In Kansas City, Joe Delaney has gone about as far as a running back can go

Once you've seen running back Joe Delaney of the Kansas City Chiefs scamper through a host of would-be tacklers like a gazelle, you keep looking for the windup key sticking out of the back of his jersey.

It's got to be there somewhere, because runners Delaney's size (5 ft. 10 in. and 186 lbs.) don't have 1,000-yard seasons in the National Football League unless they keep moving. And not only did Joe go over the magic figure as a rookie a year ago, he also caught 22 passes coming out of the backfield and made the Pro Bowl Game.

So far Year No. 2 in Delaney's NFL life has been a happy continuation of his rookie season, although his stats won't match last year's because of the strike.

If Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers were a cello case, Joe could fit inside with room left over for Lawrence Welk's violin section. Where Campbell relies on power to get his yearly 1,000 yards plus, Joe emphasizes speed and guile like such other relatively small running backs as Tony Dorsett and Joe Washington.

''I've played against O. J. Simpson, Gale Sayers, and Walter Payton, and Delaney has the same kind of instincts,'' said veteran defensive end Elvin Bethea of the Oilers. ''You come at Joe too quickly and the way he shifts gears, the first you know he's taken away your best angle.''

Delaney's 4.4 speed in the 40 is what you'd expect from a Heisman Trophy winner, not an unknown kid from Northwest Louisiana. Although Joe set a school career record there by gaining more than 3,000 yards, NFL scouts tend to minimize such figures unless they are assembled against power teams like Michigan or Penn State.

Asked how he was able to come into the NFL last year and put statistics on the board that were in the same neighborhood as those of Ottis Anderson, Billy Sims and Joe Cribbs, Delaney replied:

''I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was drafted by a team that needed help at running back. So I was lucky. I got a chance to show what I could do almost immediately. Also, the way the Chiefs' offense is structured, the guy who gets the ball has a lot of options as to where he can run. If the hole didn't open, I knew I wouldn't be criticized by the coaching staff for trying something else.

''One thing I discovered is that a guy with my speed, if he can also shift gears, can gain yardage in this league,'' Joe continued. ''Even though opposing teams continually shift their look on defense, there's still only so much they can do. Anyway, what they take away from you on one side of the field, they generally give back on the other.''

Like most runners who rely on quickness and speed rather than power, Delaney prefers going outside to trying to pick his way through traffic.

''Every time you run inside, you automatically have more bodies to contend with and a lot more arms reaching out for you that are hard to avoid,'' Joe explained. ''But when you're able to take your act outside, you get a pretty good look at where the defense is going and can create angles for yourself. At least when I'm out there one-on-one, I get to use moves that would have no value if I were running inside.''

Last year Delaney, who set the tone for the Chiefs' offense, established team records for most yards gained in a season (1,121); most yards in a game (193 versus Houston); and most 100-yard games in the same season (5). And if Joe hadn't been injured late in the year, his figures undoubtedly would have been significantly higher.

Delaney, in his second game back after the strike, carried the ball 18 times against the Los Angeles Rams. Although Joe failed to score a touchdown, he averaged almost four yards per carry, and several times got away from would-be tacklers in the secondary who seemed to have him hemmed in.

Still, the best way to watch Delaney is on television, where sophisticated zoom-in cameras can not only freeze his moves but bring them back on instant replay. TV also provides the close-up shots that make Joe seem like a man with 360-degree vision and moves to match.

Last year Delaney had the longest TD run from scrimmage of any back in the league - an 82-yard jaunt that the Denver Broncos watched but found hard to enjoy.

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