The Next Level is Horns Illustrated's look at a Texas Longhorn player whose career path has taken him to the NFL.
Jamaal Charles should feel used to playing second fiddle by now. It's to his credit that he refuses to play the tune so many request of him.
By now, Charles' have earned the nickname the Stealth Bomber with the way he has found a way to fly under the radar though-out his career in football. Last week proved no exception. If you asked an everyday NFL fan to name the Texas-born rusher who bounced back from season-ending knee surgery in Week 1 of the 2012 season, there's a good chance the name Adrian Peterson would come to mind. And while there's no question that All Day's ability to overcome an ACL and MCL tear on Christmas Eve last season is impressive, Charles had his own return from an ACL injury that should merit national recognition.
To understand the significance of what Charles is doing now, we have to take a step back. 2011 was supposed to be the year when the Kansas City Chiefs rusher cemented his legacy as one of the premiere backs in the NFL, after blazing past defenders in 2010 to the tune of 1,935 yards from scrimmage. His efficiency was legendary, as he finished, you guessed it, second in all-time yards per carry (6.8 YPC) for an individual season to the great Jim Brown. Instead, his season was cut short in Week 2 when he shredded his ACL two carries in as the Chiefs suffered a 48-3 loss to the Lions. Charles was again relegated to working in the shadows, a familiar role even while he was at the University of Texas.
Charles was a key ingredient in the Longhorns' run to the 2005 BCS Championship. As a freshman, he rushed for 878 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on only 119 carries, numbers worthy of attention. But there was this quarterback who, justifiably, got the majority of the run. You may have heard of him. His first name's Vince?
Even a breakout junior year that saw him run for 290 yards against the Nebraska Cornhuskers wasn't enough to get Charles drafted before the third round. When he came into the Chiefs' camp, the limelight was still on former Pro Bowler Larry Johnson. That didn't last long, as Charles' talent offered enough for the Chiefs to cut LJ.
One year later, Charles opened eyes with his aforementioned season and helped lead the Chiefs to a surprising AFC West division title in 2010. That still wasn't enough for the average fan to rank Charles in the same discussion as the AP's and Chris Johnson's of the world. In fact, most NFL fans probably only recognize Charles for what he can do for them on their fantasy football roster. (We think Charles was a still in the third round, in case you were wondering.) Charles may have been a fantasy God in 2010, but the reality is that he is a top-ten NFL back, even with the question marks that come with a rehabilitated knee.
Fast forward to this year and the Chiefs brought in former Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis this past summer to be the goal-line beast and share the duties with Charles in the backfield. Did Charles sweat the potential time share? Of course not. He was his typical efficient self in Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, rushing for 87 yards on 16 carries. Hillis, meanwhile, could only churn out 16 yards on 7 carries. We're guessing Charles' starting spot is safe. Injuries be damned, you can't hold a good Horn down.
If the Chiefs are going to have a chance to keep up with the rest of the AFC West, Charles must become a focal point. Perhaps a run to the playoffs will help him earn some of the credit he deserves. Even if it doesn't come, we can expect Charles to keep plugging away, slipping through the line as he bursts past his opponents, both on and off the field.
Charles knows the song people expect him to play. But in 2012, with a repaired knee, a resilient spirit, and his world class speed still in tact, the opportunity is there for Charles to prove that he's second to none.