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Jamaal Charles and the decline of the NFL workhorse running back

Common wisdom holds that the positional value of running back has been in decline for years. Is that also true for the Chiefs?

Jed Jacobsohn

The death of the running back has been widely heralded. 

Among the most common anecdotes from the most recent NFL Draft was the fact that a running back was not taken in the first round or even near the top of the second. The first, Washington's Bishop Sankey, was taken by the Titans at No. 54 overall by the Tennesee Titans. It was the same shared anecdote from the previous season, when Giovani Bernard was taken a bit earlier -- at No. 37 overall -- by the Bengals in the second round of the 2013 Draft.

The point, between the two of these, is that the positional value of a running back is lower than ever in recent NFL history. Gone are the glory days of the power running game. Terms like "dime a dozen" are used in some instances, despite the looming glory of workhorse backs like Adrian Peterson or Matt Forte. The devaluing of running back isn't just in the draft; it's entered the greater task of roster building overall.

Dan Hellie's recent tweet shows just how NFL rosters are built today, to include specialists at every position for sub packages, running backs included. A team might spread the carries -- and the wealth -- between two or even three backs. Few teams are willing to splurge at the position, when the wisdom of the day tells NFL front office execs that they are so easily replaceable. 

But what about the Kansas City Chiefs? While the trend is obvious at a macro level, it's interesting to note which teams are leading that trend and which are bucking it? Here's a closer look:

Year Feature Back Carries Rushing Yards Carries/Game Yards/Game Team Record
2000 Tony Richardson 147 697 9.2 43.6 7-9
2001 Priest Holmes 327 1,555 20.4 97.2 6-10
2002 Priest Holmes 313 1,615 22.4 115.4 8-8
2003 Priest Holmes 320 1,420 20.0 88.8 13-3
2004 Priest Holmes 196 892 24.5 111.5 7-9
2005 Larry Johnson 336 1,750 21.0 109.4 10-6
2006 Larry Johnson 416 1,789 26.0 111.8 9-7
2007 Larry Johnson 158 559 19.8 69.9 4-12
2008 Larry Johnson 193 874 16.1 72.8 2-14
2009 Jamaal Charles 190 1,120 12.7 74.7 4-12
2010 Thomas Jones 245 896 15.3 56.0 10-6
2011 Thomas Jones 153 478 9.6 29.9 7-9
2012 Jamaal Charles 285 1,509 17.8 94.3 2-14
2013 Jamaal Charles 259 1,287 17.3 85.8 11-5

For years, the Chiefs followed the bell cow approach with both Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson, and the results were quite positive. Even as Holmes dealt with serious injuries in both 2004 and 2005, the team's first-round investment in Johnson paid off and allowed the team to continue to rely heavily on one ball carrier to move the chains. It worked, since the team averaged 4.6 yards per carry in consecutive seasons.

The ultimate shift happened for the Chiefs in 2008, a miserable two win season that featured LJ as the featured back. Johnson was suspended and/or benched for a few games, and the Chiefs had an untested Jamaal Charles and Kolby Smith as the back-ups. From there, Charles earned more time, but the Chiefs abandoned the dominant back system that they'd used for years to great success to that point. 

Instead, Scott Pioli and Todd Haley switched to the supposed power-and-speed combo of Thomas Jones and Charles, an experiment that kept the ineffective Jones on the field far too often. Despite Jones being the back with the most carries in both '10 and '11, Charles was by far the most effective back. Yet the combined 420 carries over those two years for Charles might be the very mechanism that allows the RB to still have so much left in the tank. 

While it's hard to draw any specific correlations, it's interesting to see how the team's success dipped when the dominant rusher was taken out of the equation. When Johnson suffered a season-ending injury in Week 9 of the 2007 season, the Chiefs were 4-3 heading into that game (the team already had their bye week). From there, they lost 9 straight to finish at 4-12. They would win only six more games in the next two years. 

Yet it should be noted that the Chiefs have returned to their feature back ways. While many teams diversify the talent in the backfield, the Chiefs are content giving Jamaal Charles 20 touches per game. It's not the same as carries perhaps, but Andy Reid had an offensive plan when coming to make Charles the focal point of his offense on the ground and in the air. Last year, Charles had 259 carries but another 70 catches for a total of 329 touches. That's 9 more than his previous season high in 2012. 

It's hard to tell whether Jamaal can keep this up. At the age of 27, Charles is entering that stretch of his career where detractors will look for any signs of slowing down. The good news is that Charles has been sheltered a bit to this point, even sitting out an entire season in 2011 with an ACL injury (you can spin that positively or negatively).

It will be interesting to see how much more Knile Davis gets into the mix in 2014. Davis had 81 touches last year (70 carries, 11 receptions), and 53 of those came in the final four weeks of the season. He had another 25 touches in the playoff game against the Colts, and it's clear that Reid trusted Davis in key moments. Expect that to creep into the gameplan for 2014. 

Charles might not be the sort of workhorse back that used to rule the NFL a decade ago, but he's still a rare breed as a dynamic featured back that the team's offense will turn to again and again. Only a few remain in today's NFL, but as talented as Charles is, there's no trend that can alter the Chiefs plans for using him.

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