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You cannot replace Jamaal Charles without a downgrade.
You just can't do it. Unless you're replacing him with peak Marshawn Lynch or peak Adrian Peterson, you're taking a step back when you go from Jamaal Charles to anyone. The man is the NFL's all time leader in yards per carry. He's historically productive. He's also one of the greatest players I've ever had the pleasure of watching play the game.
You don't replace that guy and get equal or greater production.
That said, the Chiefs have to play football on Sunday (and many more times after that) without Charles. So now what?
Obviously, the main choices to replace Charles's snaps on offense are Knile Davis and Charcandrick West. I've written about both more than once. Here, I discussed my issues with Davis as a running back (namely, I believe he lacks vision and instincts). Here, I wrote about West during the preseason and why I would use him as Jamaal's primary backup rather than Davis.
As the season has progressed, we've seen West take the primary backup snaps from Knile. This would SEEM to indicate that he's going to be the one getting the bulk of the snaps moving forward. We've gotten to see a little bit of West (small sample size alert!), particularly on Sunday. And so it seems as good a time as any to pick up the tattered pieces of our hearts and talk about what West can do (and why Reid would be crazy to go with anyone else as the primary back moving forward).
(Note; please read every single thing you're about to read as having the disclaimer "but he's no Charles." Then you can save me the time of telling me how he's not going to be as good as Charles)
The thing that pops out when you watch West is his cutting ability. West demonstrates wonderfully fast cuts and changes direction on a dime. The first time he touched the ball after Charles went down we saw that.
West shows on 1st carry why he should get 85% of the snaps. Quick, decisive cut to where the hole opens up. pic.twitter.com/BuU4cHaXQy— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) October 14, 2015
In addition to the quickness West shows, it's worth noting how decisive he is in hitting the hole. If you read the Davis piece linked above (at the time of writing or now), my biggest issue with Davis is how much he hesitates before moving forward. He almost always dances in place before making a cut unless there's a an open hole right where he expected it at the snap.
Not so with West. He makes a decision and then goes. Now, his vision isn't as good as Charles's (whose is?), but a running back with decent vision (which West possesses) and decisiveness can generally get it done, particularly if he's got the quickness / burst West possesses.
West additionally (as I talked about in the offseason) possesses adequate speed to get to the edge.
Another sharp cut to avoid defender, doesn't let arm tackle slow him, speed to get to edge. pic.twitter.com/Frexx7nltL— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) October 14, 2015
Here, West is put in an awkward position when the pulling blocker isn't able to get any "push" on the edge defender. Even worse, the defender is able to break free and lung at West as he gets close. Fortunately, West can do that "hey, look how fast I can cut!" thing and gets horizontal and out of danger. He also brushes off the arm tackle attempt without losing too much speed (his balance is solid).
But none of that matters if West isn't able to beat the defenders to the edge. That made the difference for the first down. West doesn't have the speed Davis has (and definitely not the speed Charles has), but he's definitely not a plodder.
But to return to West's decision making... it's not just a benefit on positive plays. It's also a way to avoid NEGATIVE plays, which is an often overlooked aspect of being a competent running back. Negative plays kill offensive drives. A one yard or two yard gain is wildly different from a loss, both from a practical standpoint (the resulting down and distance aren't as bad) and from an intangible standpoint (defenses get hyped up over a tackle for loss in a way they don't for a one yard gain).
For example, here the Chiefs ran a read option. Smith hands the ball off to West...
As you can see, there aren't a lot of good options here. The edge defender (shown by the arrow) is playing this out with discipline, preventing any room around the right side. The middle of the line isn't getting any push, and an ILB is there waiting to gum up the works even more.
So West (in pretty typical fashion begins to cut left, where he's got a little space (though the ILB is still lurking) to try and gain some positive yardage on the play. However, as he starts to do that...
As West looks to cut left, the edge defender on that side sees what's happening and disengages from Donald Stephenson, who was unable to drive him back and control him. He's now cutting toward the one open space West had available. In the meantime the edge defender on the other side is moving toward West and the ILB has engaged the last free OL and stopped him cold.
Basically, there's nowhere to go.
So West can do one of three things here. He can can 1) run backward and left to try and move around Stephenson's guy, 2) cut back right and try to shake the unblocked defender, or 3) lower his head and try to gain a yard or two.
West chooses option number three and ends up with a yard (and change) on the play. Nothing spectacular or even good, BUT ... it's the right call. A lot of young backs (who trust their speed too much) would start going horizontal in an attempt to get to the edge, and in doing so would end up losing multiple yards on the play. West doesn't do that, and takes the safe (albeit not very productive) option of living to fight another day.
West isn't a pile-mover, so he had to know there weren't many yards to be gained by him lowering his head and slamming into the offensive line. But give me a running back who knows when to just gain a yard or two any day. West has shown a willingness to bounce outside ... when it's available. Here, going outside is much more likely to result in lost yardage than anything positive. Going inside is the smart move.
And "smart" is something I see in the way West runs. He does things the right way. My favorite play of his from Sunday doesn't look spectacular on first viewing.
Smart RB's don't just get the ball and sprint. Watch West be patient, set up Harris block, then explode off his hip. pic.twitter.com/IlB36lKSMu— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) October 14, 2015
Again, this isn't an amazing play, and odds are Charles gets more yardage here (because he's amazing). But like I pointed out in the tweet, watch how West runs here. He doesn't immediately accelerate to full speed. He waits (which is VERY different from hesitating), lets Harris get into position between him and the defender, then goes RIGHT off Harris's hip to get to the 2nd level.
You always hear about good running backs "setting up their blocks." That's what that looks like. Hopefully, in a larger sample size West can continue to demonstrate the savvy to let blocks develop for a second before taking off.
Again, you cannot replace Jamaal Charles. And frankly, the offense has been borderline disgusting at times even WITH Charles, so to expect anything else would be ... well, a reach. But West might be able to step in and be fun to watch, at least. And there's absolutely no reason he shouldn't be getting the bulk of the carries. He's fast, cuts well, demonstrates decent vision, shows good ability as a receiver (catches with his hands, runs sharp routes), and is aggressive in pass protection.
This year is a disaster with no signs of letting up. Seeing a small school underdog emerge would be a little sunshine in the midst of a hurricane.