KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs have shown remarkable patience with receiver Dexter McCluster for reasons that were not fully revealed until Sunday. Up to this point, McCluster had been a diminutive underachiever, a tiny bundle of unfulfilled potential.
Turns out his 5-foot-8, 170-pound frame can carry some serious weight. He hoisted the otherwise sluggish Chiefs, battling in a close game with the winless New York Giants, onto his shoulders and delivered them to a 31-7 victory at Arrowhead Stadium. His 89-yard punt return late in the third quarter broke the game open.
The Chiefs led 10-7 at the time. They scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make the game look like a blowout, but at the point of McCluster’s return the Giants were still hanging around. He not only ended their hopes for an upset victory, but did so in spectacular fashion.
McCluster spun, dipped and darted in a return that was more about his ability than any great job by the blockers. Indeed, the Giants had bodies in place but McCluster made them fail in their tackles.
“Human Joystick, Part 2,” said Dwayne Bowe, invoking the nickname of Dante Hall, perhaps the best return specialist in Chiefs history. “We were actually moving on the sideline with him as he was juking and making defenders miss.”
The great return specialists have that sense of theater, saving their big plays for the biggest moments. McCluster had one such moment in his NFL career, in his first NFL game in 2010 when he returned a punt 94 yards for a touchdown in a Monday night game against San Diego.
That return was so well blocked that any number of adequate returners could have scored. Not so on Sunday’s return, which had so many twists and turns that McCluster couldn’t begin to describe it.
“I was kind of dizzy,” he said. “I was doing so much. But it was a good dizzy.
“Instincts took over. I did some things I don’t remember doing. I’ve been told it was pretty sweet. I can’t wait to go watch it.”
The Chiefs had been eager to watch many such plays from McCluster, but his memorable contributions since that night against the Chargers had been few. His roster spot seemed in jeopardy as recently as last year, when the Chiefs drafted Devon Wylie, another small receiver who was faster than McCluster.
McCluster’s career in Kansas City may have been rescued when the Chiefs hired Andy Reid as their new coach in January. Reid was intrigued by McCluster when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles and McCluster was available in the draft.
The Chiefs beat the Eagles to McCluster that year, but one of Reid’s first declarations after arriving in Kansas City was that he had big intentions for McCluster. He backed up those words by feeding the ball to McCluster often in offseason practice and training camp.
The biggest threat to McCluster’s playing time ended when Wiley was released before the start of the season.
The Chiefs got plenty of use out of McCluster on Sunday. He also caught five passes and three of them allowed the Chiefs to convert on third down and continue drives.
It wasn’t a career offensive day for McCluster, but it may have been his most meaningful, even with the punt return aside. Reid and his offensive coaches seem to be finding a way to get McCluster involved, something previous staffs tried to do but failed.
“They’re giving me a little more opportunity,” McCIuster said. “I think they really trust me. They’re not worried about stature. They’re not worried about what happened in the past. They’re worried [whether] this guy can play and let’s give him the opportunity.
“I pride myself in being able to get open. I was able to do it when my number was called.”
The first three weeks were mostly more of the same old McCluster. He did have a 36-yard punt return against Jacksonville to set up a short touchdown drive. But before Sunday he had only six catches and his signature moment of the season was his fumbled kickoff return in last week’s game in Philadelphia.
Even Reid’s patience had to run out sometime and after three weeks, it was reasonable to think that time might come soon. In that regard, McCluster’s game was just as big for him as it was for the Chiefs, a notion McCluster seemed to agree with.
“It was overdue but you know what?” McCluster asked. “It was right on time.”
In another context, that contradictory comment would make no sense. In this one, it captured the situation perfectly.
Reid also realized the significance of McCluster’s big day.
“He’ll probably sleep [well] tonight,” Reid said. “He’s probably pretty tired after all that work he did today.”
In this, McCluster was also in agreement. But before turning in for the night, he said he had something to do first.
“I might go back,” he said, “and watch that punt return a couple of times.”