Jason Avant was in the middle of a dig route when he locked eyes with Alex Smith, who was rolling to the right.
This was Dec. 7, the third quarter of the Chiefs’ 17-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and what happened next — a midplay adjustment that led to what was then the Chiefs’ longest pass of the season — might have been easy to overlook, considering the outcome of the game.
“They had a better defense for that play, and that happens sometimes,” Avant said. “He looked at me during the play, and to me that meant to take it high ... that’s what his eyes told me and that’s what I did, and he just threw it.”
Avant’s resulting 41-yard catch — in which he took off deep and Smith actually threw it up to the 6-foot, 210-pounder in single coverage — was a textbook example of all of Avant’s strengths. Strong hands. Veteran savvy. Good focus.
However, the fact that the risk-averse Smith gave him a chance to make a play against Patrick Peterson, one of the league’s best corners, is a reflection of the trust he already has in Avant, a nine-year veteran who was signed as a free agent three weeks ago to be a positive influence on and off the field.
“You’re not going to find a better, more tremendous, humble person in the National Football League than Jason Avant,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “He’s been a breath of fresh air for us at that position, especially with the injuries that we’ve had.”
Molded by a tough childhood and his faith in God, coaches and teammates say the 31-year-old Chicago native always does things the right way, so much so that when asked the best word to describe Avant, rookie receiver Albert Wilson grinned when a word — professional — was offered up.
“Yeah, that’s exactly it — that’s a great word to describe it,” Wilson said. “That’s perfect.
“He’s always professional every time I see him. He’s not trying to turn it on. It’s always like that with him.”
Like so many high achievers, Avant is shaped by his past.
He was raised largely by his God-fearing grandmother, Lillie, who shepherded him through a difficult childhood in a crime-ridden neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.
“When you see those things — drug activity and guns and gangbangers and all that stuff — you start to look around you,” Avant said. “My grandmother told me, ‘Listen, we don’t have much money, so in order for you to go to college, you’ve got to get good at something.’ So I kind of took that and ran with it. I realized the options I had and I didn’t want those.”
So Avant turned to sports. Under the guidance of Carver High School coach Willie Simpson, he grew into a four-star receiver and earned a football scholarship to the University of Michigan.
“When I was little, if we’d lose a basketball game, I’d stay out and get in trouble because I’d be up at 1 o’clock in the morning trying to do everything I can not to feel that anymore,” Avant said. “It was the same way on the football field. When everybody else was partying in high school, I was out in the projects at 12 o’clock midnight, running routes, me and my coach.”
But understand, Avant does not consider anything he’s accomplished since then to be a coincidence. His grandmother’s faith in God rubbed off on him — he says he found Christ in college — and credits his belief in a higher power for the man he’s become.
“The Lord blessed me with a different mindset,” Avant said. “I just always wanted to maximize my ability. It’s a gift God gave me. I just don’t ever want to be a part of the problem. I always want to be part of the solution.”
That attitude is a significant reason Avant, who was selected by Chiefs coach Andy Reid in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft while with Philadelphia, became a valued member of the Eagles’ receiving corps. He’s never been particularly fast — he reportedly ran a 4.8 at his Pro Day — but his hands, technique and work ethic won over Philly fans during eight seasons.
In fact, when Avant was released by Philadelphia after the 2013 season — one year after Reid was fired — the Eagles released a statement in which CEO Jeffrey Lurie, general manager Howie Roseman and coach Chip Kelly all praised Avant’s character and professionalism during his tenure.
After his release, Avant expressed an interest in reuniting with Reid. However, he ended up signing a one-year deal with Carolina, a union that eventually went sour and led to Avant’s release in November.
The Chiefs, who were 7-5 at the time, still had a need at the position. So they tabbed Avant to fill it, because they knew exactly what he was about.
“He’s a good person, number one, and then he works his game like no other,” Reid said. “It is just practice, practice, practice, practice with him. You grow to appreciate how he does his job.”
It did not take Avant’s new teammates long to see what Reid meant.
During one of Avant’s first meetings with the rest of the receivers and position coach David Culley, Wilson spotted a fresh notebook in front of Avant.
Culley, Avant’s longtime position coach in Philly, was going over the upcoming opponent, the Denver Broncos. Wilson, 22, noted Avant — a nine-year pro, mind you — taking copious notes.
“It was his first day here, and you have some leeway learning some things, because they give you a second or two (to pick it up),” Wilson said. “But he was there … and I look over at his book, and he had notes like he’d been here three or four days already. I was just looking like, he’s that detailed?”
Avant also made an impression with attention to detail on the practice field, too. His teammates soon noticed that he quickly and aggressively went about building a rapport with Smith.
“After every play, he’s going ‘This is what I saw, this is how I’m running it, is this how you want me to run it?’ ” rookie quarterback Aaron Murray said. “You’re like ‘Man, this guy, he’s (about) business.’ ”
Smith said it’s clear that Avant understands the importance of communication between a quarterback and receiver.
“He is very detailed, absolutely,” Smith said. “He definitely goes out of his way to make sure that we are on the same page, that he is telling me his train of thought, no question on any given play and making sure that we are thinking the same thing.”
Avant’s attention to detail isn’t simply confined to his mind. When it comes to route running, few are more deceptive.
“I think some younger guys come up to him and ask him how to run a certain route,” backup quarterback Chase Daniel said. “He’s so slippery out there, he’s quick in his route running. I think it’s one of the best things he brings.
“He sometimes fakes us out practice,” Daniel added with a laugh.
It’s all part of the Avant package, Pederson said.
“Bottom line, he’s a perfectionist,” Pederson said. “And hopefully it’s rubbing off on some of our young guys.”
First-year receiver Frankie Hammond, 24, said that even prior to Avant’s arrival, the receivers already had an idea what he could do.
“We would just go back and watch film from Philly and be like ‘That guy did it the right way,’ ” Hammond said. “So when that guy came, we already had knowledge of what type of guy he was.”
All of which makes it easier to listen to him when he speaks.
“You want to take every bit of knowledge he has, because he’s been in Coach Reid’s offense for so long, so many years,” Hammond said. “So anything I can grab from him — which I am doing — I’m soaking it all in because everything he does, he does it right. He does it the right way.”
Hammond added that Avant has been good about explaining chalkboard concepts from a player’s perspective, when asked, and Wilson said the same applies when they get on the field.
“If he sees something I did or I see something he does I like, I’ll just ask him about it and he’ll sit there and break it down and tell me,” Wilson said. “Or if we’ve got a play coming up that he knows, he’ll just come to me and say ‘Remember, when you get to this point, (the corner) does this or does that.’”
To be fair, Avant isn’t the only veteran who has helped mentor Wilson and Hammond. Dwayne Bowe has widely been cited by players as a good teammate, and Wilson has credited Donnie Avery — whose locker is right next to his — for being a positive influence.
What’s more, Avery and Bowe have worked with the Chiefs’ young receiving corps, which also includes A.J. Jenkins, 25, and Junior Hemingway, 25, for at least the last two years.
However, Avant has added to an already-supportive room.
“I want to make the people around me better than I came here, (especially) the young guys,” Avant said. “That’s what Brian Dawkins and (Brian) Westbrook did for me when I was a rookie.”
In the same way Avant has adopted some of Dawkins’ habits — he regularly hits the cold tub and sauna to help preserve his body like Dawkins did — it seems some of his ways might be rubbing off on the Chiefs’ youngsters, too.
“Yeah man, now my notebook — it’s not exactly like his — but I’m learning how to take notes,” Wilson said. “Just little reminders that I know, I still jot them down to keep my brain refreshed. That’s something he reminds me of.”
For all Avant’s intangibles, the Chiefs brought him in because they believe he can still help them on the field.
Both Reid and Pederson have cited his short-to short-to-intermediate quickness as a plus. In his three games with the Chiefs so far, Avant has caught eight passes for 108 yards.
“We’ve changed; we’re not the same offense, as you look at us, that when he was with us in Philly,” Pederson said. “So there was a little bit of learning for him (with) some of the terminology, but yeah, he’s definitely caught up.”
Avant’s physicality as a blocker has also come in handy, thus far. He sprung Jamaal Charles for an 18-yard touchdown catch against Arizona with a crunching block on a defensive back.
“He gives us the bigger-bodied guy we can use as a blocker,” Pederson said. “We ask our receivers to block receivers and linebackers, and he’ll do it, because bottom line, he wants to win, and he’s an unselfish player.”
That last trait, Pederson says, is at the heart of a professional — there’s that word again — approach to the game that has served him well, thus far, with the Chiefs. in
“I think it’s (having) the mindset that you’ve never arrived,” Avant said. “The next thing is loving what you do — I’ve been blessed to play this game nine years, and most people don’t play the game nine years. I’m going to do everything I can to keep playing.”