Back before the NFL Draft in April, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said that there could be a 1,000-yard rusher available in the seventh round or as an undrafted free agent. Sure enough, Veach expended one of his three picks in the seventh to take Rutgers running back Isiah Pacheco.
The rookie not only made the team in September but has also played in every one of Kansas City's nine 2022 games — and starting in the last three in place of former first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who is now in his third season with the team.
During Sunday's 27-17 defeat of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pacheco rushed for a season-high 82 yards on 16 carries, averaging 5.1 yards a carry. Edwards-Helaire had only four snaps in the game — with no carries, two targets and no receptions.
But he still had a role in the game. After Pacheco fumbled the ball away at the end of the Chiefs' first drive, Edwards-Helaire was observed on the sidelines, speaking to the young running back.
That wasn't a surprise to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
"We always want to get the best people who happen to be the best football players," he told reporters on Thursday. "Team chemistry goes a long way. Clyde is one of those guys. Obviously, he hasn't had many opportunities as of late. But he's still part of this team — and he understands how important it is that backs keep their confidence level up."
According to running backs coach Greg Lewis, the players in his room understood that they would be working as a team all along.
"There's only going to be one guy that's going out there most of the time — and we're going to support whoever that guy is," he said on Thursday. "The guys bought in from Day 1 [on] that mindset and that approach."
So when the team decided to make Pacheco the starter against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7, no one had to worry about having an uncomfortable conversation with Edwards-Helaire.
"It's not really who starts the game or who finishes the game," said Lewis. "Everybody's going to get an opportunity. So it's not a conversation that [needed] to be addressed; it was already [understood] from the beginning."
"Clyde is the ultimate professional," observed Bieniemy. "Clyde comes to work every single day. Clyde doesn't run away from anything. He's working his tail off. And on top of that, he's helping coach guys up. That's the type of chemistry that we have."
All of this also means that even though Pacheco turned in a very good performance last Sunday, Edwards-Helaire could easily play more against the Los Angeles Chargers this Sunday night. But even if that happens, a different running back could still end up getting a greater number of snaps in the game — just like we've seen all season.
"All of those guys are going to play," declared Bieniemy. "I thought [Pacheco] did a heck of a job last week. I also thought Jerick McKinnon did a heck of a job. That just goes to show you the depth that we have at that position."
Bieniemy once again confirmed that running-back-by-committee is considered to be the standard.
"Obviously, we're going to always go with the hot hand," he added. "I know that's something that a lot of people don't like to hear — but we always want to do what we feel is best in that particular moment."
Even if that hot hand turns out to be Pacheco, we shouldn't necessarily expect a repeat of what we saw against the Jaguars: McKinnon getting all of the passing targets. Maybe Edwards-Helaire could get those targets — or even Pacheco himself.
"He has above-average hands," said Lewis of Pacheco, "just like everybody else in the room. They all can catch the ball and do different things out of the backfield with the ball in their hands. It just happened to be where [McKinnon] was getting the opportunity to catch passes and [Pacheco] was getting the opportunity to run the ball. That's just the way it unfolded.
"There's no doubt in my mind (or any of the other coaches' minds) about Pacheco getting an opportunity to catch the ball — or [McKinnon] or Clyde running the ball. We all know they all can do all the same things — and do it at a high level."
Lewis went on to say that the rookie running back isn't matching expectations for a first-year player. Instead, he's matching the team's expectations for any running back.
"To me, I don't look at it as a rookie [or] as a 10-year vet," he said. "The expectation is the expectation; the standard is the standard. And whoever we put out there needs to be at that standard. [Pacheco's] done a tremendous job of coming in and grasping the things that we're teaching him — and going out, playing football and letting his abilities show."
So in the coming weeks, we should expect to see... well, the unexpected.
As Bieniemy noted, not everyone outside the building is comfortable with the team’s multi-faceted approach at running back. But that probably includes opposing defensive coordinators, too — which is probably exactly what the Chiefs want.