How will Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis split touches in the Kansas City Chiefs' backfield?
Let's turn the clock back two years.
The Kansas City Chiefs had just signed a 31-year-old running back coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, each with double-digit touchdowns, Thomas Jones. They also had an up-and-coming 23-year-old running back, who after emerging as a starter in mid-2009 averaged 140.8 yards from scrimmage with nine touchdowns in his final eight games, Jamaal Charles.
They were often referred to as Thunder and Lightning.
Jones, Charles and the remainder of the Chiefs' backfield led the NFL in rushing yards (2,627) and attempts (556) and had the fourth-most yards per carry (4.7). Yet despite that duo's success, that nickname might have been better used to describe this year's Chiefs backfield.
Peyton Hillis is a gargantuan running back, at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, making him four inches taller and 38 pounds heavier than Jones. He fits the short-yardage prototype to a T, with 12 of his 23 career touchdowns coming from within the opponent's 5-yard line and 23 percent of his career rushing attempts resulting in a first down. He is as obvious a fit for the Thunder nickname as there is in the game.
Charles, meanwhile, has proven himself through four NFL seasons as one of the quickest running backs in the league. His career 6.07 yards per carry is the most of any running back in history with at least his number of attempts (499); only two other players have an average greater than 5.25. Seven of his 19 career touchdowns are from 36 yards or farther, and he had eight carries of 40 or more yards in 2009-10 combined, second only to Chris Johnson (11). The man they called Lightning in 2010 remains in KC two years later.
That is not to say that neither player is without warts.
Hillis endured one of the most disappointing 2011 seasons, undoubtedly doomed by the dreaded Madden Curse. His scrimmage yards per game dropped by more than 30 (31.68, to be exact), his scrimmage yards per touch slipped by more than one (1.08), and he scored just three touchdowns in 10 games after having 13 in 16 contests during his breakout 2010. Hillis never seemed to recover from a hamstring injury he suffered during Week 6, missing five games after that point and cracking 100 yards from scrimmage only twice in the seven games he did play. Oh, and he missed Week 3 with strep throat.
Madden Curse jokes aside, the serious takes on Hillis' struggles centered upon two things: First, his having totaled 331 touches, an increase of 314 upon the year before, in 2010. Considering the wear and tear on a bruiser's body, some degree of natural regression was inevitable. Second, his ongoing frustration with the lack of a long-term contract extension with the Cleveland Browns, which many who covered the team described a "non-holdout holdout."
Charles endured a frustrating 2011 as well, though his was entirely injury-related. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 2, requiring season-ending surgery. ACL reconstructions are significant for a running back; few in the history of the NFL have had them, and fewer have made successful recoveries. Can Charles recapture the speed that made him a star?
In order to get a sense of Charles' prognosis from a historical perspective, let's examine some of the most successful fantasy running backs who have had an ACL surgery and made it back to an NFL field. Charles is 25 years old with just 499 career carries and 616 touches, so he probably stands as good a chance as any such running back of making a full recovery.
Extensive research turned up 15 players who (A) managed at least 150 fantasy points in the final 16 complete games they played immediately before suffering the injury, (B) appeared in at least one game following ACL surgery, and (C) were running backs. This study, therefore, excludes players like Kevin Jones, who scored 144 fantasy points in his final 16 games before getting hurt, Billy Sims, who never returned following ACL surgery, and Tom Brady, an amazing ACL surgery success story but not a running back.
Statistics in the chart below are broken down by the date the player suffered the injury, his age on that day, the number of days he missed and his average fantasy points and touches per game in the 16 games before the injury, the player's next 16 games and the 16 after that (Games 17-32 following his return).
Shaded blocks signify that the player didn't appear in the full 16 games during that statistical split; the details for these players can be read at column's end.
What this shows is that Charles not only can expect a downturn in production but also noticeably diminished usage. These running backs, on average, touched the football 6.4 fewer times per game in the 16 games following ACL surgery than in the 16 games preceding it. That makes sense in Charles' example, given the structure of the Chiefs' backfield entering 2012.
Here's why: Hillis, who had two of his best games of 2011 in the season's final month, has fresh legs following a 183-touch campaign, not to mention he has been drawing rave reviews for his early practice sessions. He was the team's first-string back during organized team activities and will undoubtedly be the most prepared to absorb the start come Week 1 of the regular season. Another point in Hillis' favor: Brian Daboll, the Chiefs' new offensive coordinator, held the same position for the Browns in 2010, when Hillis had his best season.
Let's not forget how the Chiefs used Charles when Jones was present at the onset of 2010. Seeking to get the most bang for their buck from Jones early, Jones averaged 18 touches in three games in the month of September and 17 in four games in October, while Charles averaged 13 in September and 20 in October. Charles was completely healthy and on a career upswing at the time, whereas today, he is entering the season with unanswered questions. There is little reason to expect a different arrangement this season, barring an unexpected turn of events such as a Hillis injury.
Hillis can also -- long term -- take much of the grunt work off Charles' hands, including third downs (Hillis is as skilled a pass-catcher as Charles), short-yardage plays and goal-line work. The latter will drain some of Charles' fantasy value. At the same time, working in a similar arrangement in 2010, Charles managed the third-best fantasy season by any running back, tallying 223 points.
Charles has resumed practicing, and that the Chiefs appear set to employ a zone-blocking scheme suits his skill set. Consider it a signal that he is held in regard as the team's lead back, meaning that, health willing, his basement expectation might be an even split of the rushing chores with Hillis. The primary loss, therefore, might be only those short-yardage touchdowns.
As for the quality of those carries and touches, here's something to consider: The Chiefs, which already had one of the better run-blocking offensive lines in football, patched the unit's major weakness this offseason when they added Eric Winston to supplant the mediocre Barry Richardson at right tackle.
According to an offseason Kansas City Star report, Romeo Crennel, Daboll and Chiefs brass want Hillis and Charles to touch the football at least 500 times combined. They might approach or exceed the Jones/Charles 534 number in 2010.
Care for a guess at their month-by-month touches on a per-game basis? Let's give it a shot:
September: Hillis 19, Charles 14
October: Hillis 18, Charles 17
November: Charles 18, Hillis 17
December: Charles 19, Hillis 13
Even their lowest monthly per-game averages -- 13 for Hillis in December, 14 for Charles in September -- assure sizable enough workloads for both to be fantasy assets all season. Perhaps this is one of the few backfields worth a handcuff, being that the baton, figuratively speaking, might be gradually handed off to Charles as the weeks progress. But might it be that Hillis is the draft-day steal and a sell-high come Oct. 15, while Charles is a brilliant buy-low?
It's sure worth giving a strategic try.
Chart notes: Several players appeared in fewer than 16 games following ACL surgery. Jamal Anderson retired after only 19 games, playing just three in 2001, which were his "Next 16 G." Terrell Davis retired after only 13, spread across 2000-01. Olandis Gary appeared in only 12 full games before succumbing to ACL surgery in 2000. Deuce McAllister, who underwent ACL surgeries on both knees, albeit in separate seasons, played in 18 games between his two surgeries and only 13 following his second before retirement. Dominic Rhodes played 15 games as a rookie in 2001 before getting hurt during the 2002 preseason. Gale Sayers had multiple surgeries, the second of which prematurely ended his career after 18 games between operations. Kevin Smith remains active, playing only 13 games since his return from ACL surgery in 2009. Ickey Woods played in 19 games, 10 in 1990 and nine in 1991 before retiring.