KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Throughout his eight years in the NFL, Jerick McKinnon has always felt the need to prove himself. He proved he belonged in the league, he proved he could come back from a devastating injury.
Sunday night the 29-year-old running back proved he could ignite the Chiefs’ offense in a 42-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card game.
“I knew that I would get a little bit more opportunities than I have in the other games that we played that I’ve been up,” McKinnon said after drawing his first start for the Chiefs. “I just wanted to prove to teammates and my coaches I can get the job done. My teammates allowed me to do that tonight.”
McKinnon provided the spark the Chiefs needed during a sluggish start against the Steelers. The Chiefs had just 65 yards of offense in a scoreless first quarter, with McKinnon providing 34 of those yards.
It was in the second quarter, however, when the man they call Jet helped the Chiefs offense take flight. With Kansas City trailing 7-0, McKinnon picked up 21 yards in an eight-play, 76-yard drive capped off by his 4-yard touchdown reception from Patrick Mahomes.
McKinnon finished the night with 12 carries for 61 rushing yards along with six catches for 81 receiving yards. His 142 scrimmage yards marked his first 100-yard game since Jan. 21, 2018 when he piled up 126 yards of offense for Minnesota in a 38-7 loss to Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game.
After that game, McKinnon appeared poised to become an NFL star. He finished the 2017 season with 991 scrimmage yards, and his postseason performance help him land a four-year, $30 million free-agent deal with San Francisco.
Right before the start of the 2018 season, however, disaster struck. McKinnon tore his ACL heading into Week 1 and spent the entire season on injured reserve. His reconstructed knee failed during training camp in 2019, requiring additional surgery and resulting in another lost season.
“When you get into a place like that and you know you’re just fighting and battling back, the only thing you can do is just put your head down and keep working,” McKinnon said.” Knowing in the back of your mind that one day that work is going to pay off.
McKinnon would go 1,000 days between without playing an NFL regular-season game until he returned to the field on Sept. 13, 2020. He played in all 16 games for the 49ers that season, finishing with 572 scrimmage yards and a career-high six touchdowns.
McKinnon had a couple of different options for the 2021 campaign. He might have found more playing time with other clubs. But he chose to sign a one-year, $990,000 deal with the Chiefs for the opportunity to play for a winning team in head coach Andy Reid’s offense.
That decision proved fruitful Sunday night.
“I got the opportunity tonight, and the hard work that I put in the past years to overcome everything, it showed,” McKinnon said.
With Clyde Edwards-Helaire out with a shoulder injury and Darrel Williams limited due to a sore toe, Reid had qualms building Sunday’s game plan around McKinnon in the backfield.
“He gives you all kinds of confidence just by the way he handles himself,” Reid said. “He’s a confident guy, he works hard, takes care of himself, smart, he’s a good athlete. You felt like if he got in there, he would do a good job. He can catch the football, he can run it, he’s got good vision, so it was good to get him in there. He’s a good kid.”
McKinnon turned heads beginning during offseason workouts with his speed and elusiveness. He struggled to make an impact during the first half of the season, however, and in Week 11 a hamstring injury forced him to injured reserve.
Since his return, however, McKinnon has made a splash in the last two games with 105 rushing yards and 107 receiving yards along with two scores.
Mahomes thought during training camp McKinnon could be a playmaker for the team.
There’s a reason he’s been a playmaker in this league for the last few years here, Mahomes said. “Obviously he’s dealt with injuries in his career, and he dealt with a little bit of injury this season, but he’s kept his mindset right, he kept working hard and I knew with some other guys kind of being down and dinged up, he would step up and fill in nicely.”
Five days short of four years since his last playoff game, McKinnon has now put together back-to-back postseason efforts with more than 100 yards from scrimmage.
“Emotions always run high, especially in a playoff game,” McKinnon said. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity. The more opportunities you get, you’ve got to take advantages of those things, and I feel like I did so tonight.”