From his position in the backfield next to quarterback Alex Smith in the shotgun, Chiefs running back Joe McKnight saw the snap of the ball and sprinted at a diagonal angle toward Miami defensive end Cameron Wake.
From there, McKnight — who has several years of experience in the West Coast system now and is very comfortable operating as a receiving threat out of the backfield — knew exactly what to do.
“It was just reacting off his movement,” McKnight said. “He played me outside. I just came inside, and I was wide open.”
Smith put a quick pass on the money. And when McKnight trotted into the end zone for a 11-yard score Sunday, he not only showed everybody how to run a picture-perfect angle route — a staple for running backs in the West Coast Offense — he also scored the first offensive touchdown of his four-year career.
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“(It took) four years, and (I was) off a whole year,” said McKnight, 26. “It was something emotional I just have to keep bottled in.”
Based on his performance on Sunday, in which he showed off his versatility by catching six passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns on seven targets and returning three kicks for 65 yards, it’s certainly hard to envision McKnight sitting at home all of last season.
But that’s exactly what he did, as he missed the entire 2013 campaign after he was cut by the New York Jets following a turbulent summer that included two failed conditioning tests, an arrest for unpaid traffic violations, head injuries and some questionable posts on Twitter.
But when McKnight decided to sign with the Chiefs in January — they wanted him to compete with last year’s No. 3 back, Cyrus Gray — it wasn’t just because he was eager to work again. He also knew that if anybody could help him jump-start his career, it was Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who loves to feature versatile backs in his West Coast offense.
“I saw his team a lot when I was in New York,” McKnight said.
Surprisingly, McKnight said he did not know he would be a big part of the gameplan on Sunday. But after the way he ended up performing in his first extended action with the Chiefs — he did not log any offensive snaps during their 0-2 start — it didn’t take long for someone to ask Reid after the game what took so long to get McKnight involved on offense.
“Yeah, it looked that way,” Reid said with a chuckle. “He sure did a nice job … we have all these running backs. It’s hard to dress all of them.”
With starter Jamaal Charles out with a high-ankle sprain and versatile dynamo De’Anthony Thomas also out with a sore hamstring, Reid made sure McKnight was active Sunday. The Chiefs have been intrigued by McKnight’s skill-set, which he’s shown off in flashes, even dating back to his college days at Southern California, which also ran the West Coast offense.
“He can run the football from the backfield; he can catch the football; he’s a good returner,” Reid said. “He gives you a lot of options when he’s back there … or flexed out. You got to see it today.
“That’s why we kept him.”
But while McKnight is confident in his ability, he admits he was a bit nervous on the final cut-down day of the preseason. After all, who keeps five running backs on the 53-man roster, and six total counting practice-squad back Charcandrick West?
“Of course, of course,” McKnight said. “I mean, you’ve got six running backs, and all six can play ball. It was (a) nervous (moment for me), but I got the call saying they were gonna keep me, and I’m happy.”
McKnight said that the Chiefs told him to get his knee right — he was battling a knee injury from the outset of training camp — and to keep working hard.
It all paid off for him on Sunday, when his second touchdown reception, in which he motioned out of the backfield, ran a flat route and scored from 4-yards out, was just icing on the cake.
“They put me in the best situation to make plays,” McKnight said. “I just had to do my end and just make the play.”
McKnight, however, was was quick to deflect attention away from himself. He mentioned that the offensive line played a role in the Chiefs’ success and added that fellow running backs Knile Davis and Gray also ran the ball hard.
But after everything McKnight has been through over the past year or so, at the end of the day, his teammates, including the primary player he was competing against in camp, were happy for him.
“Joe is talented, man,” said Gray, who scored a rushing touchdown of his own Sunday. “It’s rare you find a guy like him who can return the ball, run the ball and also catch the ball out the backfield. It’s going to be a good year for him.”
McKnight’s coach, the man he was so excited to play for back in January, was happy for him, too.
“I told him somewhere (after) one of the touchdowns, ‘You’re back — you’re back now,’” Reid said. “So I’m proud for him for working so hard to do that and not losing trust in himself.”
But no one was happier for McKnight than McKnight was himself. After a year away from the game, he knows what it’s like to be without it. And he couldn’t be more pleased to be back in the mix with the Chiefs.
“I didn’t really think I was even going to be back (after) how things went in New York,” McKnight said. “I’m happy to be back. I’m happy to have coaches that believe in me. I’m happy to have a team that’s going to back me up, no matter what.”