An economy of effort paid off for rookie running back Kareem Hunt on Sunday in the Chiefs’ 27-24 victory over the Denver Broncos.
Entering the game in second place among the NFL’s rushing leaders, Hunt needed just 13 yards to match the L.A. Rams’ Todd Gurley. Plus, Hunt was one yard ahead of the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell.
Under normal circumstances, this would have been a tight race to the finish.
But Gurley and Bell sat out of their respective teams’ season finales. Hunt did, too, after touching the ball one time and turning that carry into a 35-yard touchdown run on the opening series of the game.
So the top NFL rushers for 2017 will forever read:
Hunt 1,327, Gurley 1,305, Bell 1,291.
“I had to be ready,” Hunt said. “We were low on numbers today.”
After his touchdown, Hunt was through for the day. The Chiefs entered the game with their playoff position secured (later Sunday, they learned that they’ll play host to the Tennessee Titans in a Saturday wild-card game at Arrowhead Stadium). No defensive regulars started and only a handful on offense played.
But the Chiefs were thin at running back. Charcandrick West likely would have received the lion’s share of the carries on Sunday but he didn’t make the trip because of the flu.
The Chiefs were down to Akeem Hunt and Anthony Sherman, who is usually a fullback.
“Akeem and Sherm were the only guys there,” Hunt said. “I had to dress and have their back.”
Hunt did that, but part of him wanted the record. He and coach Andy Reid talked about Hunt’s playing time during the week.
“He wanted to do this thing,” Reid said. “I fought him a little bit on it, (but) he won that fight and told me he’d get it taken care of quick. He did that, so my hat goes off to him.”
On the touchdown, Hunt wiggled through traffic at the line and outraced Broncos defenders to the end zone for his eighth rushing touchdown of the season.
Hunt’s season started and ended with milestones.
In the Chiefs’ opening-game victory at New England, he accounted for 148 total yards, the most in an NFL debut.
He continued soar, with more than 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the first seven games. But he, like the Chiefs in general, cooled off. During one stretch, Hunt went nine games without a touchdown.
But after the Chiefs had fallen to 7-6, the team and Hunt reengaged. In his final four games, Hunt rushed for 397 yards and a touchdown in each game.
“We stuck together and played as a team,” Hunt said. “We’re all connected now; everybody is playing as one.”
Hunt became the third Chiefs player to lead the NFL in rushing, joining Priest Holmes (2001) and Christian Okoye (1989).
He also became the sixth rookie in the Super Bowl era to top the rushing chart, following the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott (2016), the Colts’ Edgerrin James (1999), the Rams’ Eric Dickerson (1983), George Rogers of the Saints (1981) and the Oilers’ Earl Campbell (1978).
On top of all that, Hunt, a third-round NFL Draft selection from Toledo, became the first player not drafted in the first round to lead the league in rushing since 1967.