Exploring the underappreciated history at the position for the Chiefs
Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus
Jarrod Thurman @JarrodChiefsFCS
When you think of positions the Chiefs have a history of, linebackers, defensive backs, or offensive line might come to mind. You might think about the Chiefs having two of the best tight ends in NFL history with Tony Gonzalez and Travis Kelce. Running back might not be what comes to mind, but I’ll explore why we should appreciate the history of the franchise at the position.
One reason why the history might be forgotten, is the Chiefs have had some bad luck with keeping a running back long-term. Some running backs have had issues with injuries and a couple had off-the-field issues.
The first rushing touchdown in franchise history was scored by Johnny Robinson on September 16, 1960, against the Chargers. Robinson would go on to a Hall of Fame career as a defensive back. Abner Haynes was the primary running back for the Chiefs’ first years of existence. Haynes’s name is in the Ring of Honor at Arrowhead Stadium and 28 is retired in his honor. He was the first star running back for the team. He was a 1st Team All-AFL selection 3 times in his career. Despite last playing for the team in 1964, Haynes is still 6th in franchise history in rushing yards.
The Chiefs would have several successful running backs in the 60s including Mike Garrett and Curtis McClinton. However, Ed Podolak would be the first long-term running back in franchise history as he would play from 1969 to 1977 racking up 4,451 yards, which was at the time the franchise record. He was a rookie on the Super Bowl IV winning team, however, he would only play in 4 games that season. His best overall season would come in 1971 when he rushed for 708 yards and 9 touchdowns. His 9 touchdowns, 3rd in the league, were more than Hall of Famers John Riggins and O.J. Simpson had that season combined.
Photo Credit: Chiefs.com
The next running back I will talk about had his career tragically, yet heroically cut short in 1983. Joe Delaney’s rookie year he rushed for 1,121 yards, which was good for 10th in the NFL that season. In his second year, he dealt with some injuries and was ready to go for a 3rd season, but unfortunately, that’s when the tragedy struck. Delaney drowned trying to save 3 boys from a pond in Lousiana. President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country. The Chiefs have not given a player the number 37 since his death, despite not officially retiring the number.
Ed Podolak’s aforementioned record would stand until Christian Okoye broke it late in the 1992 season. The “Nigerian Nightmare” was an unfortunate example of a running back whose career was cut short due to injuries. A knee injury in 1990 would nag him for the rest of his career before the Chiefs released him in August 1993. Okoye was a rare combination of size and speed. Okoye was listed at 6’1” and 253 pounds but ran a 4.45 40-yard dash. That would have tied him for 11th out of 27 running backs at this year’s combine. He was usually fast enough to outrun players but if he needed to bulldoze down a defender, he could definitely do that. He was athletic also having been successful at the shot put, discus, and hammer throws in college.
Photo: Jonathan Daniel of Getty Images
Before the 2001 season, the Chiefs signed a running back that had rushed for 1,000 yards in 1998 and won Super Bowl XXXV with the Ravens. That running back was Priest Holmes. Priest would immediately make a difference, rushing for 1,555 yards and leading the NFL in rushing yards in 2001. He would also lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage that season also recording 614 receiving yards. From 2001 to 2003 the Chiefs had one of the top offenses in the NFL thanks in part to him. He rushed for 4,590 yards and 56 touchdowns in those 3 seasons alone, including what was at the time an NFL record 27 touchdowns in 2003, that record has since been broken twice. In 2004, he was arguably the league MVP for the first half of the season rushing for 892 yards and 14 touchdowns in 8 games. In that 8th game, however, Holmes would suffer an injury that would cause him to miss the rest of the season. He was on pace for 1,784 yards and 28 touchdowns before his injury. This trend would unfortunately continue through the 2007 season as he would be forced into an early retirement after a spinal injury a few games into the season. His Hall of Fame potential was cut short. He retired as the Chiefs’ all-time leading rusher by 1,100 yards. His replacement, however, would breathe down his neck.
Photo: Jamie Squire of Getty Images
During Priest’s injury-riddled time from 2004 through 2007, Larry Johnson stepped in and was effective. This includes a stretch of time in 2005 when he ran for over 100 yards in 9 consecutive games. In 2006, would continue this success recording 100+ yards in 11 of the Chiefs’ 16 games. In 2007, Johnson would deal with his own injury issues as he would miss half of the season. The 2008 and 2009 seasons for Johnson would be plagued by off-the-field issues, including an incident where he said his father was more qualified to be the Chiefs head coach than Todd Haley. These issues led to the Chiefs releasing him on November 9, 2009, the day before he was due back following a suspension. He finished 2nd in franchise history finishing only 55 yards behind Priest Holmes. His time with the Chiefs is clouded by not only off-the-field issues but some extremely controversial statements he’s made on social media since his career ended. Despite the controversial things off the field, his on-the-field success was at the top of the league at the time.
Priest Holmes and Jamaal Charles had pretty similar careers. Both players had several years of success being one of the top running backs in the game, only to have their careers cut short due to injuries. Charles became the starter in 2009 replacing Larry Johnson. In his first year as a starter, he finished with 1,120 yards and 7 touchdowns. He followed that up with a 1,467-yard season in 2010. In 2011, however, he would suffer the first of his major injuries, tearing his ACL in the Chiefs’ week 2 game against the Lions. The following season, the disaster that was the 2012 season, he was the sole bright spot on the offense rushing for a career-high 1,509 yards. He would find success in his first 2 seasons under Andy Reid as well, before tearing his ACL again in 2015. The knee would bother him again in 2016 before he would need a second surgery to repair the knee. That offseason he would be released by the Chiefs, but not before breaking Preist Holmes’s franchise rushing yards record by 1,200 yards.
Photo: Ed Zurga AP
Larry Johnson was not the only Chiefs running back to have their time with the team cut short due to off-the-field issues. Kareem Hunt lead the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie in 2017 with 1,327 yards, including 148 rushing yards in his NFL debut. The following season when it looked like the Chiefs’ backfield was set for years to come with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and Kareem Hunt at running back, then the video was released by TMZ that led to the Chiefs releasing him. In only 27 games with the team, he rushed for 2,151 yards. His 79.7 yards per game is 3rd in franchise history behind Holmes and Johnson. His time with the Chiefs was short but was successful nonetheless.
The Chiefs have had their fair share of talented running backs over the years, but as is the case with most teams, they’ve struggled to have long-term running backs. It is a position that doesn’t typically have extended success. If this topic is revisited in about 10 years, will any of the 7 running backs on the roster be included? Time will tell.