For new special teams coach Dave Toub, things might have been easier if the Chiefs had allowed a couple of long kick returns in the opening preseason game last week. That way, things could only improve.
Instead, the Chiefs were the team with the two long returns. Expectations for the return game were already high after the hiring of the well-respected Toub, who joined the Chiefs after working with Devin Hester and the Bears.
Now they’ve been bumped even higher.
“That’s what we hope for, what we strive for,’’ Toub said. “But some weeks are going to be better than others.’’
“We have high expectations for this group. They’ve worked their butts off, and it’s just good to see guys working so hard to reap rewards in the game.’’
In the Chiefs’ first punt return under Toub in the preseason opener Friday night in New Orleans, Dexter McCluster returned a punt 55 yards. Later, rookie Knile Davis brought back a kickoff 79 yards. Each play set up a field goal and those were the only points for the Chiefs after their game-opening touchdown drive in a 17-13 loss to the Saints.
The Chiefs had three players return a kickoff and five return a punt against New Orleans. Toub said they would continue to look at many return candidates in their next preseason game on Friday against San Francisco at Arrowhead Stadium.
“We’ve got another week of doing it the way we’re doing it right now,’’ Toub said. “We’re going to look at a lot of guys again this game and probably in the third game we’ll start paring it down a little bit to what we’re going to get during the season.’’
After he joined the Chiefs in January, coach Andy Reid moved quickly to hire Toub, generally considered to be among the NFL’s best special teams coaches. The Bears returned 22 kickoffs and punts for touchdowns in nine seasons with the Bears and it all wasn’t from Hester. Five other players contributed to the total.
He is the third special teams coach for the Chiefs in three seasons and McCluster said he noticed the change immediately.
“We work hard, so hard, on special teams,’’ McCluster said. “It’s not just (time off) during practice.
“He’s a guy who really, really, really loves special teams. He knows that if he can get 11 guys on the kickoff return, punt return, whatever it may be, to buy in, he knows we can be game-changers. Special teams can win games. His focus and determination to get us to be better and get the best out of us this year is going to be the key to our success.’’
Even before his long return against the Saints, McCluster was set as the regular season punt returner. His quickness and ability to avoid attempted tackles made him a favorite of Toub’s from the time he joined the Chiefs last winter.
“That’s why he’s our punt returner,’’ Toub said. “He can make the first man miss. He did that in the game. He made the first man miss and then he was out of the gate. We had a nice wall set up after that.’’
McCluster fell from favor as a return specialist with the previous coaching staff. He returned just two punts last season as the backup to Javier Arenas, who was traded to Arizona in the spring.
“It’s been awhile since I returned punts,’’ McCluster said. “I’ve been wanting it. I was so anxious and at the same time nervous and excited.’’
McCluster returned kickoffs his first two seasons with the Chiefs but isn’t a candidate for that job this year. The Chiefs are looking at defensive back Quintin Demps, who returned kickoffs for Reid with the Eagles, wide receiver Devon Wylie and Davis, a third-round draft pick.
Davis didn’t return kickoffs in college at Arkansas. But he’s big and fast, so the Chiefs are experimenting with him and Davis delivered a long return in his first and only try as a professional.
“It was fun,’’ Davis said. “It shows that hard work pays off. Once I get the ball, it’s just football. It feels natural.’’
Davis has dropped many returns in practice, including one on Sunday, so the Chiefs aren’t ready to use him in a regular-season game.
“He’ll be the first one to tell you that in practice you’ve got to catch all the balls clean,’’ Toub said. “He has to have confidence. He’s still a work in progress.
“He just hasn’t done it. It’s all new for him. He wasn’t a kick returner in college. We’re training to do something he’s never done. After the catch, it’s pretty impressive. He broke two tackles on the return he had. He’s a big man who can run fast.’’