After he was abruptly cut by the New York Jets last August, running back Joe McKnight had way more time on his hands than he cared for last fall.
He says he mainly worked out and waited for the phone to ring. To McKnight, a Southern Cal star once billed as the next Reggie Bush, sitting out an entire season in his prime was unimaginable.
“I didn’t watch football, I can tell you that,” McKnight, 26, said with a chuckle. “I missed it that much.”
It also stung. Sitting out meant 32 teams passed on his services.
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“It was just an eye-opening moment for me,” he said. “That was my first time ever being cut from anything.”
McKnight was ranked the No. 2 high school recruit in the country by Rivals.com in 2007, and was touted as a Bush clone thanks to his ability as a runner, receiver and kick returner.
And while he never fully escaped Bush’s shadow during his three-year run with the Trojans, McKnight did well enough to be drafted in the fourth round by the New York Jets in 2010, where he spent the next three seasons as a backup tailback and explosive returner.
His tenure in the Big Apple, however, was anything but smooth sailing.
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McKnight was cut by the Jets before last season following a turbulent summer that included two failed conditioning tests, an arrest for unpaid traffic violations, head injuries and some questionable posts on Twitter.
He pondered all that during his time away but has no interest in rehashing the past.
“I can’t even go back into it,” McKnight said with a shrug. “Yeah, it was me. I’m gonna just leave it as that. Because I don’t want to get into that he-said, she-said (stuff) with the people back there in New York.
But the time off, McKnight says, did teach him how to “handle his business.” He says he worked out practically every day, including Sundays.
“I failed two conditioning tests, so I couldn’t afford to be sitting on my (butt) anymore,” McKnight said. “I had to get out there and do something.”
Now the Chiefs hope McKnight can do the same on the field, though he has to make the team first.
They brought in McKnight to battle Cyrus Gray for the fourth running back spot on the 53-man roster, in part because of McKnight’s relationship with running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, who tried to recruit him in college.
“Really we felt strong about bringing him here,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said in the spring. “John (Dorsey, the Chiefs’ general manager) was all onboard with it … whatever happened, happened.
“We did our homework on it. We felt good bringing him here.”
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Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said McKnight’s receiving skills also were part of what made him an intriguing pickup this offseason, when the Chiefs signed him to a low-risk reserve-futures contract in January.
“It was really attractive,” Pederson said. “You go back and look at his tape when he was with New York, that’s how they used him — in and out of the backfield. He’s a tremendous route runner, he’s got soft hands, much like Jamaal (Charles) in that way.”
The distance between McKnight and Gray from a receiving standpoint isn’t that different though, at least on paper. Gray caught 103 passes for 776 yards and six touchdowns during four years at Texas A&M, while McKnight caught 66 passes for 542 yards and two touchdowns in three years at Southern Cal.
McKnight has the slight edge on the professional level, however. He’s caught 17 passes for 177 yards in three years, while Gray has caught nine passes for 64 yards in two years.
Pederson again cited McKnight’s versatility as a nice fit.
“He’s exciting — put a guy like that in space, you never know what can happen,” Pederson said. “You take a guy like Joe and put him in there, with the versatility, you just won’t miss a beat, whether it’s him or (Jamaal), De’Anthony (Thomas), Knile (Davis), you’re just not going to miss a beat.”
One could argue the area where Gray clearly has the advantage over McKnight is special teams, and that’s saying a lot, because McKnight’s 31.6-yard kickoff return average in 2011 was the NFL’s best over the last 25 years, while his career career kick-return average of 29.0 is the third-best in NFL history and the highest among all active players.
But Gray is the captain of Dave Toub’s special-teams units and serves in several key roles on kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns.
Toub said the Chiefs are still carving out McKnight’s roles.
“We’ve experimented at personal protector, (he’s) played a little bit of gunner, played corner on punt returns,” Toub said. “We’re looking at him for a lot of different things.”
McKnight seemed to be pulling away from Gray during organized team activities in June but had knee problems late in camp. He had his knee drained and sat out the first few weeks of training camp.
“I was on a good track during OTAs,” McKnight said. “Surgery set me back a little bit, but right now I just have to focus on moving forward and getting back to where I was.”
There are signs McKnight is getting there.
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McKnight made his first preseason appearance in the Chiefs’ 30-12 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday, logging 10 offensive snaps and four special-teams snaps. He rushed twice for 8 yards and also had one catch for 5 yards.
He could be primed for more work in the preseason finale Thursday at Green Bay, as most of the Chiefs’ starters will likely sit out.
“For any player that misses time in camp, you kind of lose your legs a little bit, then you’ve got to get your football shape back, and that’s where he’s at,” Pederson said. “He’s right there now, primed and ready to go, and again, this will be an important week for him.”
McKnight got a little run with the starters in the first half Saturday, just like Gray, and could help avoid the possibility of a repeat of last fall’s cut with a strong performance.
“I missed the first two weeks of camp, so what they went through the first two weeks, I’m going through right now,” McKnight said. “I’m just fighting through that.
“Once I get my legs back under me and everything, I should be fine.”