KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He answers to the nickname Jet, confesses to having “little man” syndrome and has a high-pitched voice — constantly imitated by his teammates and coach — that would make a high school freshman blush.
But Jerick McKinnon, the Chiefs’ diminutive running back, has also made an outsized contribution as something of a quarterback helper. He caught nine touchdown passes during the regular season to tie the Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk’s 2001 mark for scoring receptions by a running back.
“He just finds a way to get in the end zone,’’ Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “A lot of those things he’s not the first read, he’s not the second read. He’s able to just be in the right spot at the right time whenever I need to hit a check down, I can get it to him and then he makes the most of it by getting into the end zone.”
Perhaps the best example of McKinnon’s savvy came in a December game against the Denver Broncos, when Mahomes was flushed from the pocket and McKinnon shot ahead of a defender who keyed in on the quarterback. Mahomes quickly dished a no-look pass that McKinnon took 56 yards for a touchdown.
At 5-foot-9 and 216 pounds, McKinnon has also been a shockingly effective blocker, a skill that may help fend off the Bengals’ defense in Sunday’s A.F.C. championship game with Mahomes nursing a sprained right ankle.
McKinnon, a 30-year-old journeyman, was selected as a playoff captain by his teammates because of his good humor and professionalism.
“It’s not like he’s looking for the glory or the praise,” Mahomes said. “He just comes to work every single day with a smile on his face and he brings the energy. You ask anybody in the locker room, and he’s probably one of, if not the favorite guy in the locker room.”
Kansas City Coach Andy Reid said McKinnon had fulfilled the role of “big brother” for a team that is stacked with rookies and second- or third-year pros.
“He’s got the high-pitched voice,” Reid said. “Everybody thinks the world of him and loves him.”
McKinnon’s Kevin Hart-like high-octave patter earned him a turn on a Reddit thread about the least intimidating voices in the N.F.L. The fellow running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s impersonation of McKinnon is the gold standard inside the Kansas City practice facility.
Reid, too, has added a McKinnon impersonation alongside his take on Mahomes’s gravelly foghorn tone, but has yet to debut it publicly.
McKinnon has taken the long path to a breakout season. A third-round selection of the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, he spent four years as a backup before signing a four-year, $30 million deal with San Francisco in 2018. That year, McKinnon tore an anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that kept him from playing until 2020. He did not have many options left when Kansas City offered him a one-year deal before last season.
The injury delay made him evangelical about taking care of his body. Besides the usual stretches and rolls before and after practices, McKinnon alternates acupuncture and dry needling along with cupping throughout the week. He said the former star running back Adrian Peterson, with whom he played in Minnesota, impressed upon him how important it was to do everything possible to remain in peak shape.
Reid says McKinnon’s background as a quarterback at Georgia Southern University allows him to see the whole field and use his intuition to feel for where he needs to be as a play unfolds.
“He kind of knows how the game works as a whole,” Reid said. “I think that helps him in the run game — knowing how gaps are set up, knowing how secondaries fill for the run.”
Reid added: “He can catch the ball on top of all of that.”
McKinnon was Kansas City’s third-leading pass catcher in the regular season with 54 receptions, but he is perhaps most beloved by Kansas City’s offensive line for his “little man” rage that shows itself in his mighty blocking, especially when opponents blitz Mahomes.
In most personnel packages, McKinnon and Creed Humphrey, the team’s 6-foot-4 All-Pro center, are responsible for picking up blitzes and making the necessary adjustments to protect Mahomes.
The team’s offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, says McKinnon’s blocking prowess gets overlooked because of his stature, explosive running and his pass-catching.
“That’s probably one of the most underrated deals that people don’t think about when they mention his name,” Bieniemy said. “He’s a good football player that happens to play running back.:
McKinnon does not get a lot of carries — he ran the ball 72 times for 291 yards this season. The rookie back Isiah Pacheco led Kansas City this season with 830 yards on 170 carries.
In overtime against the Houston Texans last month, however, McKinnon showed a swagger that tickled his quarterback. With Kansas City on the Texans’ 26-yard line and within field goal range, Mahomes called for a McKinnon run.
“Two hands on the ball,” Mahomes said as they broke the huddle.
“I’m going to score,” McKinnon told him. Then he made good on the prediction for a game-winning touchdown.
Mahomes marveled, “He’s a little old but he still has his speed.”