This week was unusual for Kareem Hunt. Kansas City won again, the NFL’s most predictable occurrence so far this season, but Hunt didn’t find the end zone, a season first for the Chiefs’ shooting-star running back. Most surprising of all, Hunt didn’t have a play of 50 yards or more like he did in the first three games of the season.
His longest run in Monday’s 29-20 win over Washington was “only” 17 yards. Seven plays later he followed it up with his most important run of the night, a 16-yard jab up the middle that put Kansas City inside Washington’s 20-yard line.
Hunt finished the game with 21 carries, a season high, for 101 yards for a mere 4.8 yards per attempt, his lowest single-game total of the season.
It’s not that the Chiefs didn’t need BIG SEXY HIGHLIGHT plays this week. They did. Every team needs as many 15-second wonder-making moments as possible. Doled out in regular portions, those plays are like powerful drugs that keep fans coming back. Only winning consistently is more addictive.
Hunt played a pivotal role dispensing the Chiefs’ latest win to hungry fans. He might not have snapped off a 50-yard run, but just knowing that he might kept them fixed to the screen. Four games into a fledgling career, Hunt may already be the most exciting player in football.
This year’s draft was awash in good running backs from the big colleges that even NFL fans recognize: Leonard Fournette from LSU, Christian McCaffrey from Stanford, Dalvin Cook from Florida State, etc.
It was hard for a guy from Toledo (that’s in Ohio, FYI) and the MAC conference (the what?) to get much hype in the midst of names like that. According to draft analysts, Hunt wasn’t explosive, he couldn’t shake tacklers, and, in maybe the biggest miss of all, he “could struggle to find chunk runs on next level.”
I could pause here and laugh at the draft industrial complex. Instead, it’s worth pointing out that they were also right about some things. Hunt IS a powerful runner, quick and agile for his size.
He “presses the line before making back-side cuts,” which is exactly what he did on that critical 17-yard run up the middle on Monday night against Washington.
There’s no hesitation at the line. He just barrels toward it then zags to his right so perfectly that there should be a 1960s sci-fi computer sound to accompany it. ZWOOOOOOOOOOP!
The balance is also there. When he gets hit, he bends to where he needs to go. It’s not so much that he stays on his tracks like a Marshawn Lynch-style runaway freight train. He just stays upright and keeps moving, and it shows up on the stat sheet as missed tackles and yards after contact, two more things Hunt has a lot of this season.
Kareem Hunt forced 9 missed tackles, tied for most among RBs in Week 4 pic.twitter.com/MCnjm5qUPM— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 3, 2017
The Chiefs had Hunt high on their board, and saw the chance to take him with a quick trade up in the third round.
"You see the same qualities you saw in college," head coach Andy Reid said recently. "He can do a lot of things for you. He can catch, he can block in pass protection, he can run inside or outside, you can flex him out."
“Do-it-all” back is another one of those springtime scouting cliches. Sometimes the cliche fits. Hunt has become the centerpiece of the Chiefs’ offense, the player through which all things flow.
As Geoff Schwartz pointed out in his most recent Xs and Os video, the Chiefs have the most diverse rushing offense in the league because of Hunt. They can incorporate a variety of formations, motions, and zone read concepts that keep defenses off balance.
Even when Hunt isn’t getting the ball in his hands, his mere presence on the field puts a defense on its heels. You saw this on Alex Smith’s one-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter Monday.
The defense converged on Hunt coming straight out of the backfield. Smith swerved to his left through an inviting gap to score.
Go back to the Chiefs’ second-to-last drive of the game, the one with Hunt’s 17- and 16-yard runs. The “do-it-all” back touched the ball seven times on 14 plays — six runs for 41 yards and one catch for 10 — to chew up more than eight minutes of precious clock time.
Hunt’s on a record pace. At this rate, with 502 rushing yards and 157 receiving yards through four games, he would finish the season with 2,636 yards and break the record for yards from scrimmage in a season. He’s also on pace to be the NFL’s next 2,000-yard rusher, a rare enough feat by itself that would shatter Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record.
That begs the question about his workload. And I have some good news for you.
Only seven running backs since 2001 have picked up more than 500 rushing yards through their first four games. Hunt has managed to do it on just 68 carries, an average of 17 per game. The other six players needed far more carries to reach that mark. Prior to Hunt, the fewest attempts of any player on that list was Arian Foster, who needed 86 attempts to get 539 yards through his first four games in 2010.
Of all the running backs with at least 600 yards from scrimmage in their first four games of a season, Hunt’s 84 touches are the second fewest ever (only Essex Johnson had less with 73 in 1973).
Hunt’s usage rate may not continue throughout the season. For now, it at least suggests that Hunt won’t be overworked and slowed down next year because of a hefty rookie workload, a la Ezekiel Elliott.
The biggest question now is whether Hunt can keep up production.
Hunt’s pace would be tough to sustain even if the schedule wasn’t conspiring against him. The Chiefs still have yet to face some of the league’s toughest defenses on the schedule — the Texans this week, the Steelers a week later, the Bills in Week 12, and two intra-divisional feuds with the Broncos are still to come.
But that doesn’t matter. I’m just anxious to watch him every week, checking off lesser milestones as he flirts with history.
Every effortless cut at the line is a thrill to see. I don’t need a dazzling highlight every week to keep watching. Just knowing that there’s a good chance to see him rumble 50 yards to the end zone or take a shovel pass from the flat to the promised land will keep me coming back.