Why Chiefs’ Jerick McKinnon stands taller than his size and is vital against Bengals

Nick Wagner/nwagner@kcstar.com

As Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy stepped off the stage following an interview on Thursday, he felt obliged to present the next man up:

“Jerick McKinnon, y’all.”

But Bieniemy’s welcome was more celebratory than introductory when it comes to McKinnon, who this season announced himself as what might be called an overnight sensation at age 30.

After years of relative obscurity, including missing two seasons with knee injuries before the Chiefs took a chance and reset his career in 2021, McKinnon has endeared himself to fans and teammates in multiple ways.

That included scoring nine touchdowns in the final six weeks of the regular season to be recognized as AFC Offensive Player of the Month.

He finished the regular season third on the team in scoring with 62 points (behind Harrison Butker with 92 and Travis Kelce, 74) largely on screen passes and highlighted by the 56-yard no-look TD pass from Patrick Mahomes at Denver.

Beyond that, coach Andy Reid has referred to the radiant man with the high-pitched voice as “like everybody’s big brother” and has suggested the trustworthy former Georgia Southern triple-option quarterback is the emergency backup at the position.

Meanwhile, Mahomes considers McKinnon one of the favorites, if not the favorite, in the locker room.

There are a lot of reasons for that, including McKinnon’s evident humility and obvious appreciation for his teammates and at last being in this position after a trying journey.

As he pondered the significance of his breakout in advance of the Chiefs playing host to the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, McKinnon beamed and said he’s got it all at “a happy medium” and can’t fully feel it now.

“When it’s all said and done and I finally do,” he said, “I’m pretty sure it will probably hit me in a whole another way.”

Until then, he’ll also be busy hitting others as an adept and fierce blocker despite his 5-foot-9, 201-pound frame.

And that speaks to another reason he’s so respected by Mahomes and other teammates — and why he will be vital against the Bengals whether it shows up in the box score or not.

With Mahomes working through a high-ankle sprain he suffered against Jacksonville last week, you could see McKinnon immediately take that to heart when Mahomes returned to the game in the second half.

In a “Chiefs Mic’d-up” segment, McKinnon approaches Mahomes just before they take the field and says, “We got you, 15. We got you, brother.” Then he turned to teammates and said, “We’ve got to be there for him.”

Then he made good on that, most visibly with his jarring block on Foyasade Oluokon as the Jaguars linebacker tried to rush Mahomes — a block recognized by the NFL Network as an “NFL Way To Play” moment of the divisional round.

When I asked McKinnon on Thursday where that apparent passion for blocking comes from, he paused and smiled before answering.

“I’ve got little man syndrome; maybe that’s what it is,” he said.

Truth be told, he hadn’t had occasion to do it much before being drafted 96th overall by the Vikings in 2014.

Over time, though, he came to realize adding an element that he considers mostly “heart and will” to his skill set was “something that’s going to keep you around as a running back in this league.”

In fact …

“I take big pride in that area,” he said. “More than running and catching the ball, for real.”

It helps gird him for typically bigger and stronger players coming at him, he joked, to “be a little crooked in the mind.”

Just the same, McKinnon knows the success of this key aspect of his game is equally predicated on preparation and collaboration with the line and protecting Mahomes — especially under these circumstances.

“When you see something like that,” McKinnon said, “it does nothing but inspire you.”

The same could be said for him as a versatile offensive weapon, vital blocker and much-admired teammate … especially after navigating so many ups and downs to get to this time in his career.

Jerick McKinnon, y’all.