Now Entering the MVP Race: Jamaal Charles
The MVP debate lost one borderline candidate Monday night. Calvin Johnson was going to have a tough road, as any wide receiver always would, but his three drops—two of them at crucial times—in a loss that could keep the Lions from making the playoffs will knock out whatever chance he had in what has been a great season.
But the debate did gain one entrant in Week 15: Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles. His five-touchdown performance in the Chiefs’ win at Oakland Sunday (and seven in the last two weeks, for a league-high 18 on the season) is notable not just because of the sheer luminosity of it. It’s the totality of the offensive renaissance in Kansas City.
For the first half of the season, the Chiefs survived on defense and whatever Charles’ legs could provide on offense. In the last four games K.C. has averaged 42 points a game—42 points total would have been a month’s work back in October—and this has been Charles’ eye-popping output:
When a guy is averaging 8.6 yards per touch, maybe he should be getting the ball more than 19 times a game. But whatever Andy Reid is calling in the last month is working, and much of it is centered around Charles. If the Chiefs win out and finish 13-3, and the pacesetters—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton—struggle a bit in the last two weeks, Charles could become a dark-horse candidate for either the MVP or Offensive Player of the Year.
“I’m not in the race,” Charles told me after the 56-31 rout of the Raiders. “That’s not for me to decide if I deserve something like that. I deserve to work hard and get ready to play the best football I can. After that, it’s not up to me.”
“I do think about it,” he said. “But then I think about what I can control.”
What Reid has brought to the Chiefs, other than a calming influence after a raging storm in the last couple of seasons in Kansas City, is some new ideas to the offense. One is how to use Charles. Example: Saturday night in the hotel in California, Reid shared the first 15 plays with the offensive team, as he does every week. And the first play was a screen to Charles, a play the Chiefs thought would be great to run early to take advantage of the Raiders’ overaggressiveness and their wont to pursue plays too fast on screens.
“I looked on the paper and saw that,” said Charles, “and I focused on it all night. I could see it happening, and I knew it would be a good play to run for us. It turned out to be wide open.”
The 49-yard screen on the first play from scrimmage was one of four touchdown catches for Charles on the day, and for the year he’s been the best receiver out of the backfield in the league, by far: 65 catches, 655 yards, 11 touchdowns.
Now it’s going to be up to the 50 voters who make the picks for post-season awards for the Associated Press. (I am one of them.) Charles’s play down the stretch, and how he’s enlivened an offense that needed it, could thrust him into a race no one saw him in a month ago.
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Now let's head to Page 2 for your mailbag...
COOL IT ON CUTLER. I don't know how you can have Kirk Cousins as one of your offensive players of the week and then say in your defensive players section that Zack Bowman had to bail out "the awful quarterback play of Jay Cutler." Cutler had very similar numbers to Cousins—they both had three touchdowns and two picks, Cutler had a stronger completion percentage of 71 percent vs. 64 percent and Cutler had a higher overall rating, 102 to 94. In the second half, when the game was being decided, Cutler had a quarterback rating of 143.5.
Given the rust inherent in coming back after being off for a month, maybe give the guy a little time to get back in a groove and start to play well? Doesn't it seem fair to say you are either vastly overrating what Kirk Cousins did or underrating Jay Cutler?
—Jeremiah F., Providence
I was too hard on Cutler. I watched most of the first half of that game, and his throws consistently sailed high. Obviously he played better in the second half and was an important contributor when they really needed to score late. But, I think that Cousins, who has had 1/50th the NFL experience of Cutler, had a significantly tougher road on Sunday. I’d argue that he played the best game that a Washington quarterback has played this year, and he did so walking onto the field for the first time all year, after backing up the starter for three months. But I get it. I was too hard on Cutler. You and others were right to call me out on it.
GOLD DIGGERS. Loved the Michael Thomas story. I’ve always wondered how teams keep tabs on players on other teams’ practice squads. Would the Dolphins have had any insight into Thomas’s progress since 2012 (when he went undrafted), or would their decision to sign him have been based entirely on their pre-draft scouting reports?
Great question. In most situations, when grabbing guys from other teams’ practice squads, teams rely on a combo platter of information. There’s little doubt that the Dolphins would have liked Thomas when he played at Stanford and it’s highly likely that when they scouted the last two preseasons, that he would have stuck out to them. Usually in a case like this, Miami would be looking for a good special teams player and would have what coaches and GMs would call their “short list” of players either on the street or on practice squads of other teams. When they have a hole on their roster, they are able to go down that list and see who is next in line. Sometimes a team strikes gold when picking up one of these players. And last week, the Dolphins struck gold in Michael Thomas.
SEATTLE'S SECRET. It seems like everyone in the NFL has a shortage of quality defensive backs—except the Seahawks. Antoine Winfield retired because he couldn't make the team. With Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond both out, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane have not just filled in but absolutely thrived. So is it the scheme? Front-seven pressure? Pete Carroll's attitude and "everyone competes" mentality? Why do the Seahawks have so many good and a few great defensive backs when everyone else is looking to find just two quality starters?
—Ray Alejandro, Houston
Awesome question. I think the answer has three factors involved:
1. As Earl Thomas told me a couple of weeks ago, the backups are never referred to as “backups” from the moment the final roster is set. They’re simply referred to as cornerbacks. When they play, guys like Richard Sherman and Thomas put pressure on them to perform as a starter would. Take the case of Maxwell. He has played so well because he has allowed the chip that Sherman and Thomas and others have put on his shoulder to motivate him to play at a very high level. So I think part of this, quite frankly, is mental.
2. General Manager John Schneider looks for not just a good athlete at the cornerback position, but also a player who is going to have a great bit of confidence in himself and who is going to show that when he plays. Schneider does not want shrinking violets in his secondary.
3. Pete Carroll and the defensive coaching staff know that a huge help to a cornerback’s ability to shut down a good receiver is the presence of safeties over the top that can instill fear into receivers and help corners feel like they don’t have to be on an island. With big hitters like Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas behind them, that’s a tremendous help to cornerbacks.
GET OUT THE SCISSORS, STEELERS. I have always enjoyed your perspective on the NFL and I would love to hear your thoughts about the upcoming management decisions about the Steelers. Put your GM hat on. What decisions would you make in regards to player personnel moves with the Pittsburgh Steelers after this season?
—Doug Mclane, Bossier City, La.
I think the first thing that I would do is stop extending veterans of a certain age. You’re going to have to make tough decisions in this environment, especially when the cap is only going up $3.3 million in 2014. If that means that you have to cut Ike Taylor to save $7 million or you have to cut LaMarr Woodley for additional significant cap savings, those are decisions that might hurt today, but are going to help you build a deeper team tomorrow.
CALLING THE COMPETITION COMMITTEE. Wanted to ask about the hit on the Bengals punter Sunday night. That had to be illegal and fine-worthy right? If a QB got hit like that, the player who hit him would have been flagged, possibly ejected, certainly fined and maybe suspended. If the NFL is serious about player safety, don’t they have to do something about a play like that?
—Timothy B., Southfield, Mich.
There is no question in my mind that the Competition Committee will analyze the hit on Kevin Huber when it meets to discuss new rules after this season. That hit, though legal, flies in the face of what the NFL is trying to do, which is to make the game safer. I agree with you. The game would be much better off without hits like that.
THE NFL VERSION OF FLOPPING? This has been building up over the past year and has now reached disturbing levels. Is it just me or does it seem like every pass that is closely defended and broken up results in the receiver getting up and doing the “throw the flag” gyration and gesture? It looks like the incessant flopping so commonly seen in soccer. Let’s call a couple unsportsmanlike penalties to calm this annoying tactic or require the receiver to sit a couple of plays. What are your thoughts on this?
I think you’re exaggerating. I agree that it is an obnoxious practice by the offensive players, but this league throws enough penalty flags as it is. I respect the fact that this annoys you, but I think it’s too minor of an annoyance to deserve a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.