The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

J.D. McKissic waited years for his chance, then ran with it in Washington

Washington running back J.D. McKissic went from being a minor free agent signing to a core player and playmaker in just two seasons. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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J.D. McKissic insists he has cooled off a bit because there were times when his competitive drive would get him in trouble. So he has chilled out. Mostly. Unless it’s over Connect 4 in the Washington Football Team’s locker room.

“I was like, ‘J.D., you do not want to see me in Connect 4,’ ” quarterback Taylor Heinicke recalled telling him. “He takes it on, and we start playing. I beat him the first time, and if you know J.D., he’s always going to give a really bad excuse. First time I played him it was, ‘I wasn’t trying. I wasn’t focused.’ ”

The next time they played, McKissic vowed that Heinicke would never beat him. Of course he did. As did Logan Thomas, the team’s quarterback turned tight end. Twice.

“The thing is,” McKissic began to explain, “when you play against those quarterbacks, they’re looking at the bigger picture. They're setting me up so good because I'm trying to play defense against these guys. I told Heinicke, the next time we play I'm throwing nothing but deep balls. I don't care what you're doing, I'm going to try to win from the first drop.”

McKissic, often described by teammates as a jokester, has struck a rare balance in an NFL locker room as the guy everyone likes yet also respects as one of its leaders and fiercest competitors.

“He doesn’t seem like he has a bad day,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “Then the player that he is, he’s just so unselfish and he does whatever the team asks him to do, whether it’s pass block, whether it’s to take carries out the backfield or catch passes, which he’s really good at. He’s a great leader for those guys being a veteran in this league.

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Over the past two seasons, since signing with Washington as one of its lesser-known free agents in 2020, McKissic has established himself as one of the team’s core players and carved out a role in coordinator Scott Turner’s offense as not just its third-down running back, but an any-down playmaker.

“To me, he’s probably one of the best pass-catching running backs, or I would just say football players, off of the catch and transitioning,” running backs coach Randy Jordan said. “You throw a ball out to him, and it’s a simple little smoke route, and he’s able to catch it and turn and get you five or six [yards] before you even know it. … We can kind of use them as a chess piece and move them around and try to get matchups whenever we possibly can.”

McKissic, a soon-to-be free agent, has finally found a home with Washington after years of waiting for a bigger chance as an undrafted wide receiver and then a running back. As a rookie in 2016, McKissic bounced on and off the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad as a wide receiver before heading to the Seattle Seahawks, who converted him to a running back. He hadn’t played the position since youth football back home in Alabama.

Shortly after McKissic arrived in Seattle, Tyler Lockett suffered a leg injury and McKissic was also tasked with becoming the Seahawks’ kick returner in their season finale against the San Francisco 49ers (he returned one kick for 22 yards).

“I had to embrace it and had to be grateful at the same time, getting a chance to really play,” he said. “I just knew I had to do whatever it took to get on the field. … In my situation, I fail once and then I’m out of here, being an undrafted guy.”

The “undrafted mind-set,” as he calls it, has fueled McKissic along every stop of his football career, from high school, as an overlooked wide receiver; to college, where he finished as Arkansas State’s all-time leading receiver; to the NFL, where he bounced from Atlanta to Seattle and then Detroit but never as a central piece to any team’s offense — and never with enough experience to fully learn his new position.

He would get a handful of plays in games and backup reps in practices, just enough to produce as a fill-in but not to understand how to let the blocks form or how to recognize his responsibilities on a blitz depending on the looks.

What he did collect, however, were observations and lessons from others in his room. He watched how Eric Weems, an undrafted wide receiver with him in Atlanta, played with as much confidence as Julio Jones. He watched how Josh Perkins, an undrafted tight end, made the most of his extra reps while drafted rookie Austin Hooper finished his degree at Stanford. In Seattle, the transition to running back forced him to learn more of the nuances of pass protection, so he watched Mike Davis, a veteran he remembers being “phenomenal” at the skill.

“He understood the things that I didn’t,” McKissic said. “So when I got [to Washington], it was just like: ‘You can’t let this be a factor as to why you’re not playing. And when you do get the chance, you got to thump these guys.’ … It takes time. It takes experience. It’s more of a will. Like, you got to want to do it.”

It was not until his first season in Washington in 2020 — when he played all 16 games (seven starts) and had 365 rushing yards, 589 receiving yards and three total touchdowns — that McKissic finally felt comfortable as an NFL back. His 80 catches that season ranked him second among running backs, behind New Orleans’s Alvin Kamara.

This past season, McKissic’s impact was felt even more as he and Antonio Gibson evolved into a complementary tandem and fueled a four-game winning streak for Washington in the second half of the season. In his 11 games (he suffered a concussion in Week 12 that ended his season), McKissic averaged 6.7 scrimmage yards per touch and totaled 212 rushing yards, 397 receiving yards and four touchdowns, two of which he scored against his former team, the Seahawks.

“Having one back really is tough because you don’t want that guy to really be the focus,” Coach Ron Rivera said during the season. “You want to have a good rotational system. … They’re all versatile. They all do their own thing, and they have their characteristics and their traits that fit what we do.”

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Because of his pending free agency, McKissic’s long-term future isn’t set. He has made his preference known — “Definitely, I want to stay. Everybody knows that,” he said — and the feeling is believed to be mutual with the team. Rivera has repeatedly mentioned McKissic along with Thomas and tackle Charles Leno Jr. as players he regards as team leaders.

After years of waiting for his chance, McKissic would appear to be next in line.

“I finally got the opportunity to just really be trusted and really show my versatility and what I can do,” McKissic said. “They gave me the chance to do that.”