The offseason is a time for hyperbole. I get that. Every player is in the best shape of his life, every youngster is going to "take the next step," every scheme is about to revolutionize the way we see the game ... Seriously, I get it.
Then someone compared Melvin Gordon to Jamaal Charles, and something snapped inside me.
Look, Gordon may well turn out to be a fantastic pro. This has nothing to do with him. But every year, some new fast guy (or two, or three) draws comparisons to Jamaal Charles. His entire career he's been grouped with smaller, faster backs as though they're roughly the same player (starting with Chris Johnson whenever everyone thought Charles was a poor man's Chris Johnson. How amusing).
I've had it.
Jamaal Charles is incredibly fast, yes. We know this. We've seen this. When he gets into the open field there are only a handful of defensive backs in the league who can keep up. Ran track in college, yadda yadda yadda.
But what makes Jamaal Charles special isn't his speed. Knile Davis is fast. Chris Johnson is (still) extremely fast. Dri Archer is fast, for crying out loud. If being fast were all it took to make an all-universe running back, there would be more than one Jamaal Charles. There's not.
Because being as special as Charles requires a lot more than just speed. We're going to talk about that here, in the first ever Jamaal Charles film review. I'd never bothered before, as he's so obviously special that it seemed pointless. But it's time to talk this through.
If I were to create a list of what qualities make Charles special in order of importance, it would look like this
Charles has a lot of other qualities, but those four are what set him apart. And if you'll notice; speed isn't the top of that list. It's not second, either. Because flat-out speed is one of the most overrated qualities in a running back. We love speed because it's something we can SEE.
But vision is absolutely, positively the most important thing a runner can possess. Everyone loves Marshawn Lynch's ability to destroy tacklers, but his superb vision (on par with Jamaal's) is what makes him an elite runner. The ability to know where to run to put stress on a defense gives the runner something close to a head start.
Jamaal has some of the best vision in the NFL. It's why he so often seems to go five yards without more than a hand being laid on him, and why he so rarely gets stuffed for no gain. It's not because the Chiefs sport an elite offensive line, obviously.
That's why it looks so different when Charles runs as opposed to when Davis runs (or virtually any other NFL back). Charles finds openings other guys just flat-out miss.
That elite vision alone would make Charles a good back even if every other quality of his were average. Unfortunately for NFL defenses, that's not the case. Charles also possesses balance that is completely inhuman. It allows him to cut while sprinting and not lose his feet (that's why he almost looks like he's gliding out there). It also allows him to bounce off tackles that would defeat most running backs his size.
You combine those two traits with his obvious speed / quickness and his surprising strength (no, he doesn't weigh 199 pounds anymore. He's 210 at least), and Charles is a unique runner. I could demonstrate this with multiple snaps from every single game. Seriously. It shows up virtually every time he touches the ball. However, how often do we get a chance to glorify in JC's awesomeness? Not often enough, I say. so we'll take a look at a few plays that demonstrate what makes Charles special.
Quick note; this is going to be pretty long as it is, so I'm not going to spend a ton of time discussing play calling, blocking assignments, formations, etc.. I will provide the location of each play so you can take a look for yourself if such things interest you. Here, we're focusing on why Jamaal Charles is special.
Week 15 vs. Raiders, 5:53 in the second quarter
We'll start with a play that went for "only" nine yards. This play demonstrates a lot of the qualities outside of speed Charles possesses and how it affects plays in favor of the Chiefs.
The Chiefs are running a heavy formation in which Charles APPEARS to be headed for the gap between Anthony Fasano (the TE farthest inside) and the RT. I say appears because I don't know the play call. The type of blocking done here makes it seem like that's the call, but it's important to remember what we don't know.
Anyway, Charles takes the ball and eyes what appears to be a sizable hole for him to run through. Most runners would commit to the hole and call it a day. However, Charles isn't like most runners, and that hole is about to close up VERY quickly (the circled Raider is circled for a reason, yanno).
This is life in the NFL for a running back. Where there was a massive hole .5 seconds ago, there's now a scrum of bodies and an unblocked safety. The speed with which gaps close at the pro level is one reason so many good college backs can't hack it in the big leagues. They can't adjust on the fly when things go wrong.
Charles sees what's happening and changes directions instantly, cutting back the other direction toward open field. In the meantime, Rodney Hudson's man is able to shake him, forcing Charles to take the LONG route to his left...
Charles manages to somehow run at full speed while bending his body away from the defender, just inches from a desperate flail that causes the defender to fall down (after this screen shot).
That weird contortion is something Charles does all the time on the field while running full speed, and it's often the difference between a defender getting a hand on him vs. grasping at the air. The balance required to run at full speed while bending is just freakish. Doing it immediately following a complete direction change at full speed is... well, it's alien. It just is.
I drew up an arrow roughly approximating what Charles is about to do in order to gain nine yards on a play most backs would get maybe two. The arrow looks drunk, I know. But if you look, you see 57 on the Raiders (I'm sure he has a name. I'm also sure I don't care what it is) has disengaged and is in pursuit.
Charles COULD continue outside and get a few yards, but 23 has a good angle and would be able to prevent the play from getting much more than a minimal gain. What the drunken arrow represents is Charles seeing this and...
... essentially defying physics by making another cut that reverses his direction WHILE maintaining his speed.
I can't even, guys. And neither can 57. I hope he found his jock eventually.
And as if all that's preceded isn't enough, Charles was able to maintain his balance amidst a slew of Raiders defenders and essentially fall forward for an extra 3-4 yards at the end of the run. He's not a big guy, but he doesn't go down on first contact the way a lot of runners his size do. Remember that fourth quality, strength? It's the difference with those last couple yards.
This run was nothing special in the box score. But for all but 2-3 other running backs in the NFL it's a stuff. For Jamaal Charles it's a nine yard gain. His vision here was superb, as it not only allowed him to avoid a scrum at the line of scrimmage, it led to him making the run twice as productive by cutting back inside when 99.9 percent of backs would have just raced to the sideline.
His balance is demonstrated throughout his insane cuts on this play, as well as when several defenders start getting their hands on him after he cuts back. His strength comes on display in his ability to put his head down and power forward at the end of the play despite being hit several times.
Again, it's not a special run on the stats sheet. But it took a special player to make it happen at all.
Let's take a look at another one.
Week 14 at Arizona, 9:48 left in the first quarter
If you're a Chiefs fan you remember this play. However, you may have watched it live and just felt like it was a case of Charles simply being too fast for the Cardinals. There was a lot more going on than pure speed.
So as you can see here, this is a simple run at the right edge, where Anthony Fasano is to keep a hole clear and Mike McGlynn (the pulling LG) is to blast through the hole and take out the linebacker. Ideally, the hole created allows Charles to quickly get to the second level of the defense.
It did not go ideally, as these two pictures shows from a better angle.
So things don't quite as planned. Fasano gives up inside leverage and allows his defender to "shrink" the hole considerably (not a condemnation of Fasano. He had a tough assignment). Additionally, the linebacker McGlynn is taking on does a good job preventing himself from being pancaked and pretty much stops McGlynn IN the hole, essentially making him something like another defender (or at best, a giant roadblock).
Like the play we looked at above, the initial design is somewhat dead in the water here. However, Jamaal Charles just flat out doesn't care.
Fair warning, the two pictures I'm about to show do not do justice to what Charles did on this play. I'll show the pictures, then explain what he did. No, I'm not going to start doing gifs. Yes, this says something about how lazy I am. Yes, your outrage says something about your lack of imagination.
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, right, Charles doing insane things.
All right, that line-type-thing is a rough approximation of what Charles does on this play. In all honesty, that line isn't quite crazy enough.
Charles sees the hole close and in fact has Anthony Fasano pushed backward against him. What a lot of runners would do in this scenario is either lower their head and try to push Fasano and his defender forward for a couple of yards or try and cut back inside. Neither of which are really winning propositions.
Instead, Charles jumps backward a full yard and plants and cuts outside as he's landing from the backward jump. re-read that sentence. It doesn't even make sense. But that's what he did. Further, once he's done jumping back and cutting outside in one motion, HE CUTS UPFIELD with his very next step.
In other words, Jamaal Charles jumped backward, cut sideways, then cut forward in three "steps." Again, I just... I can't even. Most runners would fall attempting half of this, let alone the entirety of it. Here's Charles coming out of his cut after a cut after a backward jump.
He's starting to run downfield while his leg is at a 45 degree angle.
I'm sorry, I misspoke. Let me put that another way.
HE'S STARTING TO RUN DOWNFIELD WHILE HIS LEG IS AT A 45 DEGREE ANGLE.
It's not just speed, people. No one can do this. And he's not done yet, because right after he got done going full Neo on the laws of the universe...
... he takes a hit from a much larger individual.
Small. Undersized. Scat back. Third down guy. Receiving specialist. Not a between the tackles runner. Doesn't move the pile.
Yeah, right. Until he takes a hit while off balance and just keeps right on moving. Don't tell me Jamaal Charles doesn't run with strength and can't shake tackles. He's a living weeble. He might wobble but he's not falling down if you don't wrap up.
One more arm tackle by a secondary player (Charles runs through it without slowing down) and it's daylight. The defensive players were already jogging by the time Charles got to the 30-yard-line. I commend their honesty. It's like trying to chase down a bolt of lightening. You know, pointless and probably humiliating if you ever manage to somehow catch it.
Once again, Charles demonstrated all the reasons he's special besides speed. Yes, his ability to hit a 5th gear almost instantly was the cherry on top that made it a sure touchdown once he got into the open field. But what GOT him to the open field was vision, balance (insane balance in this case), and strength.
I don't have to show you more, do I? The point has been made, hasn't it?
OK, one more.
Week 12 at Raiders, 12:29 left in the fourth quarter
There's a lot to hate about this game. It was not fun to watch the Chiefs (fresh off their best win in years) completely fall apart as the Raiders (the RAIDERS, of all teams) exposed their biggest flaws on national television.
That said, Jamaal Charles's 30 yard touchdown catch in the 4th quarter was absolutely insane. I'll try to keep this brief, but he basically turned this into a touchdown by doing something approximating the cha cha slide in the middle of a professional football game.
I'm gonna go ahead and just describe this.
Charles gets the ball in the open field with multiple defenders in the area. One in particular is completely unblocked and has a chance to square up as Charles heads his way.
Charles moves almost right at the defender, then plants his foot and veers right at the last possible second, then in his next step cuts upfield again. The whole "plant and cut into a plant and cut" move again. Not only is it physically impossible, but it demonstrates Charles's remarkable vision. He saw exactly ONE space where he would be able to escape the head-on defender and still elude all incoming tacklers, and took it.
Here's a picture right after the humiliation. Charles is about to demonstrate once again why his vision and ability to read a football situation is simply superior to mere mortals'.
Let's all first take a moment and laugh at the two Raiders who nearly collided in their fruitless pursuit of Charles. I'd like to think they chose to take stock of their decision to play professional football in this moment, as they laid on the ground vanquished like so many before them.
Now look at Charles. He basically has two options in front of him. I've labeled them #1 and #2 for your convenience.
Frankly option No. 1 is really the only option 99 percent of running backs would consider in this situation. ESPECIALLY running backs who are overly reliant on their speed. They'd race to the edge and hope they could turn the corner in time to avoid the defender (who is starting to shift his weight to head that direction) and get a touchdown.
Charles, though, sees option No. 2. Basically, he sees that one of the defenders is mostly blocked, another is pursuing hard enough that a freakish (you know, Jamaal Charles freakish) cut left will remove him as an obstacle. The remaining defenders are too far away to get significant contact before he'd be able to accelerate toward the end zone, and by the time they would arrive it would be too late.
Option No. 1 has a shot at a touchdown. Option No. 2 is much more of a sure thing. Almost no running backs would see option No. 2, because it requires reading the entire field in a split second while moving at full speed then making a decision based on the information you obtained. Even writing that SENTENCE was stressful. And, of course, once you've made the read you need to be talented enough to execute it. Let's watch the final cut of the play as Charles' plan comes to fruition.
This is fun.
This play is more hammering home of the same point; It's Jamaal's vision and balance that are the most important factors in his special ability to make defenders look foolish. The speed is fantastic, but it's not his primary trait.
It's time we start speaking out against these comparisons. Sure, Melvin Gordon, Chris Johnson, and a whole bunch of other players are very nearly as fast as Jamaal Charles or (gasp!) even faster than he is. But that's NOT what makes Charles a unique player. Not even close. I mean, seriously, does this stat happen because of speed alone?
Jamaal Charles was tied for the lowest % of carries that went for no gain or loss at 12.2%. Knile Davis was the 2nd highest at 25.4%.
— Matt Claassen (@PFF_Matt) June 19, 2015
There are guys who are as fast as Jamaal Charles. There are guys (well, a couple) who see the field as well as Jamaal Charles. There MIGHT be a player or two who have balance as good as Charles. And there absolutely are players who have good strength for their size the way Charles does.
But absolutely no one has all of it. Marshawn Lynch doesn't have his speed. LeSean McCoy doesn't have his vision. DeMarco Murray doesn't have his balance (or speed).
Jamaal Charles is totally utterly unique. He's not like anyone else in the National Football League right now.
Oh, and he also happens to be one of the better pass protectors in the league.
Stop comparing other backs to him, NFL. They don't deserve it. And Chiefs fans, let's stop contributing to the idea that what makes Jamaal Charles special is his speed. He deserves better.