McCluster finding niche with new Chiefs regime

Dexter McCluster figures he watched his shake-and-baking punt
return about 500 times, a dynamic touchdown run last Sunday that
helped his Kansas City Chiefs beat the New York Giants.

Don’t think for a second that he was exaggerating, either.

McCluster fades back to field the kick late in the third
quarter, with the Chiefs clinging to a field-goal lead. He moves to
his left to make the first man miss, and then ducks his shoulder
and twirls like a top to make the next would-be tackler look silly.
Then he turns on the jets, slipping between two more Giants and
hitting the open field at top speed.

Just for one last highlight, he makes an ankle-breaking sidestep
that leaves one last cover man grasping at air. From there,
McCluster heads to the endzone for the game-breaking score.

Worth watching all those times?

”I laughed because I didn’t remember that spin move, but it
worked,” McCluster said. ”I had great blocking, some great
individual efforts and got into the end zone. I’m serious. I
probably watched it 500 times.”

It was the second punt return touchdown of McCluster’s career,
and it came at an opportune time not only for the Chiefs but also
for the fourth-year wide receiver.

McCluster has been trying to find his niche in the NFL ever
since he was drafted in the second round in 2010. He stands just
5-foot-9 and 165 pounds and he’s never been able to handle running
back duties, even though previous regimes have tried. He’s more
suited to be a wide receiver, but his lack of size doesn’t
necessarily help.

Finally, McCluster seems to be finding his place under new coach
Andy Reid.

Along with proving himself a dynamic punt returner, he’s also
getting more involved in the passing game. He had a season-high
five catches in the win over the Giants, and several of them
allowed the Chiefs to keep the chains moving on third down.

While he’ll never be able to stretch the field vertically, he’s
proven to be a sure-handed pass-catcher in the flat, where he then
can use his swiveling hips to make defenders miss.

”I have to do my job, whether it’s as a punt returner or as an
offensive player,” McCluster said. ”I picked up some key first
downs, some third-down conversions, and all that matters is we won
the game, so I can’t complain about anything else.”

Especially when the Chiefs are off to a 4-0 start.

”He is so versatile, not just on special teams. He’s a
playmaker for us,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. ”He’s not
just an offensive weapon, but also on special teams. But on
offense, there’s no question we take advantage of what he can
do.”

That hasn’t always been the case. McCluster has drawn the ire of
coaches and fans alike for failing to provide the big plays that
the previous regime expected when they picked him 36th overall out
of Ole Miss. Part of it was constant changes in the coaching
staffs, but part of it was also the physical limitations that he
brings to the table.

Now, the Chiefs are finding ways to use McCluster’s speed
without his size being a liability, and the result is one more
piece for an offense that is starting to get on track.

”He can do a lot of things for you,” Reid said. ”We’ve tried
to do some of those without overloading him. You get to a point
where you have so many different plays, and that’s not reality. It
has to make sense to the player where they’re at and why they’re
there. He’s a very intelligent kid and works his tail off. I’m just
trying to be careful where we put him.”

That includes returning punts. McCluster has done it off and on
throughout his career, but his dazzling touchdown return against
the Giants may net him the job for quite some time.

”That was a pretty good one,” Reid said. ”He made a whole lot
of folks miss. It ranks up there, I guess with the some of the
better ones I’ve seen.”

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