The lineage of great Chiefs kick returners is as old as the franchise itself.
There was diminutive Noland “Super Gnat” Smith in the 1960s, followed by hard-charging Ed Podolak of Christmas Day 1971 fame.
Long and lean J.T. Smith was a punt-returning terror in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Powerful and fast Tamarick Vanover was a game-breaker in the 1990s, and Dante Hall dodged and darted to a franchise-record 11 kick returns for touchdowns — six kickoffs and five punts — in the 2000s.
But this year, the Chiefs not only have one dangerous return man who is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball, they have three.
Quintin Demps and rookie Knile Davis have each returned one kickoff for a touchdown this season, including Davis’ 108-yarder against Denver on Dec. 1, the longest play in Chiefs history and second-longest kickoff return in NFL history.
And before he was ruled out for Sunday’s game at Oakland, Dexter McCluster returned two punts for touchdowns — including last week’s 74-yarder at Washington, which coupled with Demps’ 95-yard kickoff return, gave the Chiefs two kick returns for scores in the same game for the first time since Hall returned a punt and kickoff at St. Louis exactly 11 years to the day, Dec. 8, 2002.
“McCluster and Demps are a heck of a 1-2 punch,” Hall said by phone from his home in Texas. “I love the way they hit (the hole). They hit it with no fear at all. That’s the key to being a great returner.”
It’s what Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt was looking for — and actually predicted — when newly hired Andy Reid put together his coaching staff last January and included former Chicago Bears assistant Dave Toub as the club’s special-teams coordinator.
“I think we really have a chance to take a step forward in special teams,” Hunt told The Star during Super Bowl weekend in New Orleans. “I grew up with the Chiefs during a period of time in the 1980s when Frank Gansz was the special-teams coach widely regarded as one of the best in the league at that time and maybe one of the best ever.
“You can think back to some of those seasons in the ’80s, when we won a lot of games with special teams. Well, that’s the mentality that the team is going to have with the new leadership. It’s something Andy believes in. Instead of trying not to make mistakes, we’re going to go out on special teams and try to win football games.”
Yet even Hunt couldn’t imagined so much special-teams success so quickly.
Already, the Chiefs’ four kick returns for touchdowns in one season have tied the club record set by Hall in 2003 when he returned two punts and two kickoffs for scores in a ridiculous four consecutive games, capped by a 93-yard punt return against Denver, in which he retreated near his goal line and after a couple of nifty moves brought the Arrowhead Stadium house down by streaking down the sidelines.
The four returns for touchdowns are two shy of the NFL single-season record of six set by the 2007 Bears, whose special-teams coach happened to be Toub.
Future Hall of Famer Devin Hester returned four punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns for the 2007 Bears, breaking his league record set in 2006 when he returned five kicks for touchdowns — three punts and two kickoffs — also under Toub.
“Once you score ” Toub said, “and the same thing happened in Chicago it feeds off itself. The guys start buying in and want to get them in the end zone. We have three guys who can do it, and guys block a little bit extra, and it’s paying off for us right now.”
Having multiple kick-return threats instead of one gives the Chiefs a decided advantage over their opponents. Demps has returned 25 kickoffs for a 30.6-yard average, while Davis has returned five for a 35.4-yard mark.
As a team, the Chiefs lead the NFL with a 30.5-yard average, which is on pace to break the NFL record of 29.4 set by the 1972 Bears.
Each of the three kick returners poses a different problem for coverage units. Demps and Davis resemble Vanover with their combination of size and speed. McCluster is slightly built and shifty as a runner, much like Hall.
“You’ll see kickoff teams stay in the huddle and wait to see who we’re going to put in,” Toub said. “It’s kind of a cat-and-mouse game, or chess game. We throw guys out there late, and they have a different scheme for each guy. Those are all things that work to our advantage.
“Quintin likes to press the edges (to the sidelines) and look for the cutbacks. When you’re a big guy who can run fast those guys are hard to stop. Not a lot of cover guys want to get in front of that.
“Knile can hit it right up the field, north and south. And he runs so hard, and strong with his knees up, running-back style, that he’s really hard to tackle. Dexter is dynamic he has the ability to make people miss with his quickness and his top-end speed.
McCluster’s two punt returns for touchdowns lead the NFL, and he ranks seventh with an 11.7-yard average for 54 returns. McCluster, who missed the trip to Oakland because of an ankle infection, is four returns shy of the club record 58 set by Smith in 1979 and is 9 yards shy of Vanover’s record of 640 set in 1999.
“The key this year, as far as what I’ve been able to do is (due to) the guys around me,” McCluster said. “They’ve been working hard and putting in the extra effort. Special teams is about putting in the extra effort. How bad you want it? Those guys have been doing a great job in giving me a lot of seams to work with and ultimately we’ve been getting some positive things going.
“When you have not just one guy, but multiple guys running kicks back and sparking the team I know when I make a big return, it makes them want to go out there and make a return. We feed off of each other, we have fun with it and it’s been working for us.”
As a rookie, McCluster returned a punt a club-record 94 yards for a critical touchdown in the 2010 season-opening win over San Diego. But he returned just 20 more punts in three seasons when the previous coaching staff went primarily with Javier Arenas.
Reid and Toub decided to give McCluster another shot at returning punts.
“Looking from afar, when he had the touchdown his rookie year, you could see that he was dynamic,” Toub said. “They didn’t use him (as a punt returner), but I think they were trying to keep him fresh and protect him for the offense.
“I’m happy Andy allows him to do the other things.”
For all of the Chiefs’ grand kick-return heritage, the club hit a touchdown drought during the last two-plus seasons.
Going into this season, the Chiefs hadn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since Jamaal Charles went 97 yards against Pittsburgh in 2009, and hadn’t returned a punt for a score since McCluster’s touchdown in 2010.
It was apparent things would be different during the preseason. In the preseason opener at New Orleans, McCluster returned a punt 55 yards and Davis, who did not have any kick-return experience at Arkansas fielded a kickoff 6 yards deep in his end zone and returned it 79 yards.
A week later against San Francisco, it was Demps’ turn, and he bolted 104 yards with a kickoff. Not to be outdone, Davis went as far as anyone could with a kickoff, going 109 yards at Pittsburgh.
“We developed a little bit faster than what you would imagine,” Toub said, “but a lot of it has to do with Andy Reid and how he established how important special teams were and how it can impact a game. The guys bought in during training camp, and it is snowballing for us.”
McCluster turned in the season’s first big return when his 89-yard return, which resembled Hall’s crowd-stirring return against Denver in 2003, broke open a tight game and sparked a 31-7 win over the Giants at Arrowhead Stadium.
“That definitely brought back memories of that year when I saw that,” Hall said, comparing McCluster’s spinning away from at least three Giants to his big return against the Broncos when he retreated to his goal line before juking Denver’s pursuit.
“He reminds me a lot of myself,” Hall, who was 5 feet 8 and 187 pounds, said of McCluster, who’s 5-8 and 170. “I was a little bigger than him. But I was still a smaller guy and used my quickness, and it’s fun to watch him play.”
Davis also electrified the Arrowhead Stadium faithful with the 108-yarder against Denver, and the daily double of McCluster’s punt return and Demps’ kickoff return at Washington was a crowning blow.
“It starts with great coaching and the other 10 guys blocking and doing their job,” Demps said, “ and having a good returner, of course, always pays off.”
During the preseason, Toub did not limit the return men from returning kickoffs from deep in the end zone. That attitude extended into the regular season, where the Chiefs are not settling for touchbacks and no kickoff is too deep to return.
On Sunday, they’ll face an Oakland team that has surrendered one punt return for a touchdown — but kickoffs are another matter. Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski ranks second in the NFL in with 51 touchbacks, but he’s going to have to put the ball out of the stadium to keep the Chiefs from returning his kickoffs.
“We’ll bring them out,” Toub said. “We like to create. We want to put pressure on the kickoff team. Our confidence is high right now.”
Just like the days of Super Gnat Vanover and Hall.
“There is definitely a tradition here,” Toub said. “We’re happy we’re able to enhance this tradition.”