The Kansas City Chiefs have always been cautious with their handling of running back Jamaal Charles.
In his four seasons with the Chiefs, Charles has made only 19 out of a possible 49 starts and has only averaged a shade over 10 carries per game—not typical numbers for someone that gains 6.1 yards every time a quarterback has handed the ball to him.
Even as Larry Johnson slapped, spit and choked his way out of town, the Chiefs still treaded lightly with how they used Charles early in his career.
In 2009, the Chiefs brought in Thomas Jones to complement Charles in the backfield. Although Jones did have a productive debut season with the Chiefs in 2010 (896 yards and six touchdowns), his YPC of just under 3.5 in his two seasons with the team didn’t quite fulfill what was needed from him. Not discounting his career at all, but Jones was obviously on his last legs in Kansas City.
Without quality depth in 2011, Charles’ season-ending ACL tear in a 48-3 Week 2 loss to the Detroit Lions shed light on how the Chiefs’ backfield was constructed.
To fix that problem, Scott Pioli went out and signed Peyton Hillis this offseason to balance what Charles brings to the table. The Chiefs also selected Cyrus Gray out of Texas A&M in the sixth round of this year’s draft. Throw Dexter McCluster into the mix and the Chiefs feature one of the more balanced and dangerous rushing attacks in the NFL.
Hillis can actually be a younger and hungrier version of what the Chiefs hoped Jones could have been during his time in Kansas City—a reliable, sturdy back that can come in and do the dirty work in short yardage situations and at the goal line, while Charles ran wild between the 20s.
However, Jones came to Kansas City still believing he had plenty of gas left in the tank, and it seemed as though Todd Haley shared that sentiment.
In 2010, Jones started 10 games for the Chiefs and rushed the ball 245 times. That same season, Charles—the more productive of the two by 571 yards—only started six games while carrying the ball 230 times.
While it was expected that a slight-framed Charles (6’1” and 200 pounds) would need relief throughout games and over the long season to ensure a lengthy career in the NFL, there was no excuse for the Chiefs to use an aging Jones as much as they did, especially after seeing the results on the field.
However, in light of Charles recovering from his injury, it is expected that the Chiefs will continue to use caution as they ease him back onto the playing field, making Hillis that much more important to the team than Jones was over the past couple of seasons.
Coming to Kansas City with virtually the same expectations as the man he’s replacing, Hillis is a full six years younger than Jones was when he became a Chief but with a far less accomplished career. That is significant because Hillis still has more to prove and actually has the ability to do so whereas Jones was still trying to hold onto a career that was fading quickly.
Hillis doesn’t come without baggage as his 2011 season with the Cleveland Browns was one to forget in terms of production and off-the-field matters (contract demands and a bout with strep throat). But he is already starting out on a good foot stating he is open to any role to help the Chiefs, a position that makes Hillis a key piece to the Chiefs’ 2012 puzzle.