Before he broke NFL records in the first month of the season, before his professional debut turned him into a nationally trending topic on social media and before he even earned a starting job, Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt was relegated to a special-teams role in a preseason opener.
Even then, he managed to make standout plays — scooping up a blocked punt in one sequence and demolishing a punt returner in another. Within weeks, he took over as the No. 1 running back, then scored three times in the regular season opener and six touchdowns in the first three weeks of the year.
But for as unique as his rapid rise to prominence has been, Hunt has recently experienced something much more typical for NFL rookies.
Hunt managed only 83 rushing yards on 31 carries over his past two outings. Is it just a small blip in a rookie of the year candidacy, or have NFL teams adjusted to him and the Chiefs’ running game?
“It ain’t like there’s a magical potion,” Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bieniemy said on slowing Hunt, later adding, “It’s not so much that teams have adjusted to him. This is the NFL.
“I mean, hell, give it up to them. The Dallas Cowboys played pretty good damn defense (Sunday). They did a great of shutting us down. But at the end of the day, it’s not about what they do — it’s how will we do a better job of executing our scheme.”
The execution is a broad topic that extends well beyond Hunt. Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Monday the offensive line needs to play better, to mimic its early-season cohesion now that it has returned to full health.
But the statistics reside by the man who occupies the top of the running back depth chart. Hunt has gone six straight weeks without a touchdown. His first three games included scores of 50-plus yards.
The plays sending Hunt into the second level of the defense have slowed. As the Chiefs enter their bye week, assistant head coach Brad Childress mentioned that among the most critical topics of conversation.
“We know that our runner, when he gets on that second level, is gonna wreak havoc,” Childress said. “Whether that’s with a check down in the pass game or whether it’s on a run you’re handing to him from the shotgun or the I (formation).”
Hunt totaled at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first seven NFL games. A dip in production was to be expected at some point.
And it’s only lasted two weeks. But with a week off to reassess the formula, Childress and Bieniemy separately stressed the need to keep it short-lived.
Hunt received only 13 touches in the loss to Dallas on Sunday, prompting Reid to field questions a day later about how his rookie running back is holding up. (“He’s good,” Reid responded.)
It’s an interesting topic. In four college seasons at Toledo, Hunt never suited up for more than 13 games, rushing 262 times for 1,475 yards his senior year. The Chiefs have played 13 games already this year, including the four in the preseason, and Hunt has carried the ball 173 times for 879 yards. Seven games remain on the regular-season schedule.
“Technically, his season (would have) ended,” Bieniemy said. “But … I think each and every rookie is a different individual. Kareem is a very mature young man. He’s done a great job of taking care of his body.”
It’s the other part of the game — the mental component — that the Chiefs hope to control over the next few days. Before the players departed for the bye week, Bieniemy said he instructed each of the running backs to do light conditioning to keep themselves in football shape.
Then he told them to take an intellectual break from the game.
“I think just like with anybody, the bye week at this particular time in the season comes at the right time,” Bieniemy said. “Mentally, (Hunt) gets to get away.
“But I know one thing — he’ll be itching to get back into form and ready to go next week.”