How the Chiefs' undersized running back helped propel Kansas City to the playoffs
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been huge in his five years as a starter but, going into this year’s playoffs, there’s a less-heralded, diminutive player to watch.
On a Monday night game against the Las Vegas Raiders in October, Jerick McKinnon almost looked like Gregory Hines. With left tackle Orlando Brown leading the way, McKinnon danced through the Raiders’ defense, and powered his way to a season-best 30-yard run.
It was an early example of McKinnon’s nimble feet proving, in a sport known for its mammoth gladiators, there’s also room for the little guy.
In his historic second year with the Kansas City Chiefs, the 5-foot-9-inch running back nicknamed “Jet” has turned into one of the Chiefs’ most exciting players. He’s also a big reason the Chiefs finished the regular season with a 14-3 record.
Two months after his dance against Las Vegas, McKinnon’s 26-yard overtime run against the Houston Texans won the game and helped the Chiefs clinch the AFC West for the seventh straight year.
“Jet hit the right spot and showed off the speed that he’s still got. He’s a little old, but he’s got a little speed left and got into the end zone," said quarterback Patrick Mahomes after the game.
“He was a legitimate quarterback in college,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid after a New Year’s Day win over the Denver Broncos. “He knows how the game works as a whole, and he’s patient with that. I think it helps him in the run game.”
McKinnon, 30, played quarterback at Georgia Southern before being converted to a running back as an NFL rookie in 2014.
Now in his ninth year in the NFL, McKinnon has paced all running backs this season with a career-high nine catches for touchdowns — third best in NFL history, and two short of the 1931 record set by Green Bay Hall of Famer John “Blood” McNally.
McKinnon also finished the regular season with touchdown receptions in the last six games, just one short of tying Dwayne Bowe’s 2010 team record for consecutive games with a touchdown.
For context, the shortest players in the NFL stand 5 feet, 7 inches tall. One of them is injured Chiefs teammate Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The other is Arizona wide receiver Greg Dortch.
'But he can absolutely go."
One of McKinnon’s most memorable touchdown receptions this year was a no-look pass thrown by Mahomes in Denver — a flip McKinnon grabbed and ran 56 yards into the end zone.
Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn remembers watching that scamper from Manhattan, Kansas, while preparing for the Sugar Bowl. Like the rest of us, he saw McKinnon turn up the speed.
“I love the way the Chiefs use Jerick McKinnon,” said the 5-foot-6-inch Vaughn, a consensus All-American who followed McKinnon’s career path even before he joined the Chiefs.
“He was somebody that I watched when he was with the Vikings (from 2014-17), when he was with the 49ers (in 2020), just because he’s a guy that was a little bit smaller,” said Vaughn. “But he can absolutely go.”
Vaughn has declared himself eligible for the 2023 NFL Draft. He broke through for an 88-yard touchdown run against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve. It sparked a 10-0 Wildcat lead before the Crimson Tide stormed back and won the game.
McKinnon has patterned his game after another K-State great: Darren Sproles.
McKinnon recalled playing against the 5-foot-6-inch Sproles in 2016, in a Philadelphia-Minnesota matchup.
“It was definitely exciting for me because that’s how I had seen my future, when I came into the league,” McKinnon said. “I definitely looked at him a lot.”
Sproles turned 33 that year, and enjoyed a Pro Bowl selection.
At 30, McKinnon is conscious of taking care of his body. He missed full seasons in 2018 and 2019 because of knee surgeries, and has encountered career-threatening injuries. He accepts it as part of the game.
Nothing made that more clear than watching Damar Hamlin get rushed to a hospital during a Monday night game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals this month.
“Every play out there is like getting in a car wreck,” said McKinnon recently. “It’s physical. There’s grown men out there.”
The NFL said Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during the game, and is now recovering in Buffalo.
That’s why the rest that comes with a bye week is so important — especially in an NFL season longer than any other. As the AFC’s No. 1 seed the Chiefs will only watch the first playoff weekend, not play in them. Then, the next weekend, they play the lowest remaining seed at Arrowhead Stadium.
Last year, his first with the Chiefs, McKinnon started in every playoff game. He’s hoping this year he can play in his first Super Bowl.