The mere mention of the play brought a smile to the face of Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy.
Midway through the third quarter of the Chiefs’ 19-17 loss to Tennessee on Sunday, receiver Jeremy Maclin ran a sharp out route, hauled in a pass and absorbed a massive lick from cornerback Valentino Blake for a 17-yard gain near the sideline.
It was Maclin’s fifth catch of the day, which was notable because he had not had that many in 2 1/2 months.
But it was what Maclin did afterward – when he rose to his feet, stared down Blake and started yapping – that caught Nagy’ attention.
“When he gets that going, he’s on,” Nagy said. “When he gets that part of his game going, you know he’s back.”
It’s funny Nagy said that, too, because one day later, Maclin – unprompted – used the same phrase to describe his current state.
“I’m back, man,” he said. “It’s been a weird season for myself. Going through some of the stuff off the field, and on the field, just me and Alex missing early.”
Indeed. Off the field, Maclin has been dealing with the death of his childhood friend, Isaiah DeLeon-Mares, in September.
On the field, he and quarterback Alex Smith struggled to rekindle their 2015 rhythm, when he scored a team-high eight touchdowns, posted the club’s highest single-season reception total (87) since 2008 and became the first Chief to eclipse 1,000 yards (1,088) in four years.
But in 10 games this year – he missed four due to a groin injury – Maclin has caught only 37 passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns, and is slated to post career-lows in all three categories, barring enormous outbursts Sunday against Denver and Jan. 1 against San Diego.
While Maclin led the Chiefs in targets with 124 a year ago – 24 more than Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce, the next closest Chief – some of his opportunities have gone elsewhere in 2016.
Kelce, for instance, has caught a team-high 73 passes and, with 957 yards, is on the verge of his first 1,000-yard season. Fifth-round rookie receiver Tyreek Hill has emerged as one of the game’s most explosive all-around threats; he made the Pro Bowl as a returner but has caught 56 passes for 547 yards and a team-high six touchdowns, all while adding a big-play element previously lacking in the Chiefs’ offense.
Both Kelce (103 targets) and Hill (71) been targeted more than Maclin (67) has this year, and while Maclin’s aforementioned four-game absence has something to do with that, opponents have noticed.
“I’ll say it right now – it runs through Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce,” Denver cornerback Chris Harris, Jr., said of the Chiefs’ offense this week. “No. 10 and No. 87.”
Harris’ opinion is understandable. Maclin was hurt the first time the two teams met, a 30-27 overtime thriller the Chiefs won, and Kelce and Hill lit the Broncos up. While Kelce caught eight passes for 101 yards, Hill caught nine passes for 52 yards and also scored touchdowns as a runner and a punt returner and seemed to earn Harris’ respect.
“They've got certain packages for Hill,” Harris said. “They've got screen passes, they give him the ball in handoff situations, they've got wildcat packages and they're trying to get him the ball now in addition to Kelce.
“I can see that Maclin hasn't been getting as many catches or touches like he has in the past. That's because No. 10 has come into the picture.”
Maclin, for his part, says he understands why the Chiefs have been intent on using the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Hill, who boasts rare 4.24 speed and ball skills, to boot.
“You want to be able to have multiple guys who can hurt you and who can make plays for you,” Maclin said. “Ty coming on, and him being able to do some special things with the ball in his hands, and Kelce being a matchup problem, and me being Mr. Consistent, Mr. Reliable, that makes for a good dynamic.”
Nagy agreed, noting that the Chiefs have to establish as many threats as possible.
“If teams want to try to double two guys, you could get away with that,” Nagy said. “But when you have three, it’s harder – someone has to be singled.”
That’s what happened Sunday, when the Titans tried to take away Kelce with double coverage and limited him to three catches for 41 yards.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he could have done a better job getting the ball to Hill, who finished with one touch, but the attention on Kelce did open things up for Maclin, who finished with six catches for 82 yards on eight targets in his most productive game in weeks.
“I think we’ve got a group full of guys who are unselfish,” Maclin said. “I’m not in this thing to break the bank again. I’m in it to try to win it.”
While the Chiefs currently have the league’s 22nd-ranked passing offense – which has largely inconsistent – Maclin remains optimistic that their 2015 form is right around the corner.
Time might be running out, but he and Smith have started to find a rhythm – “We’ve always been good,” Maclin said – and the Chiefs, in general, simply need to find a way to marry their newfound threat of the big play with the good execution that marked last year’s squad.
“We’ve got the guys in the locker room to do that,” Maclin said. “It’s weird, because I felt like last year, offensively, we were executing a lot better. This year, we’re more big-play (oriented) and we can kind of do it that way. And I think when you combine both, that’s what you want.”