ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Jamaal Charles had wrapped up another training camp practice and was addressing the media horde gathered on the campus of Missouri Western State University.
As he answered questions about his health, workload and expectations for the 2015 Chiefs season, he was still wearing the cleats he used during the on-field work. These shoes had a self-made feature to them – small holes that had been cut on the big toe area on the top of both the left and right shoes.
“I’m just trying my new shoes this year,” Charles said. “Puma is making shoes for the first time this year, so I’m getting comfortable with them.”
Charles feet, ankles, knees and various other body parts always seem to be a subject of discussion with the Chiefs.
The 28-year old running back is coming off a year where he was bothered by physical maladies from training camp through the end of the 2014 schedule.
If a few self-made holes on the top of his spikes make a difference for engine of the Chiefs offense, nobody is going to complain.
“I cut them to make my feet feel better,” Charles said.
Over the last year, Charles has said he plans to play for a long time beyond this, his eighth season. That desire must be couched with reality – most running backs don’t decide their careers are over. It’s decided for them by an erosion of skills and production.
By the end of the season, he will be 29 years old and while he would still be considered a youngster in the rest of life, Charles will be an old running back.
That makes this coming season an important one for Charles and his role in the Chiefs offense. In 95 NFL games, he’s touched the ball on offense 1,511 times. Since coming back from his torn ACL that required knee surgery in 2011, he’s averaged 298 touches per season.
Only five other backs racked up more touches in the 2012-14 seasons: Matt Forte of Chicago, Marshawn Lynch of Seattle, LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia, DeMarco Murray in Dallas and Alfred Morris with Washington.
The difference between Charles and those five backs is physical – they all are 215 pounds or more. The Chiefs list Charles at 199 pounds, but he’s generally south of that number. It makes him more susceptible to picking up the nagging injuries that plagued him last year.
“We want to make sure that No. 1, he’s healthy late in the season,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “If that means you give Knile Davis some reps; whatever you have to do to keep him healthy for 16 games.”
Even with the nagging injuries last season, Charles was a productive NFL running back, just not to the level he produced in 2013. He ran for 1,033 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 40 passes for 291 yards and five touchdowns. That’s 1,324 offensive yards and 14 scores in 15 games. In the previous season he registered 1,980 offensive yards and 19 TDs while playing in 15 games.
Injuries, along with continued efforts by opponents working game plans specifically geared to stop him reduced his production. Right now, Charles is healthy and he looks forward to foes continuing to focus their defenses on him.
“I take it like it’s a compliment,” Charles said. “I feel like that’s the only reason why I get to stay in the league as long as I can. I feel like if they stop me, then my time is up. As long as I play in this league and play on a high level, I always feel like a team is going to have to stop me. I feel like sometimes I’m the LeBron (James) of football, especially at my position because I can do so much.”
One part of his game took a nosedive last year was his role with the Chiefs passing game. From his production in 2013 compared to the 2014 season, Charles caught 30 fewer passes for 402 fewer yards and two less touchdown catches.
The West Coast offense used by Reid tends to have its No. 1 running back catch a lot of passes. That was especially true when Brian Westbrook was in the backfield for Philadelphia; over eight seasons he averaged 53 receptions for 474 yards each year for the Eagles. Once he became the team’s go-to back, Westbrook did not catch fewer than 54 passes in any of six seasons.
“Sometimes I would be open and sometimes the ball would go the other way,” Charles said of last year’s performance as a receiver. “Sometimes I don’t get the ball when I’m supposed to.”
Pederson thinks the drop in production for Charles had more to do with the contributions of tight end Travis Kelce, who led the Chiefs in receiving last year with 67 catches for 862 yards and five touchdown balls. Kelce was targeted 87 times during the season, compared to 59 targets for Charles.
In the 2013 season, Charles was targeted 104 times.
“Travis was a big part of our system last year,” Pederson said. “He probably took a few balls away from Jamaal.”
With last season under his belt, Kelce should be even more productive in 2015. The addition of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin gives the offense another explosive target that may take away passing game opportunities from Charles. However, he’ll need to see more before he jumps on that bandwagon.
“I really can’t tell yet,” Charles said of Maclin’s influence on the offense. “I have got to get a chance to see it myself out on the field. I can only go by what people say, but I’ve got to see it in action, see what he’s capable of doing. I know he’s a talented guy, he can stretch the field and he can run just like me. Right now, he definitely can catch the ball up the field – definitely a goal that we need on our team, a wide receiver that can stretch the field.”
The Chiefs offense shows signs of maturing in the third season of the Reid Era. The flipside of that stability is the two seasons worth of game tape available to opponents as they prepare for Charles, Alex Smith, and et.al. Finding different ways to use Charles was one of the coaching staff’s projects in the recent offseason.
“He’s such a tremendous athlete,” Pederson said. “It’s hard for corners, linebackers, safeties in one-on-one type situations. That’s why teams have tried to combo him or double him (in coverage). The Raiders do it; the Chargers do it and try to take him out of it. He works hard to put himself in great situations. “
From Charles’ perspective, his goal is to take care of his body and make sure he’s available at full speed in the second half of the season.
“I just have to watch what I do now, just watch my steps, take care of my body on and off the field,” Charles said. “I feel good. I’m ready to go. I’m excited for this year. I’m excited for my new teammates. I’m excited that we can go all the way.”
Excited and feeling good even with those holes in his new shoes.