Charles holds key to both Cassel's improvement and Chiefs' fortunes

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Looking to extend 2010's success, Charles played one game in '11 before tearing his ACL. (Getty Images)  
Looking to extend 2010's success, Charles played one game in '11 before tearing his ACL. (Getty Images)  

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Matt Cassel isn't the lynchpin to Kansas City's AFC West hopes. Running back Jamaal Charles is, and I'll tell you why: Because the Chiefs can't survive without Cassel, and Cassel can't survive without Charles and a bona fide running attack.

Yeah, I know, it's a passing league, and running's not supposed to matter. Only it does, especially in Kansas City.

When it had a healthy Charles and the league's top-ranked running game it won the AFC West. That was two years ago. Then, when it subtracted Charles and plummeted to 15th in rushing and tied for 25th in yards per carry it lost more than it won.

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That was last season, and it underscored the importance of Charles -- and the running game -- to a club that desperately needs both to succeed.

They get their wish this summer, with Charles returning to the lineup, and GM Scott Pioli wisely signing Peyton Hillis as a safety net. Charles looks to be recovered, but he hasn't yet shown the burst or explosion characteristic of him in 2010, and that can happen when you return from a torn ACL.

Give the guy time, and he might ... and he better.

Look, the Chiefs aren't built like Air Coryell or the Greatest Show on Turf. They want to construct a support system around Cassel that starts with the run. It happened in 2010 when Charles and Thomas Jones averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and Cassel had the best season of his career -- winning 10 of 15 starts. But when Charles bowed out, and Jones floundered ... I think you know the score.

Draw your own conclusions. The Chiefs did, which is why they signed Hillis, free-agent right tackle Eric Winston and free-agent tight end Kevin Boss. All those moves were designed to help protect Cassel with an effective offensive line and running game to keep attacking defenses honest -- which is another way of saying to keep them off Cassel.

"Going back to my experience in New England," Pioli said, "I learned something from [then offensive coordinator] Charlie Weis and the offense that he had. It was about the importance of check-downs and 'look passes' and the quarterback's abilities to do things.

"I think Charlie used to refer to it as 'the detached running game,' where you throw a ball to the outside, and you've got a guy in space. So you have a 4-or 5-yard pickup on the pass, which is just as good as a 4-or 5-yard run. You're trying to produce yards with a kind of spread running game, and having some of the skilled guys out there that we do is going to help us."

Nobody will help as much as Charles, who bowed out in the second game of 2011 with a season-ending injury. What Pioli has seen of him this summer has been "encouraging," he said, adding that 'good' is a relative term because he's not going every single day and every rep because he's coming back from a traumatic injury."

He's right to be cautious. It's not so much what players must overcome physically when they return from serious injuries; it's what they must overcome mentally. That can take weeks or months, and I've known some players who weren't right for a season.

But that's why the acquisition of Hillis made sense. He's the insurance policy, with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll -- the guy who coached Hillis to the biggest season of his career and who was around Cassel in New England -- an ideal fit for the Chiefs. Plus, there's untested Shaun Draughn sitting behind Hillis, and coaches like what they see.

But, from where I sit, it all comes down to Charles. Either he cuts it loose and becomes the running back he was in 2010, or the Kansas City Chiefs battle Oakland for third place in the AFC West.

The Chiefs believe they have the weapons and the depth to improve on 2011, and I'd hope so. It's training camp where everything seems possible. But the Chiefs have reason to believe it's 2010 all over again. Jamaal Charles is back -- and if he's OK, Matt Cassel and the Kansas City Chiefs should be, too.

"[People say] Matt Cassel can only be good if you surround him [with talent]," said Pioli, "but that's our job. That's my job. My job is to build a team ... not to just go out and find one superstar player that changes the fortunes.

"Hey, that happens to some teams and good for them. But the team is going to win. So part of the job is that I need to find a bunch of good players who fit together and make sure the chemistry is there, as well. I may have flunked organic chemistry, but human chemistry is a completely different thing."

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