Remember when Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt shook off a fumble on his first carry as a pro to wallop the Patriots in Kansas City’s opener, rushing for 148 yards and a touchdown while adding 98 yards and two scores on five catches? The rookie sensation and early-season fantasy football darling was just as exciting and explosive in the team’s next four games, quickly establishing himself as not only the early favorite for the Offensive Rookie of the Year but as a bona fide MVP candidate as the Chiefs raced out to a perfect 5-0 record. But the breakout rookie’s numbers have come crashing back to earth along with the team’s offense, the Chiefs have lost four out of their past five games, and no one is talking much about Hunt anymore.
So what’s the explanation for Hunt’s sudden drop-off in production? Did he hit the so-called rookie wall? Was his early-season performance a fluke? Or is his stat line over the past five weeks just a symptom of bigger issues for the Kansas City offense?
On paper, it’s hard to look at Hunt’s stat line and say that he’s had anything but an exceptional year overall. Through 11 weeks, he’s second in rushing yards (873), fifth in yards per attempt (5.0), second in runs of 20-plus yards (eight), and tied for 10th in touchdowns (four). He leads the NFL in both total first-down yardage and yardage in the fourth quarter and overtime. He ranks first in the NFL in missed tackles forced (46), per Pro Football Focus; first in missed tackles forced per touch (0.27); fourth in yards after contact per carry (3.1); and second in elusive rating (89.4). Coming into Week 11, he’d gone down on first contact on an NFL-low 58.8 percent of his carries. He’s been a top-five back by just about every measure.
But his season’s been a story of two five-game stretches. Over the first five weeks, Hunt racked up 97 carries for 609 yards and four touchdowns at 6.3 yards per carry while adding 16 catches for 166 yards and two scores through the air. Among running backs who have played on at least 50 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, he ranked first in Pro Football Focus’s elusive rating (104.8), first in missed tackles forced on runs (28), first in missed tackles forced per carry (0.29), second in yards after contact per carry (3.6), and second in yards after contact per touch (3.48). Kansas City was rolling, and with Hunt beside him, quarterback Alex Smith attacked downfield with a newfound aggression and accuracy, working tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill into Andy Reid’s innovative fusion of the college spread game and the West Coast offense. Defenses had no answer for this offense. Until they did.
Over the team’s last five games, the Chiefs have failed to find a rhythm. Smith’s regressed back toward the dink-and-dunk quarterback he’s been for much of his career, and Hunt’s failed to find the end zone. He’s run for just 264 yards at 3.5 yards per carry, adding 19 catches for 169 yards through the air.
What changed? Well, it’s not like Hunt suddenly stopped breaking tackles: Going back to Week 6, he’s dropped to 13th in average yards after contact per carry (2.61), but still leads the league in elusive rating (71.3) in that time, with a league-high 18 missed tackles forced and an average of 0.24 missed tackles forced per touch, tied for second in the NFL. He’s still getting the ball plenty, too: Over the team’s first five games, he averaged 22.6 touches per game, while in the last five, he’s averaged 19 per outing. In the team’s embarrassing 12-9 loss to the Giants on Sunday, Hunt got the ball 21 times, carrying it 17 times for 73 yards while adding three catches for 4 yards. He is still, by nearly all metrics, one of the best running backs in football. Instead, a few other important factors stand out as the reasons behind Hunt’s sudden production drop-off.
First, his inability to find the end zone over the past five games is related to the fact that he’s not getting very many red zone touches. Three of Hunt’s six touchdowns this year (two on the ground, one through the air) originated outside the 20-yard line, and it’s hard to expect consistent touchdown totals from a running back (or an offense, in general) on those types of explosive plays—and the team’s inability to move the ball into the red zone has been a big reason Hunt’s been held out of the end zone in each of the last five games. Kansas City has run just 31 plays inside the 10-yard line this year (fifth fewest), and over the last five weeks, it’s run just 14 plays in that area (fourth fewest).
When you narrow that scope to inside the 5-yard line? It’s little surprise that Hunt’s come up with so many goose eggs in the touchdown column this year—he’s gotten few easy-money opportunities to score.
Only 2.9% of Kareem Hunt's total carries have originated inside of the opponents' 5-yard line (fifth-fewest). Full list [min. 12 attempts/game]: pic.twitter.com/gxhbpl73m7— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) November 20, 2017
Additionally, Hunt’s job has gotten a lot harder. In his first five games, Hunt averaged 2.8 yards before contact per rush, per Pro Football Focus—a sure sign that his offensive line was getting push up front and creating plenty of big run lanes. But in the five games since, a lot of those openings have closed and Hunt’s averaged just 0.9 yards before contact per rush. Injuries on the offensive line could have contributed to the team’s struggles up front—Kansas City center Mitch Morse missed five weeks with a foot injury, and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif recently returned after missing a month with a sprained knee—but it also seems like the Chiefs have gotten away from the exciting style of play that made them so dangerous early in the season.
Kansas City raced out to a 5-0 start largely on the back of its hard-to-predict, innovative hybrid offense, which featured a heavy dose of pre-snap motion, misdirection, option runs, run-pass options, and downfield shots. Over the past few weeks, it seems like those have come a lot fewer and farther between. Hunt regularly broke off big runs early in the year with the help of this pre-snap motion, where defenders on the backside of runs would be forced out of position as the Chiefs stretched the field horizontally, thus opening up gaps in the defense that Hunt could easily run through.
He had a few big plays out of option looks as well, where the threat of a quarterback run helped keep pursuit defenders wondering where the ball would go rather than flying toward the ball carrier.
Instead, over the past few weeks, the Chiefs offense has seemed to resemble the limited, short-pass-oriented offense Reid and Smith ran last year outside of a few trick plays, like the one Sunday in which Kelce tried to throw downfield and was intercepted. Overall, a once-dominant offensive group has been too sloppy, turnover-happy, and, at times incoherent, frequently going away from Hunt just when he looked to be warming up during the team’s five-week slump. He had two big runs on Sunday that were called back because of penalties, including this one, which showed he’s still the same guy that dazzled at the start of the season.
Kareem Hunt is a superhero. Refs should've swallowed the whistle out of respect here. Those are EARNED yards. This man needs the ball too. pic.twitter.com/3zUXDqaX7r— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 20, 2017
The good news though—for the Chiefs, for Hunt, and for those of you out there that are going to be depending on Hunt for your fantasy team’s stretch run—is that Kansas City’s offense isn’t irreparably broken. The team’s offensive line (which featured Eric Fisher, Zach Fulton, Morse, Duvernay-Tardif, and Mitchell Schwartz on Sunday) is now finally getting back to full health after weeks of shuffling. Reid presumably hasn’t torn up the play sheets that helped the team get off to its fast start. Kelce and Tyreek Hill remain explosive options in the passing game. And Hunt’s still a tackle-breaking, home-run-hitting talent out of the backfield. The characters are all still there for the Chiefs to rediscover their early-season magic. Oh, and give Hunt a few more carries inside the 10-yard line and a midseason slump could pretty quickly turn into a late-season heater.