Prior to Sunday’s breakout performance, it was beginning to look like Dexter McCluster might be headed toward another long, frustrating season.
Through three games, the Chiefs’ undeniably speedy return man/slot receiver — a former second-round pick who only scored five total during his first three years in the league — had caught a grand total of six passes for 58 yards. That put him on pace to finish well behind his underwhelming 2012 numbers (52 catches for 452 yards).
What’s more, aside from a 36-yard punt return in the season opener against Jacksonville, he’d also failed to make much of an impact on special teams, even muffing a kick return attempt against Philadelphia.
Still, special teams coach Dave Toub never lost faith. He mentioned to reporters last Thursday that McCluster had been close to breaking a few big ones, something he apparently told Chiefs coach Andy Reid as well.
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“Dave will tell ya, we're like one block or one step away from getting one,” Reid said Monday. “I've heard that the last couple weeks.”
But on Sunday, McCluster made Toub look like a prophet. His darting, dynamic, 89-yard punt return — which featured a spin move and more jukes than a vintage Barry Sanders run — not only turned the tide in the Chiefs’ 31-7 victory, it also thrilled the Arrowhead Stadium crowd, wowed teammates and coaches and instantly became McCluster’s single greatest highlight since 2010, when he returned a punt 94 yards for a touchdown as a rookie.
“Dex took that thing to the crib,” tight end Sean McGrath said. “You could feel the swing.”
Not a bad achievement for a guy who returned only two punts last season.
“He hit it like he hit it in practice,” receiver Dwayne Bowe said. “We told him once he hits like that, nobody can stop him.”
Bowe essentially said the return reminded him of something Dante Hall — famously nicknamed the Human Joystick — might have done during his heyday with the Chiefs.
“Human Joystick part 2,” Bowe said. “We were actually on the sideline moving with him as he was juking and making defenders miss. He’s a heck of a player. He did his thing out there today.”
Reid was also impressed with the return, saying his moves were “phenomenal” and “something special.” However, he was just as happy with McCluster’s production on offense, where he was targeted five times and caught a season-high five passes for 48 yards, including three third-down conversions.
“The ones that jump out at you are the third-down catches,” Reid said. “Those were all reads that he and the quarterback had to be on the same page with.”
Quarterback Alex Smith said he never has to worry about McCluster bringing juice to the offense.
“He’s the guy that brings so much energy, not just to special teams but offense for us. He’s a difference-maker and the guy that’s got a really unique toolset. He really helped us; he moved the chains.”
The Chiefs hope he’s also primed to deliver on all the promise he’s shown in spurts, and if he does, perhaps his punt-return touchdown will be remembered as the jumping-off point.
But in the aftermath of Sunday’s game, no one was really thinking about all that, least of all McCluster. He grinned in the locker room while speaking to reporters, happy to do his part in helping the Chiefs go 4-0 thanks to a highlight-reel return that speaks not only to his talent but his potential.
“It felt good seeing the blockers set up; you just let instincts take over,” McCluster said. “I did kind of feel like a video game I don’t play video games, but if I did, I hope it feels like that.”