When teams have a top-five player at any position, they try to build around him. He’s the main focus of everything that the team does, and the rest of the team is built to support him. As such, he’s the one guy you don’t want to lose to injury.
It looked like that was how the Kansas City Chiefs were built. Jamaal Charles, in his prime, was usually the best or the second best RB on any given Sunday. He could run between the tackles, break off huge runs outside, and even catch the ball out of the backfield.
As with most teams built around running backs, the Chiefs worked to build up a solid defense to support him. Top picks like safety Eric Berry were intrinsic to this process. You’re not throwing up 40 points very often as a run-focused team, so the defense needs to be stout.
They also brought in a smart QB who doesn’t need to air it out 50 times a game to win. Alex Smith is usually good for about 25 pass attempts and 200 yards. And he’s completely fine with that. He’s happy throwing screen passes and doesn’t need to bomb away down the field. It’s not a style that could be used by everyone. It fits perfectly in Kansas City.
So, with all that considered, it would make sense that an injury to Charles would be completely devastating. It would make it so the team could no longer compete. After all, they’d be a team without an identity, built around a guy who wasn’t on the field.
But that hasn’t happened. It looked like it did, at first, when Charles got hurt last year. The Chiefs were briefly listless and lost. But then they kicked it into gear, won 11 straight, and won in the playoffs for the first time in two decades.
This year, it’s been more of the same. Charles is technically back, but he’s incredibly limited. He had two carries in his first game back. He got seven in his second, and his first TD, but then swelling in his knee limited him to just one run for no yards against the Saints.
And still, the Chiefs are winning. They’re 4-2, certainly still in play in the AFC West. They technically trail Oakland and Denver at 5-2, but they largely control their own fate there and are only behind because they’ve not played as many games.
Why? Because of this roster. Because of the way head coach Andy Reid has been able to get production without his best player. Instead of allowing it to ruin the season, he’s just shifting things around and he has found other ways to get stats and points.
It’s something that too often goes overlooked. It’s not hard to coach a guy with elite talent, at least as far as his on-field production goes. He’s going to make plays. He’s going to look good.
But to get production from the depth players that keeps the team not only competitive but on top? That’s a lot harder.
Against the Saints, RB Spencer Ware had 131 yards from scrimmage and a TD. The Chiefs are flexible with how they use him, letting him carry the ball as the main RB or catch passes out of the backfield. They don’t care how he gets his numbers. They just put him in a position to get them.
Ware is a former sixth-round pick. A guy who was cut by Seattle. Who was a practice squad player in Kansas City. He didn’t even make the active roster until halfway through 2015.
That’s not to knock Ware, who has been great. He already has 492 yards, which is more than the 403 he put up last season. He certainly looks like he can carry the team until Charles is ready to go. But it’s not like he was a highly coveted commodity. That makes what he’s done even more impressive.
It also makes the future bright for the Chiefs. Charles is nearly 30 years old and this thing may be coming to an end. When it does, though, the Chiefs aren’t going to be sunk, without enough talent or any identity. They’ve already proven that, as great as Charles has been, they’re just fine without him.