KANSAS CITY, Mo. —During each of the past two offseasons, the Chiefs have spent time and money to improve their ability to return kicks reliability and add big-play potential. Kansas City drafted Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas in 2010 and, last month, signed Steve Breaston as a free agent.
Through two preseason games, those three players have a grand total of zero returns. While they waited, the return game has been occasionally stained by mistakes and mental errors — all, coach Todd Haley said Sunday, in an effort to see if a new name emerges in an already crowded field of returners.
"The more you have," Haley said, "the better. I said earlier in camp: We've got three, that I know are pretty good ones, kickoff and punt returners. Now, if we can find another one, that just gives you more options."
Of the team's seven punt returns and three kickoff returns, Quinten Lawrence has fielded four, not including three fair catches. The Chiefs are trying to give the converted wide receiver — he was moved to defensive back early in training camp — another way to show he's worth a roster spot. But Lawrence admitted Sunday that his mistakes so far, including a muffed punt last week at Baltimore and returning a kickoff against Tampa Bay despite being deep in his end zone, are more memorable than his 5.7-yard average as a punt returner.
"I've still got a lot to learn," he said, adding that on the muffed punt, he tried to run before he caught the ball.
He said he has to do better with his opportunities.
"I know what I did wrong," he said, "so my coaches talked to me on the sideline: Just hang in there, and the next chance I get, catch the ball and try to make a play."
Lawrence and the other auditioning returners — Javes Lewis, Jeremy Horne, Demond Washington, Chandler Williams and Zeke Markshausen also have returned kicks — could be running out of time. At some point this preseason, Haley said, the responsibilities will shift back toward McCluster, Arenas and Breaston.
It could be as soon as Friday's contest against St. Louis at Arrowhead Stadium.
"Whenever the time comes, I'm ready, man," Arenas said. "I'm ready."
Arenas averaged 8.3 yards returning punts and 21.2 yards returning kickoffs last year, but he lacked the big plays he was known for while in college at Alabama. McCluster returned a punt 94 yards for a touchdown in the Chiefs' season-opening win against San Diego, but after that, the fireworks were gone. Kansas City brought in Breaston for a third big-play threat who also could add a veteran presence to a young unit.
Haley said he's trying to rely on Arenas, McCluster and Breaston to help mentor the more inexperienced returners. That lack of familiarity showed last Friday when Horne fielded a kickoff deep in the Chiefs' end zone, running it out anyway. He ran through Terrance Copper's signal to down the kick for at touchback, and this time, the gamble paid off for a 26-yard gain.
The coach said Horne's decision defied the rules of returning, as set forth by Haley and special teams coach Steve Hoffman.
"If you break the rules," Haley said, "that's something that's got to change.... You've better get it past the 20. It had better be a better return than staying in. That's our rule."
He said he wasn't concerned that the Chiefs have little to show yet for two preseason games of unimpressive returns, saying that improvement is expected once players communicate more often and grow more comfortable with their roles. It also could help when the regular returners are back in the mix.
Arenas said he's trying to be patient.
"With the amount of guys that we've got back there, with the capability of big plays, I think you've got to see it as, 'When it's my turn to contribute, I'm going to go out there and do it up,'" he said. "I don't see myself as the only starting punt returner, but I do see myself as a guy who can make a big impact back there. When I'm back there, I'm going to take it on full speed."