Chiefs' Charles back in charge after knee injury
There were moments when Jamaal Charles wasn't sure whether he'd ever be the same.
Might have been during rehab, when he was trying to squeeze out one more repetition with his surgically repaired left knee. Or when he took a handoff from Matt Cassel in practice, and the All-Pro running back would make a cut at the line of scrimmage just a bit more gingerly than before.
Whatever the case, the moment when Charles realized the torn ACL that knocked him out nearly all of last season had healed came Sunday in New Orleans, when he showed off his world-class speed on a 91-yard touchdown run that may well have saved the Kansas City Chiefs' season.
Charles wound up running for 233 yards on 33 carries, and caught six passes for 55 yards, as the Chiefs rallied from a 24-6 hole to beat the Saints 27-24 in overtime.
The dazzling display was enough to make the soft-spoken Charles the AP's player of the week.
''I didn't know that type of day was coming,'' said Charles, who had run for just 90 yards total the first two weeks, and had banged up his left knee the previous week at Buffalo.
''I felt like I should try to get back to where I was, though.''
It certainly looked like he'd never been away.
Charles routinely gashed the Saints' struggling defensive front for big yards, giving a Chiefs offense that was sputtering some semblance of life. And when he got loose for the longest TD run in club history, it provided a tangible jolt for a team reeling from two straight losses.
''Sometimes offenses need that spark to get us going, and obviously last game, that was huge for us,'' Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan Lilja said. ''You can't get two scores until you get one, and when he did that, it lit a fire under us.''
It was the second-biggest day rushing in Chiefs history behind the 259 yards Charles had in the season finale two years ago, and it elevated Charles into some select company.
Corey Dillon, O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown each had two or more games of at least 230 yards rushing in their careers, and the Browns' Hall of Fame running back is the only other player in NFL history with at least 225 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving in the same game.
Charles' 39 total touches were the second-most in Chiefs history. The 288 yards from scrimmage third-most. The 92 total plays he helped Kansas City run the most in a game.
''Anytime you come off of major injury, you always wonder if it's going to be the same, how it's going to respond to taking hits and the work load,'' Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. ''I think he gained a lot of confidence in his ability this past game with what he was able to do.''
That confidence had been flagging for a while, Charles said, at least off and on.
He tore up his knee in Week 2 last season in Detroit, when Charles took a handoff out of the shotgun and race around the right side. He reached out for the first down as he was heading out of bounds, and awkwardly planted his left knee, falling in a heap into the Lions' dazed mascot.
Charles knew instantly that something was wrong - the searing pain in his knee told him that. He grabbed it while rolling around on his back, almost in disbelief that such an innocuous misstep could end his season, and potentially alter the rest of his career.
''It was a hard time,'' Charles said ''It felt like everyone forgot about me. I had to come out here and prove myself all over again. It was going through rehab, through physical therapy, and all that pain I went through. It was just a hard time for me, period.''
Charles wasn't alone in the rehab, even though at times he felt like it. Tight end Tony Moeaki and Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, in a strange coincidence, had torn the ACL in their left knees the previous two weeks, leaving three of the Chiefs' best players to go through rehab together.
Still, watching Kansas City struggle through a rollercoaster season was mentally draining, and the uncertainty of what the future held for Charles was unsettling.
''I wasn't playing. I wasn't making any noise on the field, so it felt like you're that person in the corner, and everyone is moving away from that corner to move into the light, and I'm in the shadow,'' he said. ''I felt like I had to come back and just prove myself all over again.''
The Chiefs were cautious with Charles during their offseason program, and kept a watchful eye on him during the preseason. He carried 16 times in a season-opening loss to Atlanta, but banged up his knee two weeks ago at Buffalo, when he managed only 3 yards on six carries.
Certainly nothing to foreshadow what he would do last Sunday.
''There's nothing better than having a guy, you give him a small crease, he can burst through and it take it the distance any time,'' Chiefs offensive lineman Jon Asamoah said. ''There's nothing better than when you see him taking off. Nobody can catch him.''
Charles is the first to acknowledge that he's not 100 percent, not like he was before he got hurt. And he's not sure whether he'll be able to replicate such startling success on Sunday against San Diego, even though his confidence is soaring.
Still, the peace of mind that he gained in New Orleans should carry over to the rest of the season, and that may be the biggest takeaway from a record-breaking day.
''I'll probably never forget about my knee, but it's fixed, and I just need to go out there and play football,'' Charles said. ''Last week, it brought me back to my old days, and now I can just go try to let loose, and hopefully do something every week to help my team win.''
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