KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dexter McCluster stood in the Chiefs locker room this week, flexing his left elbow back and forth as if it were new.
McCluster is hoping it will be new, in a way, for Monday night’s game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. McCluster, for the first time since injuring the elbow in September, won’t have to play with a brace on it, and he talked as if that would make him a new player.
“I’m glad to be out of the brace now,” he said. “I can’t truly get my running form with it on. Everything is back to normal, for a change.”
The floundering Chiefs could use McCluster’s help, but his season has been filled with more turnovers and passes he deflected to opponents than big plays. The Chiefs have several underproducing offensive skill players, but perhaps none with unfulfilled big-play potential like McCluster.
“Dexter, he tries very hard and he gives you everything he’s got,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “His skill-set involves a lot of quickness. Sometimes we’re not able to get him open as much as we want to. Sometimes we don’t have the time we need to get him the ball. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s an exciting player. We need to get the ball in his hands, and we’re trying to. But it hasn’t always stayed in his hands.”
The Chiefs have been tantalized by McCluster’s ability since they drafted him in the second round in 2010. He delivered a long punt return in his first game as a rookie but since then, opposing defenses have largely removed him as a factor.
They haven’t found it difficult to outmuscle the 5-foot-8, 170-pound McCluster, who is almost always the smallest player on the field.
“I think that Dexter has tremendous ability with his quickness and his ability to (elude coverage),” quarterback Matt Cassel said. “There’s also a second side of that where he’s a little bit smaller, so sometimes it’s challenging from a physical standpoint for him.”
Sometimes McCluster finds a way to get open, but the problem has been in catching the pass. Three times this season, he has deflected a pass that opponents wound up intercepting. Twice, the defender returned the interception for a touchdown.
“The thing about Dexter is he has this elbow that he’s kind of working with and I think that’s part of the problem because he can’t get full extension,” Crennel said. “He hasn’t been able to get full extension on some of those balls that he’s trying to catch over the middle, so rather than catching them, he’s been batting them up in the air. I think as his elbow gets better, I don’t think we’ll see the ball go up in the air off his hands as much.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said all the Chiefs receivers continue to work in practice on looking passes into their hands before trying to move on. He suggested that with McCluster, the problem isn’t always with the receiver.
“He’s had a couple of those,” Daboll said. “One kind of just squirted right through his hands. On some other ones, the location could be a little better.”
McCluster also lost a fumble on a punt return last week against San Diego. That duty usually goes to Javier Arenas, but he was injured against the Chargers and unavailable, so McCluster filled in for the first time this season.
“I’ve been catching punts, week in and week out, always getting reps at practice catching punts,” McCluster said. “My time was called, it didn’t go my way and now I just have to not let it happen again.”
The Chiefs drafted Devon Wylie this year in the fourth round and hoped he could provide some job competition for McCluster. It hasn’t developed. Wylie missed some of training camp and the preseason with injuries and played in the season-opening game against Atlanta before injuring his hamstring.
Wylie hasn’t played in a game since, but returned to practice a couple of weeks ago and said he was ready to play against Pittsburgh. Crennel is cautious about playing any rookie, particularly one who missed as much practice time as Wylie.
So Wylie’s time could come later this season, but maybe not on Monday night.