KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Jamaal Charles spent at least part of his offseason on the defensive, insisting in an April discussion that an injury-filled 2014 season was a fluke and that he can be the same player he was earlier in his career.
My default mode is to be skeptical of a 28-year-old back with as much wear as Charles over his seven NFL seasons. But I’ve also learned not to doubt Charles. He pledged to come back from his torn ACL in 2011 as good as ever and immediately delivered on that promise.
Charles will need to be that player from earlier in his career this season in order for the Chiefs to make significant offensive improvement. The Chiefs didn’t add a running back of consequence, a sign they believe Charles is still in his prime.
The Chiefs are addicted to Charles because of his abilities. ESPN’s Field Yates rated NFL running backs, projecting them for the next three seasons, and Charles came in at No. 4 behind only Adrian Peterson, Le'Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy.
But the Chiefs also have no other back capable of helping them in the way Charles does. The main backup is Knile Davis, who is big and fast. His production, albeit in limited playing time, hasn’t matched that of Charles. He averaged 3.5 yards per carry the past two seasons compared to 5 yards for Charles.
Davis, unlike Charles, has been a liability in pass coverage and protection.
Otherwise, the Chiefs have special-teams players and developmental prospects at running back.
Other than a season spent battered and bruised, there are no signs Charles is slowing down. Offseason practice isn’t the best place to see indications that a back is in decline. Sessions are conducted without pads or contact, making the running game difficult to judge.
“Right now he looks good,’’ coach Andy Reid said. “He’s in great shape. You try to spot him the best you can during the season. He obviously doesn’t want to be spotted, but you try and spot him as best you can during the season.”
That’s been difficult for the Chiefs to do, particularly in close games. The Chiefs won their only game without Charles last season. He sat out with a foot injury in September against the Dolphins in Miami and, aided by 132 rushing yards from Davis, the Chiefs won 34-15.
Davis was otherwise busy in games when Charles left the Chiefs’ lineup with an injury or had a comfortable lead.
Charles is serious about his workout regimen. In the four months between the end of last season and the start of the offseason program in April, Charles conditioned at home in Austin, Texas, with a group of NFL players that included Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson.
“I feel like I am 20, 21," Charles said. “I feel good, I feel healthy, I eat right, I take vitamins, I do yoga. I am doing everything I am supposed to do to keep my body up at age.
“I feel like I’m young all over again. I’m older, but running against these young guys out here and conditioning with them, I feel like I can keep up with the young guys.”
Strenuous workouts can certainly help extend a career, but they can’t put off the end forever. And players are usually the last to know when the end is in sight.
In this case, though, if Charles has started his career’s downhill descent, even the Chiefs haven’t seen it.
“Each and every year, Jamaal always seems to amaze me,’’ running backs coach Eric Bieniemy said. “He is out here every day working his tail off and the thing that I appreciate about him is that he brings his professionalism in the classroom every single day. What he does on the field speaks for itself, but he brings professionalism to the classroom each and every day and that’s all you can ask for.”