Chiefs’ Jerick McKinnon Wasn’t on Anyone’s NFL Playoffs Hero Bingo Card

As they do every year, the NFL will announce its 2021 major award winners in an Oscars-style ceremony on the eve of the Super Bowl.

The awards, from league Most Valuable Player to Offensive and Defensive Players and Rookies of the Year will all be based on regular-season performance. What happens in the NFL Playoffs stays in the NFL Playoffs.

That also goes for the most inspiring of the NFL Awards: The Comeback Player of the Year. This year, the likely winner is seen as the choice between two quarterbacks, Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys and Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals, who sustained terrible injuries in 2020, then returned this season and led their teams to division titles.

Choosing between the two might be the closest race of any of the awards. There is no clear-cut favorite.

But what if the NFL gave out the same awards solely for what happens in the playoffs? What if there was a Postseason Comeback Player of the Year Award?

One thing is for certain in this playoff year: The winner after Super Wild Card Weekend would be unanimous.

Given a chance due to injuries, McKinnon delivers the best game of his career

Jerick McKinnon made a big comeback against the Steelers
Jerick McKinnon | Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

With all the big names and usual suspects to claim the title of offensive hero for the Kansas City Chiefs in their 42-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, running back Jerick McKinnon’s name was probably not on a lot of people’s Bingo cards.

Outside of Kansas City Chiefs fans, most of the folks who tuned into Sunday night’s game probably had forgotten that McKinnon was still in the league. But it didn’t take long for McKinnon to remind the world that he still had fuel in the tank at age 29.

Pressed into service because of injuries to regular starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire and his back-up, Darrell Williams, McKinnon lit up the field seemingly on every carry or reception, rushing 12 times for 61 yards and catching all six of his targets for another 81 yards and a touchdown.

How out-of-nowhere was this performance? Over the course of the 18-week regular season, McKinnon had a total of 12 carries for 62 yards. He basically matched those numbers in one game on Sunday night.

It was a storybook evening for a running back who missed the entire 2018 and ’19 seasons after a devastating knee injury right when his career seemed poised to take off.

“When you get in a place like that and you’re just fighting and battling back, the only thing you can do is just put your head down and keep working and know in the back of your mind one of these days that work is going to pay off,” McKinnon said after Sunday’s game. “The hard work I put in the past couple of years to overcome everything, it showed.”

McKinnon was once a rising star, until a major knee injury derailed him

There was a time, about four years ago when McKinnon was considered a potential star for the San Francisco 49ers. After four seasons as the backup with the Minnesota Vikings — after being taken in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft from Georgia Southern — McKinnon was finally getting a chance to be a lead back in 2018, after signing a four-year, $30 million free-agent contract with the 49ers to replace Carlos Hyde.

But the week before the start of the regular season, McKinnon tore the ACL in his right knee in practice and was lost for the year. Then McKinnon lost the entire 2019 season when the knee flared up in training camp and he required a second surgery.

He finally returned to the field in 2020 but was once again relegated to a part-time role, starting just four games. McKinnon also restructured his contract for the 2020 season, reducing his base salary and eliminating the fourth year of the original deal, which led to friction with the front office.

An unrestricted free agent last offseason, McKinnon signed with the Chiefs but was not expected to play a major role behind Edwards-Helaire and Williams. And another injury, this time a hamstring, landed McKinnon back on IR for several games at the end of the regular season.

But when the calendar turned to January, McKinnon was finally ready.

McKinnon’s first postseason touchdown since 2017 pointed Chiefs to victory

The Chiefs had been without Edwards-Helaire for two weeks when they took on the Denver Broncos in the regular-season finale. Then Williams injured his toe early in that Week 18 game. McKinnon was the next man up, and he responded by rushing five times for 24 yards and catching all three of his targets for 26 yards, including his first NFL touchdown since 2017.

And when Edwards-Helaire was unable to recover in time for the Wild Card game against the Steelers, and Williams still hobbled by his injury, McKinnon was back in the starting lineup.

The Chiefs were uncharacteristically held scoreless deep into the second quarter when McKinnon finally got Kansas City going, catching a four-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes to tie the score at 7-7. It was McKinnon’s first postseason touchdown since 2017, and the first of five answered touchdowns for the Chiefs.

Now, regardless of Edwards-Helaire’s status this Sunday in the Divisional Round against the Buffalo Bills, McKinnon’s playoff comeback story is expected to continue.

“I’ve seen it from training camp on that he’s a playmaker,” Mahomes said. “There’s a reason he’s been a playmaker in this league for the last few years here. Obviously, he dealt with injury in his career and he dealt with a little bit of injury this season but he kept his mindset right. He’s kept working hard.”

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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