To watch him romp in the snow on Sunday, you might not guess Dexter McCluster was born and raised in Largo, Fla., and played college football at Mississippi.
And you wouldn’t know that all he knew about playing football in the snow was that it looked like fun on TV and that he couldn’t wait to get out and muck it up and mush through it on Sunday at FedEx Field.
“You feel like a little kid,” he said.
In more ways than one, as it turned out, since McCluster spent Sunday prancing around the field like it was his own personal playground.
Only he may not have enjoyed a day like this even on a sandlot.
Certainly, few have done anything resembling it at this level: His 177 yards in punt returns, including one for a 74-yard touchdown, was the seventh-most in NFL history, just 30 yards short of the record.
More meaningfully, they stoked the Chiefs to a 45-10 victory over a seemingly indifferent Washington team to snuff out a three-game losing streak and leave the Chiefs on the precipice of a playoff berth a year after being the worst team in the league.
By the time McCluster uncorked his TD return to make it 31-0 in the second quarter, he already had whirled for a 60-yard return to set up the Chiefs’ first touchdown and zipped 24 yards to stake them at the Washington 41 on the way to making it 24-0.
Before halftime, Quintin Demps heaped on another special-teams TD with a 95-yard kickoff return, all making for a vivid reminder of the essential role those units have played all season for the Chiefs and why coaches like to say special teams are a third of the game.
The sheer math of the matter of plays in a game might tell you otherwise.
But that doesn’t quite account for the field-tilting effect of the routine special teams’ plays and the seismic impact of major returns (or turnovers), in terms of both points on the board and attached psychological influence on the game.
“When you can get your returners to basically play a one-dimensional game — which is ‘You guys cannot cover us, and we’re going to return the ball’ — for our offense and defense, it’s as motivating as it gets,” linebacker Tamba Hali said. “When all three phases of the game come together, it’s hard to lose.”
And when it’s not, well, it looks a lot like a Washington team in chaos at 3-10 with really bad special teams.
“We did, obviously, horrendous, on special teams,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “We gave up big play after big play.”
Even as Jamaal Charles was having his best game of the season (151 yards on 19 carries), no one produced more than McCluster, who previously this season had an 89-yard return for a touchdown.
Maybe this was what first-year coach Andy Reid was thinking in the spring when he let on that he’d hoped to draft McCluster in 2010 when he was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles.
No wonder he couldn’t wait to coach him now.
“I’ve got some things in mind for him,” Reid said in April.
And maybe they’re coming to fruition.
McCluster is having perhaps his most consistent season and surely his most impactful. His 46 catches through 13 games are just six shy of his season-best in the NFL, and he’s also had his most prolific punt-return season (631 yards on 54 returns).
He’s quick to tell you, of course, that he’d get nowhere fast without the blocking around him and the urgency and intricacy that special teams coordinator Dave Toub has brought to the job.
And he backs that up by thanking each of his protectors, said one of them, cornerback Ron Parker.
“He couldn’t do it without us, and we couldn’t do it without him,” said Parker, smiling and adding that he takes pride in what he calls “the dirty work.”
“It’s all good. Somebody’s got to do it.”
McCluster did his more glamorous work Sunday with a certain extra, uh, dexterity aided by longer cleats advised by the Chiefs equipment staff as snow made a worn field even more treacherous than usual.
“I’m really not sure how long they are, but they were long enough today,” McCluster said, smiling and assuring they were of legal length. “It’s all about footing I definitely had an advantage.”
But not just in footwear. His quickness and feel for the flow of a return were enhanced by what he knew to be keys to eye as defenders descended on him.
“What I look for in this type of condition is the long striders,” McCluster said. “If they’re striding long, cut back. If they’re breaking down, take it straight up the gut. And it worked out today.”
Again and again, as Washington inexplicably kept punting to him with no means to stop him until it made some adjustment of the heart in the second half that included one walloping of him as soon as he caught the ball.
But McCluster didn’t linger on that much after a day of feeling like a little kid capped a week in which he became a father for the second time.
That’s one more time than he’d played in the snow.
But somehow it was as if he’d been doing it all his life, starting with first doing no harm.
“In this type of weather condition, all you want to do is catch the ball,” he said, adding that with his blocking “it was off to the races from there.”