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It's been a good 10 days for Jamaal Charles. On Dec. 11, Charles signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract extension with the Kansas City Chiefs that guarantees him $13 million. On Sunday, Charles busted off the longest run of the weekend, an 80-yard scamper that helped seal a crucial 27-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams.
And today, he's hit another milestone: According to DYAR, Charles is the best running back in football this season. While DVOA has suggested that he's been the best per-play back in the NFL for a fair amount of the season, his performance against the Rams pushed him ahead of Arian Foster as the overall leader in rushing DYAR.
He won't be getting any bonuses for finishing in that spot, but you don't need advanced metrics to realize what a great season he's having. Charles is now averaging 6.4 yards per carry, something that no other back has done with 200 or more carries in a season. Barry Sanders? Eric Dickerson? Adrian Peterson? Charles is doing more on a per-carry basis than any of them ever did. His 36.0 percent DVOA would also rank as the best performance by a back in a single season since 1993, the beginning of the DVOA Era.
The only reason Charles doesn't get recognition as the league's best back, of course, is Todd Haley. Although Haley deserves credit for assisting in the turnaround of Kansas City football over the past year and a half, his refusal to unleash Charles upon the league is mind-boggling. A look at the numbers makes comparisons between him and teammate Thomas Jones laughable. It's very clear that the Chiefs need to stop fooling around and give Charles the bulk of the workload -- now.
Most of the reasons given for the near-equal split of the carries between Jones (212 rushing attempts) and Charles (203 attempts) are nebulous. Jones is a reliable veteran and he's great in the locker room, but that doesn't make him a superior option at running back. Besides, it's not like Charles doesn't have safe hands: Jones has one fumble on 202 touches this year, but Charles has just one more on 228 touches.
Consider their performances in similar situations: On first-and-10, Jones has 105 carries for 515 yards and 11 conversions for a first down or touchdown, an impressive average of 4.9 yards per carry. Charles' 89 first-down carries have produced 683 yards and 19 conversions for an average of nearly 7.7 yards per attempt. That's better than some teams' passing games.
Jones is regarded as an effective goal-line back because of his gaudy touchdown totals, but research in Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 revealed Jones to be a consistently mediocre goal-line back who had one of the worst performances in league history for the New York Jets in 2007. Despite that, the team continues to pound the ball with Jones inside the goal line without getting very much in return. On his 15 carries inside the opposition's 5-yard line this year, Jones has five touchdowns and a first down. Charles, meanwhile, has three touchdowns on four such carries. In "power" situations, carries on third or fourth down with 2 yards or fewer to go for a first down (or 2 yards to go for a touchdown on first or second down), Jones has converted on 8 of 16 attempts. Charles is 5-for-7.
In addition to being the more productive receiver, Charles is by far the more explosive back. He has nine carries of 20 yards or more, while Jones has just three. Unlike some boom-or-bust backs, though, consistency isn't an issue for Charles. Our success rate metric measures how effective players are at keeping the team "on schedule" toward a new set of downs and, by that measure, 59 percent of Charles' runs have been successful, the second-best rate in the league. Only Chris Ivory has been better. Jones is in 18th place among qualifying backs, at 48 percent.
The only thing that stands out as an obvious reason to keep Jones in the fold is durability. Jones has been a sturdy back throughout his entire career, while Charles really only spent half of last season as the primary back for his team. You can make the anecdotal case that Charles benefits from the frequent breathers he gets, but there's also the anecdotal stories about running backs "getting into a rhythm" with regular work. Either way, even if Charles lost 10 percent of his value with an increase in his workload, he would still be a far better option than Jones has been this season. Charles deserves the plaudits he's received for a great season, but Haley's decision to limit his workload is keeping Charles from being recognized as an MVP candidate.
Three Good Performances
1. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
Speaking of MVP candidates, Rivers deserves to stand right alongside Tom Brady, Michael Vick and Charles in the balloting. Unfortunately, the atrocities committed by San Diego's special teams and a decline in his passing attempts over the past few weeks have conspired to keep Rivers' chances down. He had a chance if he set the all-time passing record, but instead, he'll just have to settle for games like this. Repeatedly shredding the San Francisco 49ers apart with perfectly placed passes to Vincent Jackson, Rivers picked up a first down or a touchdown on 15 of his 25 attempts. He could have done even more, but the Chargers threw seven passes against 24 run plays after halftime.
2. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Mendenhall faced the league's second-best run defense with an offensive line consisting mostly of clearance rack specials and somehow produced a wildly effective game. He had a 65 percent success rate against Gang Green, with nine of his 17 carries going for 5 yards or more.
3. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost several key parts on defense, including top cornerback Aqib Talib, but Johnson's numbers would be fantastic after translating them against any caliber of defense. He caught 10 of the 12 passes thrown to him, with nine of the receptions going for first downs. He was thrown four passes on third downs, and he caught each pass and picked up the yardage required. An even more impressive statistic: On passes that weren't thrown to Johnson, Drew Stanton was 13-of-25 for 100 yards with six first downs.
Three Bad Performances
1. Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seattle Seahawks
The game turned on the sack and fumble Hasselbeck took in the end zone, resulting in a defensive touchdown for the Atlanta Falcons. After starting the game with six straight completions, Hasselbeck went 1-of-4 for 5 yards before the fateful sack. Afterward, he had two completions, two incompletions and two consecutive interceptions before being pulled for Charlie Whitehurst, perhaps permanently. Hasselbeck has looked effective at times this year, but he's had a propensity for awful runs of turnovers. Strength of schedule also masks some of the odorous performance, as he ranks behind players like Alex Smith and Stanton in DVOA.
2. Tim Hightower, RB, Arizona Cardinals
As soon as a Cardinals back takes the leading role, he promptly loses it with a terrible game or ill-timed fumble. Against the Panthers and their 27th-ranked run defense, Hightower's six carries produced 16 yards, with just one first down to show for his troubles. He was even worse as a receiver, with two meaningless dump-offs on third down and a fumble inside the 5-yard line. His only saving grace? Beanie Wells was the fourth-worst back of the week. Of course, think about what that says about Arizona's offensive line.
3. Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Wayne should have had a field day against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who allow opposing teams' top receivers an average of 88.5 yards per game. And Wayne is no average receiver. But Wayne's five catches produced just 34 yards. Two first downs in nine targets isn't the sort of day that should call for a trip to the Bounce House. It wasn't as if Wayne was getting thrown bombs, either; he had incompletions that traveled 0, 3 and 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. He also had just 9 yards after the catch.
Three Stunning Performances
1. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Vick's first half was one of his worst halves as a pro, even stretching back to his Falcons days. Facing the league's best pass defense, Vick dropped back 12 times and produced zero first downs. He was intercepted once, took two sacks, and while he picked up two first downs as a runner, gained 24 yards on four carries. Then the second half happened. Vick produced 158 passing DYAR on 26 plays, with three touchdown passes, five first downs and only one sack. He was far more impressive, though, as a runner. His 51.8 DYAR as a runner in the second half would be the fourth-highest total of any player over a whole game this week, and it came on just five carries. He picked up first downs on scrambles of 13, 22, 33 and 35 yards, and added a 4-yard touchdown run on his other carry. While the improvements in Vick's accuracy as a passer have been remarkable and well-documented, it's amazing that Vick has retained so much of his natural speed as a runner. Taking what essentially amounts to three years off from full-time work undoubtedly helps, but Vick is 30 and he still makes other guys on the field look like they're in slow motion.
2. Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay Packers
Flynn's performance was unexpected by most, but it wasn't all that surprising, considering the context of his games over the past two weeks. Although he wasn't able to score points last week against the Lions, he finished a respectable 19th in DYAR without any practice snaps. Given those reps this week, history would dictate his play to improve by about 10 percent. And while the New England Patriots had been tagged as an improving defense because of their play in blowouts over the past three weeks, they still ranked 25th against the pass and had top cornerback Kyle Arrington playing at less than 100 percent. Mike McCarthy simplified his offense for Flynn by giving him simple reads and asking him to make high-percentage throws, especially on third down. In those situations he was 10-of-14 for 145 yards with two touchdowns, six first downs and a pick-six. Weird down split: After picking up a first down on his first second down of the game, he didn't pick up another one on his subsequent 13 second-down attempts.
3. Cedric Benson, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
One of the few people not thrown under the bus by Terrell Owens this past week, Benson was consistently effective against an average Cleveland Browns run defense. Twenty-one of his 31 carries went for 4 yards or more, and he finished the day with a 52 percent success rate. He also picked up both of his third-down attempts.
Bill Barnwell is a writer for Football Outsiders.