (remember that one?), Jamaal Charles.
We all know that JC is the man around here. But have you ever noticed that when most talk of JC there's always a "but?" (quit snickering, Tarkus)
"Yeah, Jamaal Charles is a stud, BUT he'll never hold up long enough."
"JC's the man, BUT he's always had to share carries. Not a true workhorse"
"Charles has played like an All Pro, BUT he was hurt in 2011 so he's got a lot to prove."
"Yeah he's a great player, BUT players at his position don't matter as much anymore."
Look, I can't say for sure that Jamaal Charles will one day enter the Hall of Fame. I can't even say for sure whether or not he'll ever be considered a top 3 back (although he was right on the verge of that kind of talk before getting hurt in 2011). But I can tell you, without a doubt, beyond question, that I know Greatness when I see it, and Jamaal Charles has it.
You don't believe me? We need to get all stat-happy (ie nerdy)? Fine, how about this...
For those of you who are rebels and refuse to click on links, it's a list of the NFL's ALL TIME leaders in Yards Per Carry. Funny story, true story... Jamaal Charles ranks 5th all time on that list. Here's the funny part, though... every guy above him on that list plays quarterback. In fact, if you look at the list around him, you see nothing BUT quarterbacks (with the lone exception being Marion Motley, a FB/LB who played in the 40's).
The next closest modern-age RB to Jamaal Charles and his oh-my-god-this-guy-is =-incredible 6.0 YPC is... Bo Jackson. A man who NO ONE questions was great, despite the fact that 1) He was a Raider, and 2) His career was cut way, way short.
Now, before everyone starts screeching that Jamaal Charles hasn't been around long enough to warrant such comparisons, allow me to make a point... JC is no longer a guy who only has one good season under his belt. He's not a flash in the pan. People said that after 2009. Then they started to believe in 2010. Then he got hurt and we heard (well, at least I did, over and over from my friends) that he'd never be the same again. Well, now it's 2012, and he's still making defenses look foolish. The man's not a flash in the pan.
All that aside though, I'm not really talking about stats, here. I'm talking about greatness. To use Bo for the example again... the man never rushed for a thousand yards in a season. His career was incredibly short. And he was a Raider, which automatically means he sucks (for everyone but Marcus Allen, naturally). But watch him play and tell me he wasn't great.
I can't define greatness, but I know it when I see it.
And for me, JC's greatness wasn't most obviously on display during his 91 yard TD, or his 40 yard run later on in the game (OK, to be fair, any time you've got two runs like that in a game it's probably a sign that a player can ball, but I digress). Where you REALLY saw JC's greatness was a 9 yard gain on a drive that resulted in a punt.
First drive of overtime, it's 3rd and 8 on KC's 39-yard-line. Cassel hits JC for what looks like a short gain, as JC catches the ball 4 yards off the LOS and had to reach a little to catch it, breaking his stride and forcing him to slow down as he turns up field and prepares to accelerate. There are two defenders right at the first down line who instantly zero in. Any other running back in the NFL and there's no first down here 9 times out of 10.
What does Charles do? He plants his foot and goes instantly from moving towards the sideline to straight upfield between the two defenders. He accelerates and dives so quickly it's almost supernatural. Gain of 9. First down.
You know what made that play great? The fact that the moment he got the ball, despite the situation, I was almost certain we'd get the first down. Again, despite the way the pass was caught, despite the defenders closing in, despite the bad angle working against him... I was almost certain he'd get to where he needed to.
That's when you realize you're watching greatness in action: when you start to expect it.
I don't know if Jamaal Charles will stay healthy for another 5 -8 years and "earn" a spot on the Hall of Fame. I don't know what'll happen next week. And I certainly don't know what to take away from a game in which I fully expected us to get killed and instead turned into a clinic by our defense.
But I DO know that I'm privileged, week in and week out, to see one of the greatest runners I've ever seen on a football field. Take it in. Remember it. Because runners like this guy are once in a generation, and who knows how long we'll get to enjoy witnessing greatness.