The Chiefs wasted no time getting running back Kareem Hunt acclimated to NFL action, handing him the ball on the team’s first offensive snap.
It ended in disaster, a fumble that was recovered by the Patriots.
Hunt trotted dejectedly to the sideline, where offensive coordinator Matt Nagy intercepted him and offered encouragement. The message was clear: Forget about the miscue.
Hunt continued as if the error didn’t occur and the rookie from Toledo turned in a remarkable performance for the Chiefs, who stunned the Patriots 42-27 on Thursday night.
The totals for Hunt: 148 rushing yards on 17 carries, five receptions for 98 yards. He scored three touchdowns, two on Alex Smith passes and one rushing.
Hunt became the third player in NFL history to amass three touchdowns and at least 150 yards from scrimmage in a debut, and his 246 total yards is an NFL record for a player in his first game.
And he fumbled on his first attempt.
“It was a lot of learning, I had some ups and downs,” Hunt said. “I had to keep fighting through it. I couldn’t get down on myself. I had to keep making plays.”
Making plays is what Hunt did. All night.
Two touchdown receptions, the second a 78-yard bomb from Alex Smith that gave the Chiefs a one-point lead early early in the fourth quarter, was the biggest.
Hunt slipped behind the linebackers in the middle of the field and hauled in a beautifully thrown ball from Smith. Hunt raced the final 40 yards to the end zone.
“Once Alex threw a great ball over the middle I knew I had to go to get it,” Hunt said.
“When I caught it, there was no looking back. I knew I had to score. We needed seven.”
Long before then, Hunt had erased the memory of his early gaffe. By the end of the first half, Hunt had his first touchdown, a nice leap and adjustment of a Smith pass from the 3. Hunt started on Smith’s right, slid across the field and made the grab before reaching the end zone.
Hunt also scored a 4-yard rushing TD in the fourth quarter.
The first touchdown, with 13 seconds remaining in the second, quarter capped a 92-yard drive and cut the Chiefs halftime deficit to 17-14.
The game looked like a New England blowout early. The Patriots took the opening kickoff and drove for a touchdown.
The Chiefs’ offense took the field with Hunt, the team’s only rookie starter who climbed the depth chart during training camp and the preseason.
When starter Spencer Ware suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game, Hunt took over the position.
The Chiefs running back situation for Thursday became more squeezed when they released C.J. Spiller before the game. The move left the team with Hunt and Charcandrick West as the team’s only running backs for this game.
But the Chiefs got creative. On one play, tight end Travis Kelce lined up at running back, took the direct snap and scooted 4 yards after faking an option pitch.
At other points, wide receivers De’Anthony Thomas and Tyreek Hill took snaps at running back as Chiefs coach Andy Reid offered several different looks.
But Hunt proved he could carry the load, running hard all evening, and holding on to the ball after the first play.
The fumble was stunning. He never lost a fumble in four years at Toledo, in 856 attempts. There was one fumble but he recovered it.
But the Chiefs didn’t lose faith. On the first play of the next series, Hunt got the ball.
“It showed me they believed in me, they weren’t going to give up on me and put me on the bench,” Hunt said. “Honestly it helped me out.”
On this occasion, the Chiefs defense bailed out Hunt. The Patriots appeared to take a two-touchdown lead on a Tom Brady pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski, but a replay showed the ball hit the turf and the call was reversed.
On a fourth-and-1 from the 10, Patriots running back Mike Gillisee was taken down by Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who had snaked through the traffic in the middle, for no gain.
Hunt’s turnover didn’t cost the Chiefs. His touchdowns — Hunt had one receiving touchdown in his college career — got them back in the game and later pushed the Chiefs into the lead. And his play throughout the contest, especially coming back from the worst start possible, was one of the game’s most positive developments for the Chiefs.
Smith marveled at the effort.
“You’ve got to be able to have that ‘it’ about you, that the stage isn’t too big,” Smith said.
“Man, to start on your first carry and have it go like that, it would be hard to overcome for a lot of guys. I thought it was awesome (Reid) coming right back to him.”
Hunt rewarded the faith with a memorable performance.