Roundtable: Charles Back in Charge?

In this edition of Warpaint Illustrated's Roundtable, we talk about the re-emergence of running back Jamaal Charles, the return and impact of Dexter McCluster, and what's been the one factor why the Chiefs are where they are in the standings.

Thomas Jones seems to be slowing down over the last few weeks. Is he starting to wear down? Is this going to hurt our running game going forward?

Nick Athan: The plan all along by Charlie Weis was to use Thomas Jones early and often through the first half of the year. The Chiefs never felt that Jamaal Charles could take a pounding over 16 games. So to be honest, Jones has been taking some of those hits, and that's going to benefit the Chiefs in the long run.

It's clear that Jones isn't washed up. But it's also easy to see that he's not exploding through the holes like he did the first half of the season. Weis loves the veteran back, but that aside, he knows the key to the Chiefs rushing attack lies on the feet of Charles. But it's good to see that Charles, already over 1,000 yards rushing this season, has benefited from Jones' willingness to do whatever it takes to help this team win.

And lastly, don't underestimate the importance of Jones on this roster. He was the only player in the offseason workouts that said the players' goal to win the AFC West wasn't high enough. Jones preached winning a championship. He clearly saw something, because at the moment that's not out of the realm of possibility.

Conor Crawford: I wouldn't be too worried about this. The guy is a seasoned veteran and, thankfully, the Chiefs have Charles to help take the load off Jones every once in a while. If Jones were the only option the Chiefs had at running back, it would be a cause for concern. He's definitely not falling down to a "Larry Johnson level" of setback and disappointment, but he should be just fine.

The offense is starting to open up more and allowing Matt Cassel to throw to his receivers – mainly Dwayne Bowe – so that can give Jones the chance to take a breather. After all, the running game was the main focus in the first half of the year.

C.E. Wendler: Jones is definitely showing the signs of a long season and his age, but I think it's only compounding other issues. While he's been effective at making the most out of the holes that have opened up in front of him this year, I don't think Jones has been all that great when he gets in open space or when he's one-on-one with a defender. In Seattle, Jones looked terribly ineffective until Seattle's defense was sucking wind in the fourth quarter. At this point, you'd like to see Jackie Battle get a few carries here and there. The Chiefs lead the league in rushing, but they can't play the NFC West every week. They're going to need players who can win one-on-one matchups down the stretch and Jones, at 32, doesn't appear to be a player who's frightening many defensive coordinators these days.

Josh Scotten: Jones appears to be getting worse when showcased next Jamaal Charles, but his production has not slipped a bit when looking at the season as a whole. Jones is hovering around 65 yards rushing per game, which is actually slightly above his career average.

Jones has never been a flashy back, which is part of the reason he was a free agent this past offseason. But Jones has hit the 1000 yard mark each of the past five seasons and is on pace to do the same with the Chiefs.

My only problem with Jones is that the Chiefs coaching staff continually tries to push him as the starting running back, which is obviously no fault of his own, but this whole charade to showcase Charles as no more than a backup is a joke. Charles is the man and if the Chiefs don't want to pay him they should trade him while his stock is high.

Michael Ash: I wouldn't say Jones has been slowing down "for weeks". He clearly had a bad game against Seattle, which looked even worse by the way Charles dominated. But Jones had a solid game against Arizona just the week before, averaging nearly 5 yards a carry.

Unless his performance in the Seattle game becomes a pattern, it could just be a case of a guy having a bad day. It happens. But even if he is wearing down, I don't see it hurting the running game because a less-effective Jones will mean more of Charles. I said a few weeks ago that I didn't think Charles was 100% healthy, and he seemed to verify that after this week's game, saying his body was "starting to feel good". He's running like it too, looking a lot more physical than he did 4-6 weeks ago.

Maybe it's time we give Haley and Weis some credit, because if Charles had some nagging issues and is feeling better now, then they handled the situation perfectly. A healthy Charles is going to be huge for the Chiefs down the stretch. I expect him to have a big game against Denver on Sunday. And as long as he stays healthy, I think the running game will be just fine – maybe even better than before.

We've seen several areas improve throughout the season – quarterback, receiver, offensive line, etc. – but the special teams seem to be regressing. Why do you think that is?

Nick Athan: This team needs Dexter McCluster back on the field. Javier Arenas isn't 100% and likely won't be until sometime in March. They need fresh legs in the return game. Arenas has lost a bit of speed and the fact he's spending so much time on defense could be the overriding factor as he hasn't had a decent return in two months.

With his defensive duties on the rise, cornerback Javier Arenas needs a break on special teams.
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I think the Chiefs coverage units are fine. Dustin Colquitt and Ryan Succop are solid. So I'm guessing part of the problem is the fact that the men in front of Arenas or McCluster are changing rapidly. With injuries mounting, the Chiefs have had to make so many changes that it's been hard to gain any consistency in the return element of their attack. When Dante Hall was the talk of the NFL a while back, he had the same four wedge guys creating open space. That's something that's not taking place right now.

Conor Crawford: Dexter McCluster's absence is a huge factor. His 94-yard kick return for a touchdown against San Diego set the bar high for the Chiefs' special teams, especially since it came in the first game of the year. Once he returns, he probably won't return another one for a touchdown, but it will take a load off of Javier Arenas.

What helped the special teams early in the year was having both McCluster and Arenas back deep to return kicks, and it seemed to confuse opponents at times. Once he returns, I think the special teams won't necessarily have a surprising resurgence, but they could very well be stable enough to help the rest of the team succeed.

C.E. Wendler: One, I think the Chiefs expected Dexter McCluster to split return duties with Javier Arenas, who has had to play a ton of nickel corner in addition to returning punts and kickoffs. No easy task for a rookie. The Chiefs relieved Arenas with Verran Tucker on kickoffs last week, and get McCluster back this week, so we may see the return game improve.

Other than the return game, it's hard to not be pleased with the Chiefs' special teams. Their coverage units have been good all year, apart from a few mishaps when Ryan Succop has intentionally short-kicked the ball.

Josh Scotten: Nothing this season has been more disappointing than the special teams play. For a unit that is stacked with talent, they have done nothing but regress since week one. I know McCluster has been inactive for several weeks now, but Javier Arenas is just not producing like he did at Alabama.

In his defense, the Chiefs have been steadily increasing his role in the secondary, which is probably a lot of the reason you saw Verran Tucker in the return game last week. Considering how much the offense has missed McCluster, I would expect to see more of the same.

But excuses don't last long in this league and if this unit continues to struggle or remains ineffective, special teams coordinator Steve Hoffman will be the one to pay the price. Considering the Chiefs have a plethora of former starters now running with the special teams, it may be a far assessment.

Michael Ash: I think the idea of a decline in special teams is based more in perception than reality. After the first game of the season, there were a ton of people convinced that we had an elite special teams unit, specifically in the return game. I'm as guilty of it as anyone.

But we should have known better than to make judgments based on a single game. And as we came to find out, the Chargers' special teams were horrendous early in the season, so they made ours look a lot better than they actually were.

If you don't let that first game distort your expectations, the special teams have been pretty solid. They haven't broken any touchdowns in the return game since Week 1, but there have been some nice returns here and there. And if not for a highly-questionable penalty, Arenas would have had a return touchdown against Oakland a few weeks ago.

In coverage, they gave up the one touchdown return against the Raiders, but things have been pretty good otherwise. It'll get even better when they stop trying those mortar kicks that they only manage to cover about 50% of the time.

What's the single biggest reason for the Chiefs' turnaround this season? Better coaching from Haley and staff? Better personnel decisions? Better play on the field? An easy schedule? Or is it a combination of factors?

Nick Athan: I'll say yes to everything other than the schedule aspect. There are no easy games in the NFL anymore. Parity reigns supreme. We've seen the likes of the New England Patriots, maybe the best team in the NFL, lose a game at Cleveland and last weekend the road woes of the St. Louis Rams ended when they beat Denver.

With the exception of the Chris Chambers signing, Scott Pioli has come up aces this season.
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Yes, there are better examples, but the Chiefs are a good team because they do have better coaching led by Todd Haley, who will win NFL Coach of the Year honors. And you can't argue with Scott Pioli's draft class nor the veteran additions he made in the offseason.

But ultimately the Chiefs are simply playing good football because they're gaining confidence in each other. They're evolving and right now they're in a position to take this organization to the next level. But let me temper my enthusiasm by saying that the Chiefs still need to prove they are on the verge of changing their long-term losing ways. We'll find out over the next two weeks.

Conor Crawford: More than anything, I believe this year's rookie class has done wonders for this team and is key to the team's turnaround. The Chiefs' brass did extremely well in choosing this draft class and picking not only what Todd Haley calls guys who fit into "the right 53", but also rookies who look like they've been in the league for years now.

Without Tony Moeaki, I don't think Matt Cassel would be as comfortable in the passing game, and also Kendrick Lewis has just about outshined his rookie counterpart Eric Berry for the past few weeks. Berry is a great addition to the team as well, and he will surely blossom as the years pass, but Lewis is definitely making up for Berry's growing pains.

Lastly, Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas have given the Chiefs the perfect option for kick return specialists now that Jamaal Charles is back to being a traditional running back option. McCluster gives the Chiefs the perfect option at slot receiver and running back, something this franchise hasn't had in a quite a long time. Meanwhile, when McCluster was out with his leg injury Arenas demonstrated just how flexible he is in the Chiefs' game plans, going in on special teams, defense, and even offense.

C.E. Wendler: It's everything. The Chiefs had a solid draft, nailed their coaching additions, got improvements from established players and have enjoyed a creampuff schedule. It's really been the perfect storm and that's why you have some people - like yours truly - questioning just how much progress the Chiefs have made. I still don't believe the Chiefs are a legit playoff team (the harsh term for that is "frauds") and next year's schedule looks difficult.

If the Chiefs don't finish 11-5 this will be a disappointing season considering the early signs of progress. Kansas City is improved, but is the turnaround for real? Barring an impressive playoff showing, that question still lingers in my mind. That's not being negative for the sake of being negative; it's a concerned fan showing reluctance to get his hopes up too high.

Josh Scotten: It all starts at the top with Scott Pioli. Besides a handful of moves, every decision this guy has made in 2010 has for the most part been golden. Last year that wasn't the case. Because the Tyson Jackson pick is looking worse by the week and giving Chris Chambers a hefty contract extension in hindsight is looking like a mistake. But Pioli has given this team a new identity from the one King Carl left him with.

I also don't think you can overestimate the impact of that this year's draft class has had. Every single player selected has had a significant impact on the field, with the one exception being Cameron Sheffield, who if it had not been for an injured neck would probably be helping the Chiefs pass rush.

And that's not to sell the job of these coaches short. This coaching staff deserves the league MVP award for the job they have done this year. Haley, Weis, and Crennel have by far been the NFL's best coaches, and one if not all should be recognized during the offseason for their efforts. The way I see it, Haley is the definitive frontrunner for Coach of the Year.

Michael Ash: It's definitely a combination of all those factors. But if I had to isolate one particular reason, it's the schedule. It was well-known going into the season that the Chiefs had a soft schedule this year. A quarter of their games come against the NFC West, the absolute worst division in football.

It's not the Chiefs' fault. They don't make the schedule, so they can only play the teams that are put in front of them. And in the long run, a soft schedule is probably to the Chiefs' benefit. It's important for a young team that hasn't tasted much success in recent years to start learning how to win.

But ultimately, the idea of a "turnaround" is based on their amount of wins. If the Chiefs had been matched up with the NFC South this season, and played Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa instead of Seattle, Arizona, and San Francisco, does anyone think they'd still be 7-4 right now?

Dexter McCluster was listed as a full participant at practice last week, but at the last minute the Chiefs decided to keep him out of the game. What do you think the chances are that they're being cautious because they want to utilize him heavily in the big game against the Chargers? I think a big dose of Dexter would add a whole new wrinkle to the offense that San Diego wouldn't really be able to prepare for.

Nick Athan: Best we can guess is that he battled a case of the flu. That's what we've been hearing, but it also could be that Haley knew McCluster wasn't needed Sunday. That's not to say he took Seattle lightly. But let's face it: with Denver heading to Arrowhead this weekend and the Chargers clash a week later, McCluster needs to be 100%.

The return of Run DMC should bolster the Chiefs special teams and their suddenly high-flying offensive attack.
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I really think the decision to keep him out had a lot to do with what Charlie Weis has been planning for this two-game stretch. The Chiefs offense has evolved into an elite unit. Adding McCluster, and more importantly not knowing how they'll use him when he's healthy, is something that should concern Denver and San Diego.

Conor Crawford: The Chiefs need to be very cautious with McCluster because he is the prized possession of all the rookies. They don't want his season or even career cut short because of the possibility of overusing him, but they surely know how crucial he is to the team's future successes.

I like to compare McCluster to a nice sports car. He's fast, your prized possession, and you don't want anybody wrecking it, no matter how fun it is to drive.

C.E. Wendler: McCluster will play against the Broncos by all reports. How effective he is remains to be seen. The myth of Dexter McCluster is that he's already a dynamic playmaker who keeps opposing offensive coordinators up nights.

It's clear he has some ability. But he's done far too little to really be regarded as a major threat just yet. He's certainly an All-Pro T-shirt marketer, however.

Josh Scotten: There is no question that K.C. needs McCluster down the stretch if they have any aspirations for postseason play. But this notion that the Chiefs are "saving" McCluster for later is ridiculous. The Chiefs need him now and saving him as a secret weapon will do no good if we can't get some points up on Denver and at St. Louis. But that's not to say we can't have our cake and eat it too.

Weis and Haley are some of the best offensive minds in football. They could utilize McCluster the next two weeks and throw a completely different wrinkle at Denver in two weeks. If the running game and the Cassel/Bowe connection keep up their current pace, it won't matter what San Diego has seen. They simply won't have enough defenders to cover McCluster, Charles, Bowe, Moeaki, Tucker, and the newly found legs of Matt "speed demon" Cassel.

Michael Ash: I like the idea of surprising the Chargers with a new wrinkle, as I'll take an edge wherever I can get it. But I don't think the team being cautious with McCluster has anything to do with San Diego. I think they're being cautious just to be cautious. High ankle sprains are nasty and can take a long time to heal. I'm sure they don't want to risk bringing him back too soon.

If they have some top secret offensive package with Dexter that they plan to unleash on San Diego, they don't need to hold him out of games. All they have to do is keep using him like they were before he got hurt, which the Chargers already have film of. Then when they go to San Diego, break out the new plays and formations that nobody has seen.

To this point, though, the hype around McCluster isn't matching up with his production. In six games, the guy barely has 200 yards from scrimmage on offense, which translates to about 34 yards per outing. And the fault there lies with a coaching staff that hardly utilized him in the first half of the season. So while the idea of "unleashing Dexter" sounds good in theory, they weren't using him enough in the offense before his injury to make me think that's anywhere in their plans.

Plus, there may be something to be said for the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theory. The Chiefs offense has been rolling the last few weeks. Any significant changes, like a sudden focus on a complimentary player who's been out of action for over a month, could disrupt their rhythm.

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