Published on -7/31/2014, 10:12 AM
By Randy Covitz
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles never lacked for heroes.
As a youngster in Texas, he admired the Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith. He followed another idol, Priest Holmes, to the University of Texas and to Kansas City.
Now, as Charles, 27, has taken his place among the elite players in the NFL, he has trained his adulation toward a player at a different position.
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning.
Charles, who last week signed a contract extension that will take him through 2017 when he's past 30 years old, wants to become his position's version of Manning, a five-time league MVP and Super Bowl champion who now is 38.
"I want to take my game every year to another level," Charles said after he was chosen the Chiefs' MVP for the fourth time in five years. "I want to be known like Peyton Manning is, at age 38 ... keeping his playing level where it is.
"Once I turn 30, I may not be in my prime, but I want to overcome that and hopefully I can make that difference and show everybody I can continue to be the best back in the NFL. ... It's all about not losing steps but staying healthy and taking care of my body."
Last year, Charles led the AFC with 1,287 rushing yards and 1,980 yards from scrimmage. He led the NFL with 19 touchdowns -- 12 rushing, seven receiving -- in 15 games and led the Chiefs with 70 catches.
Charles has rushed for at least 1,120 yards in each of the last four years he's been healthy and, with 5,823 career yards, he's just 248 shy of breaking Holmes' franchise record of 6,070.
"I looked up to Priest," said Charles, considered a change-of-pace back when taken in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. "I saw him combine with Larry Johnson as the best two backs in the league when I was coming up ... Priest having the (NFL) touchdown records and catching the ball out of the backfield like everything I do now. Following his footsteps is a great honor.
"I'll try to break not just his record, but everybody else's records. If I continue to put the numbers up I have been doing my whole career ... it's definitely possible I put up 10,000 yards rushing. It definitely can happen, I can see it."
A year ago, Charles had a career high in touches with 329 in 15 games, which is not the recipe for longevity, especially for someone who stands 5 feet 11 and weighs 199 pounds. But Chiefs coach Andy Reid, even with second-year man Knile Davis available, has no plans to lighten Charles' load, and, in fact, the team might give him more touches.
"He's got a lot in the tank," Reid said of Charles. "We're going to keep using him. He enjoys playing the game. We'll keep getting him the football."
That's just fine with Charles.
"I run the ball, that's what I do," he said. "Now I can catch the ball. ... No matter how much I touch the ball, it doesn't matter. ... I'm happy to be playing football. Once I tore my ACL (in 2011), I thought I couldn't do anything anymore."
Instead, Charles, a former All-American sprinter at Texas, got even better, rushing for 1,509 yards in 2012.
"Jamaal Charles is as good as anyone," said Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, the Chiefs' radio analyst. "He has tremendous speed whenever he gets in the open. But the other thing about the guy is, the guy is tough. He gets hit, he doesn't just go down.
"A lot of guys who are speedsters like that, the defense trips 'em up, and they go to the ground. Not him. He's a tough running back who will stick his nose in there if he has to block on occasion. In the open field, if he gets a step, it's all over. You can forget about it."
When he arrived in Kansas City last year, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was amazed at what he called the versatile Charles tool box. This year, Smith and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson expect to expand the box, no matter what the down and distance.
"First and second down, he's as good as it gets," Smith said. "Third down, I can't think of a better guy to have out there. And not just as a receiver, but from a pass protection standpoint, he's on it mentally and physically steps up to the plate. For me, that was my biggest surprise. He took a lot of pride in his pass protection.
"And when we get into goal-line and short-yardage situations, he has such a knack about finding holes and has such great vision in punching through and burrowing. I can't think of a scenario where I want him out. But it's hard though. You have to share the workload for longevity. ... It makes it tough for the coaches."
Pederson said it's a no-brainer to keep feeding the ball to Charles, who averages 5.6 yards per carry for his career, and set an NFL record for a running back with four touchdown catches in a game last year at Oakland.
"Would you like to expand Jamaal's role just a touch? Yes, you would," Pederson said. "He creates match-ups against defenders, and the more he can handle the information, then the more we're going to give him tidbits of stuff to handle, outside of just the backfield."
While the shelf life for most running backs is approximately five years, and few are capable of being productive, every-down backs once they hit 28 or 29, Charles could play into his 30s because of the way he runs and the way the Chiefs use him.
"You can't compare what I do (to others)," Charles said. "I'm a speedster. My game is about speed. I'm not a big guy like Earl Campbell who will run you over. You can't compare every running back. ... I'm not a pounder. I know when to get out of bounds. ... I know when to get down. That's why, the numbers are just numbers, and I can't wait until I hit the age where I can show people it's just a number.
"I think my skills and the way the game has changed ... we're not (running) the ball 30 times or 20 something times a game. Sometimes I get the ball 10 times, and the rest of it is catches. It's just the way they use me now; the game has changed to a whole different level of philosophy of passing.
"I like the way I'm being used and utilized. Coach Reid knows how to put me in space ... where I could catch the ball out of the backfield, make a move and make somebody miss."
The Chiefs' 2013 season ended with Charles in the locker room after he hit his helmet on the artificial turf of Lucas Oil Stadium on a first-quarter carry. Charles showed concussion-like symptoms and sat out the remainder of the game as the Chiefs blew a 28-point, third-quarter lead and lost 45-44 to Indianapolis.
"I felt I could have played in the game and bounced back," Charles said. "Some people get knocked out and don't want to play. I wanted to play. I didn't want to quit on my team. I've been hit before. I didn't get hit. I got hit by the ground. I've been dazed before and still played. If we would have won the game, I would have played the next week. ... I just needed to get my feet back under me. At halftime, we were up so many points, (trainer Rick Burkholder) was like, 'Relax and chill and wait until the next week.' Everybody thought we had it."
The playoff loss to the Colts has haunted the team and has been a driving force for Charles in preparing for 2014 and wanting to justify the new contract that has made him the NFL's second-highest paid running back at $8.3 million this season.
"I've been known as a top running back," Charles said after signing the new contract. "Since I've been in this league, I've been known as an underdog, and I just wanted my respect. ...
"So it's all about staying consistent and staying successful in this league. I want to be in the Hall of Fame when I retire, I want to win a championship.
"I'll know when my time is up. When I'm 32, I want to look back and see what I've done. I'm having a great career so far and putting up great numbers. As long as I do those things in my next five years, it would be amazing to look back and call it a career."