KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Forty-seven years ago, at the height of his Hall of Fame career, Jim Brown set an NFL record that’s in danger of falling to a backup running back.
Well, technically Jamaal Charles is a backup. It’s a good thing his peers voted him into the Pro Bowl this week. Otherwise, the lack of fanfare that Kansas City’s soft-spoken back is getting during this remarkable season could prove embarrassing.
Fast and shifty and with rapidly improving pass-catching skills, Charles is averaging 6.39 yards per carry. With one game left in the regular season, at home on Sunday against Oakland, he’s a shade behind the NFL-record 6.40 yards Brown averaged on 291 carries for Cleveland in 1963.
Currently second and third on the all-time list are two more familiar names — Barry Sanders (6.13 in 1997) and O.J. Simpson (6.03 in 1972).
“Records are meant to be broken,” said Charles, a 5-11, 199-pound native of Port Arthur, Texas, who’s only 56 yards behind NFL rushing leader Arian Foster of Houston.
“A lot of stuff I did this year or accomplished this year, I wouldn’t have done it without my linemen, my running back and Thomas Jones being in my corner making me work hard,” he said. “All the ability God gave me, I just go out there and try to use them ‘til I can’t use them no more. And the people that support me, I would never have done it without them.”
Jones, an 11-year veteran who joined the Chiefs as a free agent this year, is also having a productive year for the AFC West champs (10-5), with 879 yards rushing.
Nevertheless, Chiefs fans have howled all year because Jones starts and generally gets the most carries. After 15 games, Jones has had 235 carries, Charles 216. Foster has needed 80 more carries than Charles to rack up only a handful more yards, 1,436 to 1,380.
But while fans have raised a ruckus, the lack of carries has never been anything Charles complained about publicly or, teammates say, privately. And the decreased workload may have kept him fresh for the postseason.
“I’m just out there playing ball,” Charles said. “It doesn’t really matter about the carries. I just want to go out there and produce on Sundays. And I think that’s what the other people see — you go out there and play well, I guess people have much respect for you.”
It will be Charles’ first Pro Bowl next month in Honolulu, as it will for Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, who leads all receivers with a team-record 15 touchdown catches. Left guard Brian Waters, an 11-year veteran, was chosen for the fifth time in his career.
“It’s awesome having those guys in the Pro Bowl,” said Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel. “That says a lot as to how far we’ve come from last year.
The emergence of Charles in his third season has been a big help to Cassel as well. With defenses forced to reckon with the league’s top running game, Cassel has had a breakout year with 27 touchdown throws and only five interceptions, going 251 for 417 for 3,001 yards.
“He’s a special player, not just in the run game,” Cassel said of Charles. “We’ve also seen him continue to elevate himself in the passing game as well.”
In a 34-14 victory over Tennessee last weekend, Charles scored on a 14-yard screen pass and made a nifty over-the-shoulder catch in the corner of the end zone on a fade route that was actually well covered.
The rushing title seems to be the individual goal that Charles most has his heart set on.
“It’s important. I worked hard this year,” he said. “Going out there and playing on Sunday, we want this team to be the best rushing team in the league. We go out there and try to prove that every Sunday. For me to get the rushing title I’ve been trying to get from week one, and now it’s week 17, it would be special.”
Bowe, a first-round pick out of LSU in 2007, spent the first few weeks in fans’ doghouse. He dropped a potential touchdown pass in a 19-9 loss at Indianapolis in the fourth game.
But Chiefs head coach Todd Haley never seemed to lose faith in him, and finally he caught fire. In one seven-game stretch, he set a franchise record for consecutive games with at least one touchdown catch. He broke loose against Tennessee for a 75-yard catch-and-run.