"It came down to the last minute," Dexter McCluster said Wednesday when asked about the Kansas City Chiefs, the only NFL organization — and family — he’d ever known until six months ago. "But one thing that I thanked them for was being honest. They didn’t try to blow smoke up my tail."
Short version: No. 22 preferred to stick around. Chiefs general manager John Dorsey turned out his empty pockets, shrugged, made a funny face like Mr. Monopoly, and that was that.
"You know what? Everything happens for a reason," said McCluster, the Chiefs’ second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft who signed a three-year contract in March with the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City’s guest for Sunday’s regular-season opener. "But at the end of the day, the chips fell like they were supposed to ….
"I mean, that’s all I knew (was the Chiefs). They drafted me. They gave me an opportunity. The thing about this league is, you have to respond when change comes."
The Chiefs let seven starters from last fall’s 11-5 squad walk in free agency, including five in the first two hours of the process. It was a quantity dump in favor of quality, with some of that money shifting into contract extensions for star tailback Jamaal Charles and, more recently, quarterback Alex Smith — plus, outside linebacker Justin Houston may or may not be on deck.
It was a nice run for McCluster here, and none nicer than in 2013, when the Florida native collected 1,205 all-purpose yards, including an NFL-best 686 of them on punt returns. Short (5-foot-9) for a receiver and slim (165 pounds) for a tailback, the speedy former Ole Miss standout was flipped by the Chiefs for a more cost-controlled option in rookie De’Anthony Thomas, the ex-Oregon speedster.
"Like I said, I have great relationships with the (Chiefs) coaches," McCluster said. "They wanted me, most definitely. But that’s the business side of it: You have to go out there and show your worth."
For McCluster, it hasn’t been about finding worth in the NFL so much as a fit. A little backfield. A little slot. A little boundary work. Mix. Match. McCluster racked up more carries (seven for 27 yards) this preseason than catches (three for 26).
"What I saw was a guy that (brings) versatility," new Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "(We) can use him in a couple of different roles … and I think he did a good job in Kansas City with that."
"I mean, preseason, I was getting a lot of work at (running back), but like I said, I’m not limited," McCluster said. "I did the same thing in Kansas City. They did not limit me; that’s what makes me special. I (feel) that every day, but that’s the truth. I can be that dual threat."
It’s a bit of deja vu for McCluster, one of several new faces who’ll be part of a locker-room makeover in Nashville, a franchise hoping to replicate the turnaround a new coach (Andy Reid) brought to Kansas City last year — only with Whisenhunt at the controls.
"He perfected the game to a science," McCluster said of Reid. "It’s the same thing with coach Whiz."
If not for the Falcons — whose front office now features a certain Scott Pioli — the Titans might as well be Arrowhead South: Whisenhunt’s roster features five players who had started at least one game for the Chiefs from 2008-13 in McCluster, kicker Ryan Succop, safety Bernard Pollard, defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua and running back Jackie Battle. McCluster cracked that he was able to "work something out" with the latter in order to acquire the number 22 jersey in Tennessee.
"The transition was not hard at all, knowing some guys," McCluster noted. "Jackie Battle, Pollard, now Succop — and some guys that I knew previously as well. The transition wasn’t hard, and they welcomed me, and that made it that much better for me."
McCluster already knows his way around the Truman Sports Complex. Now he just has to find the visiting locker room.
"It’s definitely going to be different," McCluster said. "Four years there, I know the atmosphere, I know that Arrowhead is always rocking. It’s going to be different sitting on the other side. I don’t think I ever saw the other locker room in my career. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be fun."