Kareem Hunt is the X factor the Chiefs have been waiting for

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You can win a championship with Alex Smith, but Alex Smith is not going to win you a championship. Yes, there is a difference. A big one.

An athlete first and a quarterback second, Smith proved Monday night that, at 33 years old, he still has plenty of life in his arm and in his legs. As he was establishing the Chiefs as pro football’s best team in a 29-20 comeback victory over the Washington Redskins, Smith showed the toughness and wisdom shaped by a dozen years of hard living in the NFL.

But Smith is not Tom Brady, nor is he Aaron Rodgers — the otherworldly franchise maker who was picked 23 spots after Smith in the 2005 NFL draft. Smith needs a special player by his side, someone who can carry the Chiefs when he can’t manage the load. The good news is it appears he has found that special teammate in rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who hasn’t slowed down since his record-breaking performance against the defending champion New England Patriots on opening night in Foxborough. As the late, great coach Hank Stram might’ve said, Hunt knows how to matriculate the ball down the field.

Hunt was relatively quiet for much of Monday night, at least by the absurd standards he has set as a kid drafted out of Toledo with the 86th overall pick. And yet, on the fourth-quarter drive that saw the Chiefs take a 20-17 lead, Hunt was the freshest and most physical player on the Arrowhead Stadium field. He caught a pass for 10 yards, broke a run up the middle for 17 yards, rumbled off the left guard for eight yards and then ripped off a huge 16-yard gain on second-and-20 from the Washington 40. On that possession, Hunt hurdled a diving, would-be tackler and put some ankle-breaking, Allen Iverson-esque moves on a couple of bigger defenders, all while operating in a space as confining as a phone booth.

“When I get my fifth step in the ground and get some head of steam and get rolling,” Hunt said, “it’s pretty tough to bring me down. So I was able to just make some people miss on the second level.”

Hunt cleared 100 yards against a Washington defense that allowed only 128 total yards last week against Oakland. He finished with 101 yards on 21 carries and 121 total yards, joining Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Billy Sims as the only rookies in NFL history to open their careers with at least four games of 100-plus yards from scrimmage. Meanwhile, Smith was free to throw for a touchdown, run for a touchdown off a fake to Hunt and deliver the late fourth-quarter dagger on one of his patented athletic scrambles to his right, hitting Albert Wilson for 37 yards. The kicker who was just called off the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad, Harrison Butker, nailed the decisive field goal before the Washington giveaway touchdown in the final seconds that inspired a lot of gamblers to book Tuesday morning appointments with their shrinks.

“What a heck of a game,” said Andy Reid, head coach of the league’s only 4-0 team. “A tribute to the National Football League and what they’re trying to do with giving each city an opportunity to be successful.”

Parity can be a beautiful thing, especially in the smaller markets. Everyone in the NFL has an equal-opportunity shot at winning a Super Bowl, so you can imagine what it would mean to Reid, who has been a head coach for 19 years, and to Smith, who has won only two postseason games as a former No. 1 overall pick, to finally win one. And to finally win one together.

Hunt could be the running back who makes it happen. He has a league-best 502 rushing yards; Todd Gurley, No. 2 on the list, has 362. Hunt strongly suggested he belonged in the same class with the big-name backs drafted ahead of him — namely Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey — after he fumbled away his very first professional carry against the Patriots. Hunt hadn’t lost a fumble over four years and 782 carries at Toledo, and yet he recovered against the Patriots to finish with three touchdowns and 246 yards from scrimmage, a record for an NFL debut.

The coaches who knew Hunt best might have been shocked, but they weren’t surprised. Matt Duffy, his high school coach at Ohio’s Willoughby South, told ESPN.com on Monday that one major college recruiter who passed on Hunt once asked Duffy, “Where do you think he can play?” Duffy answered that question this way:

“Sundays. He’s going to play on Sundays.”

One recruiter told Duffy that Hunt — listed by the Chiefs at 5-11 and 216 pounds — seemed awfully small on tape. Willoughby South fielded a formidable offensive line, including a 6-6, 290-pound left tackle, and Duffy agreed that his star didn’t look like the kind of back you’d find at Ohio State. But Duffy said Hunt didn’t lose a fumble in about 600 carries over two years as Willoughby South’s primary ballcarrier. In six years of high school and college ball, that would be no lost fumbles in nearly 1,400 carries.

“Recruiting in general is an art, not necessarily a science,” Toledo head coach Jason Candle, an assistant during Hunt’s recruitment, told ESPN.com. “You sign 20 [to] 25 kids every year and hope just one turns out to be what Kareem’s become. You’ve got to be emotionally stable, physically able, ready to handle the playbook, and Kareem was all of those things for us.”

Only the stopwatch said he wasn’t a burner. Hunt ran a 4.62 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. More than a few scouts neglected the fact that he runs a 4.42 on gamedays.

“It’s not track,” Candle said. “It’s football.”

Kareem Hunt is really good at football.

Both coaches described Hunt as a humble young man with a clear generosity of spirit. Reid added to that narrative after winning his fourth consecutive game, talking about his rookie “keeping a level head about him.” At his locker, Hunt spoke of team-centric goals and credited an offensive line that lost a starter, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, to an early knee injury. He also was effusive in his praise of his quarterback.

“He’s just such a great leader,” Hunt said of Smith. “He’s really good at maintaining the game, and he doesn’t really make any turnovers or any mistakes.

“He’s a great quarterback, he’s athletic, he could run, he could pass, he could do it all.”

Actually, Smith can’t do it all. There’s a reason why he lost his job to Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco a year after helping the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game, and why he’ll likely lose his job to this year’s first-round pick, Patrick Mahomes II, sooner rather than later. Smith will be a free agent after the season. He’s acknowledged that this could be his last shot in Kansas City.

But worse quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl ring, and New England’s putrid defense and the Derek Carr injury in Oakland have opened the door for the Chiefs in the AFC. Hunt has just opened it wider.

“It’s another dimension of the game that the defense has to try to stop,” Reid said. Hunt’s stunning production, the coach said, “helps all of us.”

Even the great John Elway needed help — which came from Terrell Davis — to win his two titles before he retired. Out of left field, a long way from Toledo, Kareem Hunt might be the player who gets Alex Smith his long, lost one.

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