Who Is More Important to Chiefs: Alex Smith or Jamaal Charles?

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystJuly 10, 2013

Jamaal Charles might be the most important player in Kansas City.
Jamaal Charles might be the most important player in Kansas City.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Quarterback Alex Smith and running back Jamaal Charles are part of a co-dependent football relationship. To be successful as a team, Charles needs Smith to play well and vice-versa.

One of the two players will be more important to the Chiefs in 2013 but determining which one is no easy task. If you have ever tried discussing with your spouse who pulls more weight around the house, you know what I am talking about.  

Just like the Newlywed Game, the couple with the least history is usually at a disadvantage. Until the relationship goes through the ups and downs of an NFL season together, we just don’t know for sure who is more important.

At this point in time, Charles is like my wife and worth way more to the overall operation despite the appearances. Smith—like me—is seemingly in a more important overall position, but he is flawed and almost totally dependent on the relationship to be a productive member of the team.


Household Contributions

We don’t know yet exactly how the relationship will work once the two are together, so we have to do some fuzzy math. Assuming head coach Andy Reid doesn’t make any drastic alterations to his offense, we can use some stats from his time in Philadelphia as our guide.

Using Smith’s yards per attempts statistic over the last four years and Charles’ yards per attempts statistic over a five-year period (he barely played in 2011), we can actually project how each will in do in Reid’s offense.

Furthermore, we can compare how each would do relative to their prior relationships. Think of it of like comparing ex-girlfriends against the prototypical wife…or something like that.

The results are actually quite close. Using this method, Smith would gain 4,004 yards on 572 attempts. The average quarterback in Kansas City over the last five years would throw for 3,610 yards, a difference of 394 yards, assuming Smith continues to produce at the same rate while attempting more passes (no guarantee).

This is isn’t a projection; this is a way to compare Smith's vs. Charles' impact in Reid’s offense to decide which one is more important.

Although Charles would gain fewer than half of the yards Smith would gain (1,676), he’s worth 416 more yards than Frank Gore, who was Smith’s running back in San Francisco.

However, what we really want is the value of Charles in Reid’s offense compared to his value in the Chiefs’ offense for the past five years (excluding 2011, when Charles was injured). Based on Charles' yards per game and attempts per game numbers since 2008, Charles will be worth 545 more yards in Reid’s offense.

There is a problem here with the data, though, because Charles was splitting carries through the 2010 season. If you use just last year as a comparison, Charles would project to only have 176 more yards in the offense (simply a return to rushing at a 5.8 yards per carry clip, which is no guarantee now that he isn’t sharing carries).

Based on this data, Smith and Charles are roughly equally beneficial to the Chiefs in the new offensive regime. At most, one is worth more than the other by about 20 yards per game which is barely anything—all things considered.  


Lean on Me

There are basically two types of relationships between a quarterback and a running back. Either the quarterback benefits from the running back’s productivity by using the play action or the running back benefits from the quarterback’s ability to keep a defense honest.

Now that we know that both Smith and Charles will be contributing within a maximum of 20 yards per game more to Reid’s offense than the alternative, we have to look at which player stands to benefit the most from the other player being productive.

Will Smith lean more on Charles or will Charles lean more on Smith? The player doing more leaning would theoretically be worth less than doing the propping.

This is where the Chiefs realize Charles is far more important than Smith. Charles proved he could get the job done last season without leaning on the quarterback, carrying the ball 285 times for 1,509 yards.

Charles was one of only three players last year to average 5.3 yards per carry or more, and he finished the season with the fourth most rushing yards and yards from scrimmage.

In contrast, Smith needed to lean on the running game to be effective. The 49ers rushed the ball 498 times in 2011—third most in the league—even though their rushing offense was below the league average on a per-rush basis (4.1 yards per carry to the league average of 4.3 yards per carry).

To be productive, the 49ers also limited Smith’s opportunities, and he also started taking sacks 2.2 percent more frequently in 2011 than he did in 2010. Only six quarterbacks were sacked on a greater percentage of their attempts than Smith in 2010, and 19 quarterbacks attempted more passes.

Smith also wasn’t able to put the ball in the end zone as only 3.8 percent of his throws found pay dirt in 2011. Shockingly, Matt Cassel put the ball into the end zone 3.7 percent of the time without much aid from Charles after he tore his ACL in Week 2.

Smith needs a productive running game to lean on, but Charles doesn’t need a productive quarterback. Because Charles can do it on his own and Smith needs him, he’s more important. If the Chiefs were to lose Charles for any length of time, the offense might come crumbling down like a house of cards.

The Chiefs could cycle through quarterbacks with Charles and he would keep producing, but remove him from the equation, and Smith will struggle like I do to feed myself when my wife isn’t around.

Together, Smith and Charles have a chance to turn the Chiefs around and they will both have to get the job done for that to happen. However, if you were forced to play an alternative at one of the positions, the choice would be easy.