Losing a star running back of Nick Chubb’s caliber for several games would devastate most teams — maybe not the Cleveland Browns.
They’ve got the perfect backup.
Kareem Hunt is next in line.
With Chubb expected to miss at least three weeks — and probably more — with a sprained right knee ligament sustained in Sunday’s win over the Dallas Cowboys, Hunt, a former NFL rushing champion with Kansas City whose career veered way out of bounds after some serious off-field trouble, will be Cleveland’s primary back going forward.
He’s eager to carry the load.
“I am willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Hunt said Wednesday. “If that means getting more carries, then I am fine with that, too. We have some big shoes to fill.”
Hunt and Cleveland’s other backs — D’Ernest Johnson ran for a team-high 95 yards — more than picked up the slack Sunday after Chubb went down in the first quarter as the Browns rushed for 307 yards against an overmatched Dallas defense.
After four games, the Browns (3-1), who are off to their best start in 19 years, lead the league with 818 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. Chubb has accounted for 335, so it will be hard to maintain that kind of production, and it will be a much more difficult challenge this week against the Indianapolis Colts and their top-ranked defense.
“That is the fun part in this business,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “We totally understand what it is at stake. We totally understand the team that we are getting ready to face here on Sunday because you just turn on the tape and it is so obviously why they are good. They fly around and they are physical.”
Despite playing with a groin injury that limited his practice time last week, Hunt scored two TDs against the Cowboys and ran for 71 yards on just 11 attempts, a number that could double this week depending on Stefanski’s game plan.
It could be a running-back-by-committee approach, and that would be fine with Hunt, who has confidence in Johnson and Dontrelle Hilliard.
“I believe I can take on the workload, but honestly, it is not bad because I trust in those other guys, too, Dontrell and D’Ernest,” said Hunt, who was limited in practice. “If I have ever need a break, I know they will come in and do a great job.”
Trust. That’s something Hunt has had to work to get, and Chubb’s injury has given him yet another chance to put some distance on his past.
The 25-year-old Cleveland native only played in eight games last season after serving an eight-game league suspension for two violent altercations, including the infamous one in which he was caught on videotape shoving and kicking a woman during an argument in 2018. The Chiefs cut him.
Hunt paid his dues with the league, played well for Cleveland down the stretch in 2019, but then found himself in another mess when he was pulled over for speeding this winter and police found a small amount of marijuana and liquor in his car.
The Browns warned him to clean up his act, and Hunt has done just that. He spent several months in Florida during the pandemic with former Cleveland back Ernest Byner, and he returned more mature, committed and focused.
He’s done some reflecting, growing up, and the Browns believe in him so much that they recently gave him a two-year, $13.25 million contract that included $8.5 million guaranteed.
Hunt is also evolving as a leader. While Chubb inspires teammates with his work ethic and unassuming style, Hunt is fiery and emotional.
“Kareem was already a very vocal guy,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “It is just him and Nick are very opposite in that way. So, it is a very thunder and lightning approach. I see Kareem being more vocal as this goes on but that is nothing new to him. He is not changing. He is not going to overcompensate and try and do too much.
“And he understands that. He is a great teammate. He is just going to be himself and that is somebody that brings energy every day, talks his trash but backs it up, and we are happy to have him.”
NOTES: Starting DTs Larry Ogunjobi (abdomen) and Sheldon Richardson (thigh) both missed practice. WR Odell Beckham Jr. (toe), who scored three TDs in Dallas, and C JC Tretter (knee) were limited. ... TE David Njoku returned from injured reserve after hurting his knee in the season-opening loss at Baltimore.