To many outsiders, the struggling Kansas City Chiefs are about ready to pack it in. With a 1-4 start to the 2015 season and star running back Jamaal Charles, the unquestioned face of the Kansas City offense, out for the season, many people are of the belief that the entire season is in the tank.
Many of those same critics said the same thing when Adrian Peterson was gone from the Vikings last season. But there were still 15 games left in the season and the Vikings had to finish them off with Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata as the backfield starters.
In the 10 games McKinnon played following the loss of Peterson, he rushed 112 times for 537 yards. In the 14 games he played, Asiata ran 162 times for 560 yards and nine touchdowns. Neither of them were Peterson, but they were prepared for their moment to shine. The only difference was that they knew their role on game days would be much different.
“The only real difference is that you get goosebumps on game day because you know you’re getting your opportunity and your teammates and your coaches are expecting big things from you,” Asiata said. “During the week it’s all the same. You practice like you’re going to start, but when Sunday hits, the adrenaline starts pumping and you have to calm down and do your job.”
McKinnon wasn’t expected to have a big role in the Vikings offense as a converted college quarterback, but was thrust into the limelight without Peterson. It’s a story that has been rewritten over and over again in the NFL. Players preparing as starters get their chance and must make the most of it.
“You can’t really think about it,” McKinnon said. “Everybody uses the motto ‘Next Man Up’ for a reason. If you prepare like you’re a starter the whole time in practice and come to game time focused, you should be good. If you think about it too much, it might mess you up, but you just have to be ready and when the opportunity comes to you, you’ve got to run with it and make the most of it.”
A year later, Kansas City finds itself in the same position. Charles is gone and the role of the featured back is expected to be a combination hybrid of fourth-year pro Knile Davis and second-year player Charcandrick West. Through the first four games, prior to his injury, Charles had 71 carries for 364 yards and five touchdowns. The combination of Davis and West had just 23 carries for 75 yards and one TD.
Now, much like Asiata and McKinnon a year ago, Davis and West have to get the job done in Kansas City. Just as Asiata transformed into the goal line rusher Peterson was and McKinnon took over the role of the big-play back, Davis and West need to find that same middle ground of sharing the role that has been typified by one star player.
“We had to step up last year when we didn’t have Adrian and they’re in that same sort of position now,” Asiata said. “It’s a business and it sucks that a great player like (Charles) is gone for the year, but that’s why you have more than one player at a position. You need to be ready and those guys are fresh and looking at this as their opportunity to showcase what they can do.”
Although many outsiders might think the Chiefs are dead in the water without their star running back, one man’s injury is another man’s opportunity. McKinnon expected that there would be naysayers that he and Asiata could get the job done. While they didn’t have the dynamic explosiveness that Peterson has brought so consistently during his Hall of Fame career, they both had their moments to shine.
He sees no reason why Davis and West can’t combine to put up solid numbers. They may not have the explosive plays that Charles provided with such regularity.
“Jamaal Charles is a great running back – in the top tier of running backs since he’s been in the league,” McKinnon said. “For those guys they have there – Knile Davis and West – this is their opportunity. It’s unfortunate that Charles got hurt, but people get injured in football. It happens. I don’t think it will be a big downgrade.”
Casual fans outside of Kansas City may not know who Davis or West are or what their strengths and weaknesses might be, but Andy Reid has big plans for them and so does Mike Zimmer.
The NFL isn’t a charity. They don’t reserve roster spots for just anybody. You earn your spot on the roster because, at some point or another, nearly all players are asked to play at a high level. Fans may not be overly familiar with either of the backs, but, by Sunday afternoon, a lot of people will know who they are and what they bring to the table.
“Those two backs are really good,” Asiata said. “That’s why they’re in the league. You aren’t in the NFL if you can’t get the job done when your number gets called. If you don’t, they replace you pretty quick. I know Coach Zimmer has a lot of respect for them and he’s going to treat it like it’s Charles back there. I don’t think it will change a thing.”
The stories of gloom and doom coming out of Kansas City are reasonable and rational. You don’t just replace a guy who is well into building a Hall of Fame résumé. There is no telling how many more games the Vikings could have won last year had they had Peterson all season. The same is happening now in Kansas City.
The Chiefs have dug a deep early hole, much like the Vikings did when they started the year 2-5, but they finished out the year with a 5-4 record, setting the groundwork for the future. The same is possible for the Chiefs. They have a pair of young backs looking to prove what they can accomplish and, like it or not, they’re the next best option in Kansas City and, like McKinnon and Asiata, they’re out to carve out their own legacy in the final 11 games of the season.
“You don’t lose a guy like Jamaal Charles or, in our case last year, Adrian and not lose something because they’re just that good,” McKinnon said. “But I don’t think the downgrade will be that much because those guys have flashed what they can do and it’s going to be a challenge for our defense. This is what they’ve waited for and they’re looking to make the most of their opportunity.”