Since the instant hysteria provoked by Chiefs star receiver Jeremy Maclin’s leg injury Saturday at Houston, the apocalyptic speculation he had suffered a third right ACL injury was reduced by Tuesday to what the Chiefs are calling a “mild” high ankle sprain.
This is a mighty murky term, perhaps intentionally so to some degree, since it’s in the Chiefs’ interests to keep his status vague for their AFC Divisional playoff game Saturday at New England.
Little more clue as to his condition was evident when Maclin, off-limits to the media, briefly went to his locker Tuesday and walked slowly away without any perceptible limp.
This may well stay shrouded right up until game time, of course.
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What we do know is that the X-factor within this variable will be rookie Chris Conley, the next “next man up” in a season that’s been favorably distinguished by just that for the Chiefs.
They’ve won 11 games in a row, after all, despite sustaining seemingly debilitating injuries to the likes of Jamaal Charles (season-ending), Justin Houston (five games), Husain Abdullah (five games), losing De’Anthony Thomas to injury and a stated personal issue and, at one time or another, virtually every offensive lineman.
Conley can’t suddenly morph into Maclin, a seven-year veteran versed in this intricate offense who led the team with 87 catches.
But tremendous athletic measurables, a keen mind and an inspired work ethic say the understudy has plenty to offer.
That was encapsulated in one play, a 9-yard touchdown reception against the Texans defined by the nuances of what made it work.
About the only thing Conley wasn’t properly prepared for was how fast to celebrate.
With a laugh, he said soaking in the moment kept him from deploying the “Jump On It” dance from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“I waited too long, is what everybody told me,” he said.
Just the same, he was on time for the play because of some key subtexts.
Not the least of which was quarterback Alex Smith’s willingness to throw him the ball in tight traffic on a play they hadn’t previously collaborated on even in practice.
“He’s got the quarterback’s trust,” coach Andy Reid said.
That privilege isn’t granted whimsically by Smith. And it was only reinforced by that play.
“To be honest, it was a little different (defensively) than we thought all week,” Smith said. “And I thought he made a great adjustment and a heck of a catch.”
Part of Conley’s adjustment was sheer athleticism and reflexes.
“I didn’t see Alex,” he said. “The ball just came through (defenders).”
But equally telling was his readiness in a season in which he’d caught only 17 passes, including just four in the nine games since he’d snagged six filling in for the injured Maclin against Pittsburgh.
It was preparation meeting opportunity for Conley, who has taken to heart the idea of always being on call.
That’s why Reid says “he works like crazy,” and why veteran receiving teammate Jason Avant says “he asks you a million questions.”
Conley kept anticipating the moment, even when they were few and far between.
“You’re one play away from being that guy, and that was evident this weekend,” he said. “You have to pay attention to every detail: When a coach makes a correction with someone else, you need to be writing that down yourself.”
There are reams to be writing down in this vast and sophisticated offense, including variables on any given play from what the disguised defense actually is to where you’re lined up.
“Knowing it to the point where you can do it to the split second with no hesitation is what’s difficult,” he said.
Like Maclin and Avant, who like Maclin also played for Reid in Philadelphia.
“They’ve been playing in this offense for seven and 10 years,” said Conley, who praised them for their tutelage. “So they understand how to do that in high-pressure situations, when it’s loud, when they didn’t hear the whole call, so they react a little faster.”
So there’s really no substitute for the benefit of that time, and Conley acknowledges he wasn’t prepared for the learning curve coming out of Georgia as the No. 76 overall draft pick.
But Conley has fast-tracked with his nimble and fertile mind, which accounts for the creativity to produce and direct a Star Wars fan movie, and for why Avant sees him as a savant.
“He’d be, like, a scientist if he weren’t playing football,” Avant said, smiling.
More to the immediate point, Avant sees his sports science beginning to flourish as Conley is “learning how this game is really played.”
For instance, he has seen Conley come to discern the pivotal wiggle room within the scripted precision.
“In practice, if a route is 15 yards, in a game it’s going to be around 12 yards. Like that type of stuff,” Avant said. “So early in the year, he might run 15 and the quarterback is like, ‘He’s not ready for it.’ ”
Conley came into this less ready for prime time than might have been apparent.
He had just 36 catches his senior year at Georgia, albeit with 18.3 yards a catch, and longtime NFL personnel guru Gil Brandt says it’s “kind of a mystery as to why he didn’t play more at Georgia.”
“Prior to the (NFL) Combine, I don’t think everybody would even have considered him as a free agent,” said Brandt, now a senior analyst for Sirius XM NFL Radio.
That changed after the Combine.
Conley, 6 feet 2 with 33 3/4 inch-length arms, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds and was among the top receivers in bench press (18 reps of 225), vertical jump (45 inches) and broad jump (139 inches).
All of which helped make him irresistible to the Chiefs, who had no wide-receiver touchdown catches in 2014 and traded up to get him.
But knowing how much he didn’t know is part of what’s led Conley to the here and now.
It’s driven him to be a zealous student and stoked him to do the extras.
And it’s all braced him to stand in for Maclin if called.
There’s no way to know, of course, how he’ll perform in the biggest game of his life.
But no doubt he’s a capable talent who’ll be as prepared as he can be.
“Because,” he said, “you want to be ready when the time comes.”