PUMA’s Jamaal Charles and Saving the Dying Running Back Position

As the NFL becomes more pass happy, the days of bell cow running backs like Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and Bo Jackson are long gone. Gameplans now put emphasis on superstar quarterbacks, shifty wide receivers, and bruising tight ends as the shelf life for running backs gets smaller. Nearly every team uses a “running back by committee” approach and it’s commonplace for a coach to start a plethora of backs over the course of a season.

In a sport where Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers remain supreme, Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles is a last Mohican, a player who dominates on the gridiron with his speed, elusiveness, and vision. A star in a small market, Charles doesn’t always get the attention he deserves–some think of Alex Smith and Andy Reid when they hear “Kansas City Chiefs”–but when it’s all said and done, Charles will be looked at as one of the best players of the 2010s.

Charles’ best asset is his lethal speed. As a student athlete at the University of Texas, Charles ran track during his freshman year and instantly became one of the top runners in the nation. He was a four-time All-American and carried that speed over to the football field where he finished his career as the fourth-leading rusher in Texas history behind Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson, and Earl Campbell. At the 2008 NFL Combine, Charles ran a blazing 4.38 in the 40-yard dash and impressed the Chiefs enough that they drafted him in the third round despite having Larry Johnson, who had just signed a six-year, $45 million contract. Johnson never fully recovered from a foot injury, though, and when Charles touched the field as a feature back during Week 10 of the ’09 season, he torched the rest of the league and became the only player in NFL history to rush for 1,100-plus yards on less than 200 carries.

That world class speed is also a big reason why his partnership with PUMA was a natural fit. As one of the faces of PUMA’s Forever Faster campaign (alongside Usain Bolt, fittingly), Charles is with a brand that understands speed kills.

“I think they chose me because of my speed,” Charles told The Drop back in July. “PUMA works with a lot of the fastest athletes in the world and I think my speed is what separates me from other running backs. You can’t coach speed and only so many people in the world have it. I love that PUMA places so much focus on speed and I’m very happy to be a part of their family.”

Since breaking into the starting lineup, Charles has run wild over, through, and around NFL defenses. A natural runner, Charles rushed for 1,467 yards in 2010, 1,509 in 2011, 1,287 in 2013, and 1,033 in 2014. (Charles suffered an ACL tear that ended his 2013 season early.) To put those numbers in perspective, Charles has racked up yards on significantly less carries than his counterparts–he has never eclipsed 300 touches in a season–and is the NFL’s career leader in average yards per carry at 5.5. He is also a threat in passing situations and has caught 12 total touchdown passes over the past two seasons. Charles’ big numbers have a lot to do with his durability and that durability is directly related to his speed. Instead of taking punishing blows, the Port Arthur, Texas, native can turn on the burners and blow by defenders.

While other running backs burn out because of injuries and overuse, Charles has found a happy medium. He’s always dangerous when he touches it, in part because he is never worn down. And yes, that breakout speed and big-play ability do wonders for fantasy football players, but Charles doesn’t create fireworks off the field.

As low-key as they come, avoiding trouble and staying out of headlines, Charles focuses his downtime on training and humanitarian efforts. As a child, Charles suffered from a learning disability that caused him crippling anxiety. Frequently teased because of his troubles with public speaking, it was those same learning disabilities that led him to the track. Charles participated in the 1996 Special Olympics, which included kids suffering from intellectual disabilities and cognitive delays, and won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, hurdles, and the long jump. Forever faster.

Charles stayed involved in the Special Olympics and actually returned this summer where he gave a heartfelt speech, saying, “People made fun of me. They said I would never go anywhere. But I learned I can fly. When I competed in the Special Olympics, I found out just how fast I was. I stood high on the podium, getting the gold medal in track and field. And when I found out just how fast I was, I was blessed with a new confidence.”

Playing in his eighth NFL season, Charles is leading a Chiefs team that has high hopes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. As one of the best at his position both on and off the field, Charles is exactly the type of player the NFL should be praising. With the running back position becoming less valued, Jamaal Charles is one of the few stars left at the position. Don’t sleep.

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