Thinking about a legacy before that legacy has been completed is, at the very least, an interesting discussion. At worst, it’s a distraction, and how unrealistic, mountainous expectations are established.
Jamaal Charles talking about being mentioned alongside Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders one day — and therefore being a hall of fame running back — falls between those two extremes. It’s not entirely dreamy stuff, and it’s possible. It just seems far off in the distance right now.
First, there’s the matter of age. Charles isn’t at all an old man, but in professional football and especially at the running back position, he’s not young either. Entering his age 27 season (he’ll turn 28 in late December), the Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowler finds himself somewhere in the murky middle. The contract extension Charles just signed will keep him under team control until he’s 32, which is elderly status for a running back.
The more important number associated with age is touches, and exactly how much mileage a running back is putting on as he ages. It’s been observed that the 1,600 touch mark is when a slow decline can often begin, and once a runner begins flirting with the 2,200 plateau, the flickering light at the end becomes blinding. Charles is currently at 1,265 touches, which has included 649 over the past two seasons.
However, when those touches come in the form of receptions it’s less taxing on the body, and in 2013 Charles led the Chiefs in catches (70), receiving touchdowns (7), and receiving yards (693) while easily setting career highs in all three categories. So even though he’s already suffered one major injury (a torn ACL in 2011) there’s hope for Charles’ long-term health and durability if he continues to be a prominent pass catcher.
Yet his job title is still “running back”, and there are certain plateaus to reach if you wish to have a replica of your face in Canton one day. As our esteemed Brad Gagnon noted a few weeks back while having a similar discussion regarding Adrian Peterson’s hall of fame status, the bar for entry is about 12,000 career rushing yards.
The NFL has seen 14 running backs reach that mark, and 11 of them are in the hall of fame, with two others certain to follow soon (LaDainian Tomlinson and Jerome Bettis). There are exceptions historically, including Earl Campbell with his 9,407 career rushing yards. Charles enters this season with 5,823 yards on the ground, a pace of 970.75 per year over six seasons.
That overall pace is drastically skewed by an injury-shortened 2011 season when Charles appeared in only two games, and a rookie year when he was used minimally, and given only 67 carries. The true Charles can be seen in what he’s done over his last three full, healthy seasons: three years with more than 1,200 yards on the ground, including a career high 1,509 in 2012.
That’s the real Charles, though despite his blazing speed and career average of 5.6 yards per carry, he hasn’t led the league in rushing once. Combined Sanders and Smith did that eight times (an even four apiece).
But the hall of fame may need to adjust the goalposts a little eventually to include both him, and a new breed of pass-catching backs in a pass-oriented league. Even if we again include his pace skewing 2011 and rookie seasons, Charles is moving along towards 14,296 career yards from scrimmage. That would put him among the top 25 all-time, and 17th among running backs.
He has a chance at the hall of fame, which is more than what most of Charles’ peers have at the age of 27. Going beyond that rests with what happens in the coming years.