KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The kid always was breathtaking, a kind of player who'd offer something unexpected and memorable. This much hasn't changed.
Dexter McCluster is still one of the Chiefs' most exciting players. Versatile, too. He can make things happen from several angles, and that's why the team drafted him with the fourth pick of the second round last year. A season and a half into McCluster's NFL career, he's still causing fans to hold their breath; only this season, it has been for different reasons.
McCluster fumbled again this past Monday night, his third of the season, and that number has him tied for fifth among all players. More worrisome, though, is that with 84 touches — 99 fewer than the league's most-worked back, Adrian Peterson — the Chiefs' youngster has more giveaways than any NFL player who's not a quarterback.
"I know for a fact that I don't have a fumbling problem," McCluster said Thursday. "It's just something that happens. Really, the coaches, they know I don't. It's just a matter of holding onto the ball the last six inches, last three inches to the ground. It's just the little details, and that is a little detail."
But it has big consequences, and coach Todd Haley has said that the one thing players cannot do is commit turnovers. For now, the team hasn't lost faith in McCluster, particularly after he rebounded late in Monday's overtime win against San Diego.
"In overtime, as big as it gets in the regular season, anyway, from a pressure standpoint and on a national stage," Haley said, "I thought Dexter stepped up."
After the Chiefs took possession in overtime, quarterback Matt Cassel kept passing to McCluster, connecting with the youngster three times for 28 yards. He bobbled the ball after one of those catches, creating more drama in an already tense situation, but he held on. His sure hands and spectacular moves, avoiding tacklers in space as he once did at the University of Mississippi, helped put the Chiefs in position for Ryan Succop to kick the winning field goal.
"He's dangerous, especially one on one," fullback Le'Ron McClain said. "I think he could make that guy miss probably 10 out of 10 times; he's so quick. That one-on-one thing, just get him out in space, and he can do what he wants to do."
Haley indicated that McCluster, and the team's other running backs, might begin to see more passes thrown their way. McCluster has seemed more comfortable — and certainly more effective — as a receiver than he has as a running back. He said he tends to be more valuable when he is given room to miss defenders.
"That's something I've been good at throughout my career," he said. "Running the ball up the middle, outside, it really doesn't matter. But in space, I do the most damage."
He was forced into a more specific role after Jamaal Charles suffered a torn knee ligament in the season's second week.
But unlike Charles, with whom McCluster shares a similar running style, McCluster has shown an inability to make tacklers miss at the line of scrimmage. And listed at 5 feet 8 and 170 pounds, the 23-year-old hasn't yet proved that he can deflect contact and remain upright. He hasn't broken a run of at least 15 yards since a third-week loss at San Diego, when he was given a chance to become the Chiefs' featured rusher.
That job has since gone to Jackie Battle, whose 4.7-yard average leads the team — and who has notched runs of at least 15 yards in each of the past three contests. Meanwhile, McCluster is a change-of-pace back who's also playing some receiver and returning kicks. Haley said McCluster also has shown promise in pass protection and on kickoff returns, in which he's No. 12 in the league with a 25.2-yard average.
"He's filling a pretty big role," Haley said."... He's a young player right now, but he's continuing to get more and more comfortable in that role."
As he adjusts, Haley said he's not worried that McCluster's mistakes might begin to affect his mental approach.
"If you've been around him," the coach said, "confidence isn't a major issue."
Haley said that was a reason why McCluster was able to sidestep his earlier struggles and be one of the Chiefs' more dependable players in overtime. It was during that more than seven-minute possession that the crowd at Arrowhead saw the breathtaking moves that brought him here and, despite his mistakes, still has coaches hopeful that he'll emerge as one of the team's more explosive — and, yes, reliable — playmakers.
McCluster said he's determined to prove himself valuable and reliable.
"I've been through it before," he said, "and I know that if you keep thinking about it, it's just going to linger, and it's just going to take you out of your game. You've got to put it behind you."