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Kansas City Chiefs Looking Ahead Post-Larry Johnson

Russell FikeCorrespondent INovember 12, 2009

What happened?

Unpopular, egomaniacal, and talented, such are the thoughts and perceptions of Larry Johnson as he departs Kansas City

To most Chiefs fans it appeared that Johnson never quite enjoyed playing in Kansas City.  Perhaps Kansas City was not the problem, as one can question if LJ truly enjoys the game of football.  Even when the media lauded LJ as being “good,” or, “quiet,” all this meant was a standoffish isolated player hadn’t spoken out brashly against his team or gotten in trouble with the law.

There is no shock in seeing LJ go.  In fact, the amount of attention garnered by a player who only played two strong seasons is pretty appalling. 

Looking to the future, Chiefs fans see some familiar faces in larger roles.

In Week Nine, head coach and offense coordinator Todd Haley split 12 carries among Jamaal Charles, Kolby Smith, and Dantrell Savage.  The Chiefs will utilize this three-man running back-by-committee of players 24 years of age or younger.

Who are these players?

Smith started six games as a rookie in 2007 and three games in 2008 before suffering an injury midseason.  He returned to the field last week and will enter the rotation at running back for the rest of 2009.  Smith's numbers are suitable, but unflattering.

Savage beat out running back Jackie Battle in a preseason position battle to stay on the Kansas City roster.  The young, undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State runs a little wild with a smaller frame, but has shown sparks with very limited touches this season and last.

Most promising in this rotation is Charles, a third round draft pick out of Texas a year ago.  An explosive speedster, Charles is the only back to find even moderate success behind Kansas City’s 2009 offensive line.  Entering Week Nine he was averaging over five yards per carry and he sported a six yard per carry average against the Jacksonville Jaguars this past Sunday.

Will the running backs be the neglected step children of the 53-man roster?

Haley openly chose to found this team’s offensive identity upon a bruising ground game.  With LJ gone this leaves only one running back over 200 pounds (Smith). 

Additionally, with newly acquired talent at wide receiver bursting onto the scene in the form of Chris Chambers in Week Nine (two touchdowns in his Kansas City debut) and Bobby Wade in Week Two (six catches, 72 yards in his red and gold debut), it’s hard for the Chiefs to ignore the potential for a potent passing attack.

Free agency has not provided the only boost to the receiving corps.  Lance Long was brought up from the practice squad and has made an impact quickly as a shifty underneath receiver.

Throw in the bullishly strong and highly talented Dwayne Bowe and there’s a formula for a respectable passing attack.

When LJ was on the team, he received an average of 18 carries per game.  Logic would say that the majority of those go to Charles, but in Week Nine, Haley handed the ball off only 12 times. 

Just because LJ is gone doesn’t mean the Chiefs can’t run the ball.  Quite frankly they couldn’t really run the ball with LJ on the team. 

It appears Haley is confused about how he would like to capitalize on the potential of the running backs currently on the roster. 

How do we play with these new toys?

Ever received a toy for Christmas as a child and been unable to decipher the instructions?  It wasn’t until the instructions were tossed aside and the toy rediscovered after some neglect that everything suddenly made sense. 

It appears Haley is undergoing the same kind of learning curve. 

Conventional wisdom says the goal is to get Charles into space and let him utilize his speed.  Stretch plays, screens, sweeps, and even motioning him out to receiver are all possibilities. 

However, critics continue to assert that Charles is not built to run between the tackles.  Although he looked pretty good doing so with limited opportunities in Week Nine, injury concerns are a bigger issue still than lack of performance.

In short yardage situations, including at the goal line, fans can expect to see Smith come in and fill a more familiar role.

Finally, Savage will likely provide breathers to both when needed.

For the time being it appears the trio of backs is undergoing the period of neglect mentioned in the Christmas scenario above.  A balanced attack being vital in the NFL, Haley will have no choice but to give these three the ball more often. 

Just an idea…

Commentators often spoke of how LJ was most effective with a fullback in the formation.  This is true of most featured backs.  However, with LJ gone, the team is not burdened to give itself away by showing a fullback every time the offense wants to run.

That said, some double running back formations can yield results.  Smith and Charles both having starting experience, and are reasonably proficient at pass protection.

The two have complimentary running styles and Charles in particular has strong receiving skills.  The two-back set puts defenses on their heels as they don’t know what type of play to expect (run or pass), what style of run they may face (power or speed), or even how the backs might be utilized as an offensive tool (pass protection or run a route). 

This potential for both confusing the defense and capitalizing on the skill sets of the players who now need to step up in Kansas City provides a strong argument that the Chiefs do not have to abandon the run game. 

In fact, there’s reason to hope it will be better than before.       

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