KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A single play from the 2013 playoffs remains fresh in Chiefs running back Cyrus Gray’s mind despite the passing months.
The Chiefs faced a second-and-8 on the Indianapolis Colts’ 41-yard line while nursing a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Gray lined up wide on the right side of the field. The cornerback pressed Gray off the line of scrimmage before releasing him at the 39-yard line as the defense dropped into zone coverage.
The Colts accounted for the receivers except Gray, who raced down the right sideline by himself. Cornerback Darius Butler was more than 5 yards away and helpless to defend the deep pass thrown by quarterback Alex Smith.
There was nothing but 15 empty yards between Gray and the end zone when Smith’s pass descended. All that remained was Gray getting under the ball and making the play, but with each step it became clear the pass wouldn’t be caught.
A desperate diving attempt by Gray at the 11-yard line fell short, as the ball bounced harmlessly off the turf and with it the chance to fight off a furious Colts comeback win.
The third-year pro isn’t ready to forget that painful incident.
“I was thinking about it today,” Gray said Tuesday. “We were in a two-minute situation in practice and I thought about it. That was a big play for me. It would’ve helped us. It would’ve been big for my career if I made that play, but unfortunately I didn’t. That’s one of those plays that if I would’ve made it, I would’ve been a hero and hopefully we would’ve won the game off of that play.”
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, the Chiefs’ sixth-round pick of the 2012 NFL Draft used the experience as motivation for organized team activities (OTAs), training camp and preseason as he battles for a roster spot.
“This year I’m just using that as fuel,” Gray said, “just getting better in all aspects of my game.”
The 24-year-old’s approach has paid off through two preseason games where he leads the Chiefs in rushing with 103 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries (4.9 yards per carry).
“The first two preseason games have been pretty good to me just helping me with my confidence,” Gray said. “In this league, I think confidence is probably the most important thing you got to have because without it you can’t really play. If your mind isn’t right, you can’t focus and be the person you need to be.”
Gray also maintains his role on special teams where he’s responsible as the primary blocker for punter Dustin Colquitt and the lead blocker on kickoff returns.
The former Texas A&M Aggie’s performances have caught offensive coordinator Doug Pederson’s attention.
“Cyrus is doing an outstanding job,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “He’s another one of those kids that’s a smart, intelligent football player. He works hard. Doesn’t say anything whether he gets one repetition or 10, he’s going to go about his business as a professional and he’s put himself in a nice spot.”
Head coach Andy Reid echoed Pederson.
“Cyrus is a professional to the T,” Reid said. “He’s just a good all-around football player. He does well on special teams. He does well as a running back. He can catch, he can block, he can do all stuff.”
While his preseason production has turned heads, Gray is quick to point out his success running the football is largely due to the offensive line.
“I give all the credit to those guys because those guys are driving the guys back,” he said. “It looks like I’m making it look easy, but they’re doing all the work.”
Still, a lot of what Gray has accomplished this offseason ultimately returns to that playoff moment.
The 5-10, 206-pound Gray finished the 2013 season with seven catches for 46 yards in spot duty behind starter Jamaal Charles and primary backup Knile Davis.
Gray found himself in the playoff spotlight based on game-ending injuries to Charles, who sustained a concussion, and Davis, who left with a knee injury.
But the passing play in Indianapolis on a route designed for Charles prompted Gray to seek improvement on running routes and catching the football out of the backfield.
“I really wanted to implement that in my game and get better at it this year,” Gray said. “And just finishing. Finishing is very important. If we do that here, we continue to finish through runs and finish second effort in practice, the game becomes easy.”
What isn’t easy is the competition at running back.
Gray is locked in battle with veteran Joe McKnight and rookies De’Anthony Thomas, the team’s fourth-round pick, and Charcandrick West, an undrafted free agent. Charles and Davis are locks, and the team won’t part with the explosive Thomas.
That scenario potentially leaves Gray on the outside looking in if the Chiefs don’t keep four running backs. The team kept three in 2013.
Gray said he knew entering OTAs the competition would be tight, but he learned from his backfield teammates as they’ve pushed each other.
“I try to take a piece of everybody’s game to put into mine,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing and just working on being consistent.”
The first roster cuts before the 2014 regular season from 90 players to 75 players arrives Aug. 26, and then final cuts from 75 players to the 53-man roster on Aug. 30.
Gray is aware of life on the bubble after surviving final roster cuts the past two seasons.
But he also knows a strong training camp that translates into consistent preseason performances is a good way to make the decision hard on the coaching staff.
“I think it will catch their attention,” he said, “but at the same time you can’t worry about it. You just have to go out there and play.”
Ultimately, the January moment doesn’t consume Gray.
But there are flashbacks, even in practice, where it serves as a reminder of what must be the outcome should another opportunity present itself as he fights to make the roster.
“It’s just when the ball is in the air or when the ball is coming to you,” Gray said, “you have to make that play.”