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The Stretch Run

Posted Dec 4, 2010

An effective rushing rotation has left the Chiefs with two healthy running backs as the team enters its most important stretch of the season

Despite beginning 2010 with a 3-0 start, the Chiefs early-season use of its running backs drew much discussion outside of Arrowhead Stadium. Fresh off the heels of a breakout 2009 season, Jamaal Charles’ rushing load failed to eclipse 12 carries in each of the first three weeks.

When the Week Four bye arrived, Charles was averaging 7.0 yards on just 34 carries. With those results on a minimized workload, head coach Todd Haley and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis stood in the crossfire of criticism. It was an odd scene for an undefeated team that had won just 10 games over the previous seasons. The Chiefs were leading the league in rushing as well.

 Some latched on to the phrase, “Free Jamaal Charles,” and showed their support for the movement by bringing signs with them to Arrowhead.  Those early-season rumblings have since waned with the Chiefs averaging a league-best 174.3 rushing yards per game through 13 weeks.

Kansas City’s use of its running backs has been effective in the stat book, there’s no questioning that. But even more importantly, the rotation of backs has left the Chiefs with two healthy runners as the team enters a stretch of the season where the services of top-flight players are needed most.

With both Charles and Jones healthy in December, the big-picture thinking that surrounded those workload decisions couldn’t come into focus any clearer.

“The productivity of a running back is related to how fresh they are and I think that one of the advantages that we have right now is that we are in December now and we have two guys that are both getting a bunch of carries,” Weis said. “The wear and tear that happens to a lot of guys hasn’t shown the same,”

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Charles carried the football a season-high 22 times last weekend in Seattle to become the quickest player in Chiefs history to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark (it took him 158 carries). Afterwards, Charles said that he felt as healthy as he did when the season began.

“I feel good physically,” Charles said. “Coming back from the Denver game and Oakland game I really didn’t feel that good. But now my body is starting to feel good and it’s like I’ve started the season all over again.”

“Very seldom does a running back get to December and feel good,” Weis added. “They don’t usually feel fresh at this time. I think that the plan that Todd had, along with Maurice Carthon is now paying some positive dividends with those two running backs as far as the utilization and where we are going.”

Both Charles and Jones have run the football with a purpose throughout the season. Charles leads the league with 32 runs of 10 yards and ranks second in NFL rushing behind Houston’s Arian Foster. Jones has added 712 yards on 4.0 yards per carry to help the Chiefs produce five separate 200-yard rushing outings this season. It’s the run game the fuels Kansas City’s offense.

Jones currently owns 17 more carries than Charles, which has allowed Charles to quietly become more involved in Kansas City’s passing game this season.

“(Jamaal) has continued to be a bigger and bigger part of our passing game which is a really good thing for a running back,” Haley said.

A fresh Charles has been an effective Charles this season. He’s already set a career-high with 359 receiving yards and is on pace to shatter career-bests in most every rushing category. His 5.9 career yards per carry marks as the highest in NFL history and his 6.34 yards per carry this season rank as the most in Chiefs history.

Keeping Charles healthy has been a priority for the Chiefs. He’s left the field because of injury only on a few occasions since undergoing offseason shoulder surgery and missing an entire offseason of on-field practice work.

“We’ve had a plan here that we’re pretty excited about at the running back position and we’re still trying to develop at that position and get better and part of that plan is to use our guys and their versatility to the best of our ability to help us win and help us be effective running the football,” Haley said.

SI.com’s Peter King chimed in on the Chiefs use of their running backs earlier this week as well.

“(Haley) has gotten some heat for the way he uses his running backs because he's not using Jamaal Charles as much as some of the other top backs in the league,” King wrote in his Week 13 picks segment. “But I have no idea why the criticism's there. Jamaal Charles isn't built to handle a 330-carry load for a season. In the past two weeks, Charles (34 carries) and the more durable Thomas Jones (35) have rushed for 400 yards on the nose and a dominating 5.8 yards per rush. No need to change that.”

The Chiefs probably won’t change their rushing mix going forward, but the healthiness of both runners gives Kansas City the option to do so if they choose. It seems that was the goal all along. Without a healthy Charles, December football would be an uphill climb.

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