On March 11, the same day Jeremy Maclin signed his five-year, $55 million contract with the Chiefs, he walked into wide-receiver coach David Culley’s office and was greeted by a smile, a handshake and a surprise.
Culley held a disc in his hand. He’d had it for a while, and now he could finally give it to his former pupil.
“Here’s the video of our routes,” Culley told Maclin. “Now here, you do it.”
Maclin was signed by the Chiefs to be their “Z” receiver, the spotlight position in the West Coast offense. It’s a role that Jerry Rice and his San Francisco 49ers sidekick John Taylor made famous.
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star’s Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
The disc in Culley’s hand, filled with old-school 49ers practice video of Rice and Taylor in their prime, came with great expectations.
Maclin is the second receiver the Chiefs’ current regime has paid big money to produce at the “Z” position.
In March 2013, shortly after the arrival of coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey, the Chiefs gave Dwayne Bowe, then 28, a five-year, $56 million extension to serve as new quarterback Alex Smith’s No. 1 target.
But two years later — after Bowe recorded two-year averages of 58 catches and 713 yards and a 2014 season in which the receiving corps somehow failed to catch a single touchdown — the Chiefs assumed $9 million in dead money to cut Bowe.
Adding Maclin makes sense on paper. He is faster and quicker than Bowe, and stats say Maclin has better hands, too. Still, none of that necessarily guarantees that the risk-averse Smith — who attempted deep throws at league-low 5.2 percent rate last season — will throw to Maclin downfield any more than he did to Bowe.
To see more targets than Bowe did, Maclin will need to study his craft.
For Culley, who coached Maclin in Philadelphia during 2009-12, that’s what the CD is about — making sure Maclin does the little things right.
And after some initial confusion — “He just looked at it like, ‘What are you giving this to me for?’ ” Culley recalled with a laugh — Maclin stuck out his hand and accepted the disc, and the responsibility.
Maclin, 27, is confident. Few know how much he’s wanted this opportunity; he longed to play the “Z” full-time in Philly but was blocked by DeSean Jackson.
Few also know how Maclin believes the last two years he’s spent away from Reid, and the ACL tear he suffered in 2013, have helped him prepare for this moment.
“I think him being injured two years ago,” said fellow receiver and longtime teammate and friend Jason Avant, “was the best thing to ever happen to his game.”
When Maclin first arrived in Philadelphia, Reid saw many of the same traits in Maclin that he does now. The speed. The quickness. The big-play ability. A rare combination.
That explains why Reid, who historically leans toward taking linemen in the first round, used the 19th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft on Maclin. Reid saw a player with the kind of explosiveness that could help his offense pop, albeit in a supporting role.
The year before, the Eagles drafted another big-play receiver with lightning-quick feet. Listed at 5 feet 10 and 169 pounds out of Cal, DeSean Jackson was shorter and lighter than the 6-foot, 198-pound Maclin, but Reid saw Jackson as the ideal fit as his “Z” receiver.
Jackson was small, but that wouldn’t matter so much at the “Z” position in Reid’s West Coast scheme, which its original creator, Bill Walsh, configured to get the ball to Rice in a multitude of ways.
Unlike the “X” receiver, who stands at the line of scrimmage, the “Z” receiver lines up off the line on the wide side of the field, which makes it tougher to jam him with press coverage. The “Z” is also the receiver who is put in motion the most, because he often plays to the open and strong side of the field. This creates mismatches, both outside and underneath.
“Any receiver, if he’s in a West Coast scheme, politics to be that ‘Z’ — that’s the guy that gets the most throws. And typically, he gets the most targets in a season,” said former San Francisco and Detroit coach Steve Mariucci, who is now an NFL Network analyst. “He’ll have 120 targets or whatever that number is vs. the ‘X,’ who might have 70 or 80.”
So while Maclin emerged as a fan favorite in Philadelphia, he did so primarily as a “X” receiver, where he still led the team in receptions in 2011 and 2012.
“DeSean was the ‘Z,’ and he was worthy of it, but Jeremy still led the team in receptions for most of those times,” Avant said. “That’s just because he worked so much harder.”
Yet, Maclin still could not help but wonder what kind of numbers he could put up if he was the full-time “Z” under Reid.
“If I said I wasn’t (wondering), I’d be lying to you,” said Maclin, who also filled in at “Z” whenever Jackson was injured. “So yeah, you see it and you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got the same capabilities (as him) and I feel I can bring some stuff to the table.’
“But at the same time, they needed me to play the ‘X.’ And that’s what I did.”
At least he did until Reid was fired by the Eagles after the 2012 season. His four-year apprenticeship under Reid and Culley suddenly over, Maclin couldn’t have known at the time that it would still take an unexpected injury for him to reach his ceiling as a bonafide No. 1 receiver.
Maclin remembers, quite clearly, the disappointment he felt when he tore the ACL in his right knee for the second time. He also takes pride in the way he resolved to bounce back.
After Maclin hurt his knee during a training camp practice in August 2013, he found himself with a lot of free time. So he asked for and received cut-ups of one-on-one tapes and all of his receptions and targets from 2012.
“I became a better student of the game,” Maclin said. “I did a lot of stuff … (to) kind of see what I did on routes.”
Maclin returned from the injury stronger than ever, just like he did at the University of Missouri, where he tore his ACL for the first time as a true freshman in 2006.
After Jackson was unceremoniously released in March 2014, and the veteran Avant was allowed to leave as a free agent, Maclin was finally “The Man” in a largely inexperienced receiving corps. He responded by posting career highs of 85 catches, 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Avant, who signed with Carolina before the season and later ended up with the Chiefs, could not have been more proud of his friend.
“He knew that he had to be the leader,” Avant said. “They were always the young guys and I was always the example, but they didn’t have an example anymore, so he just took it upon himself to do everything right and learn the right processes and how to get open so he can teach guys.”
That, Avant said, led to Maclin becoming an “outstanding” route runner and leader.
“He would watch film with guys, and he developed a lot of things that he didn’t have before,” Avant said. “He has it now. He has the total package. It’s very hard to stick with him.”
Maclin says whatever improvement he made as a route runner last offseason was tied to his desire to live up to his immense potential.
“I just wanted to be great, and I still want to be great,” Maclin said. “I’m just trying, each and every day, to do that.”
Once Chiefs training camp started in late July, it didn’t take long for Culley to notice Maclin had grown as a receiver.
It also didn’t take Culley long to see Maclin had been watching those old 49ers practice videos.
“He took it and ran with it,” Culley said. “He came back and started saying, ‘I see how he’s doing it now. I see how Jerry’s doing it. I see how John’s doing things.’”
Maclin was a frequent target of Smith throughout camp, even deep, and this is no coincidence. Maclin was constantly open, Culley says, because he’s doing the little things that create separation.
“In college a lot (of times), they teach you to stutter and release at the line of scrimmage,” Culley said, citing an example. “Well, at this level, you can’t do that.
“It took me a little while to get that out of him, but … he started being able to get in and out of his cuts better because of playing low and explosive like Jerry played.”
Add that to Maclin’s outstanding hands — he had just one drop last year, the fewest of any of the seven receivers who logged over 1,000 snaps in 2014 (Bowe had six more drops in 231 fewer snaps) — and it’s easy to see why Smith feels so comfortable throwing his way.
“When that ball is in the air, you can see how competitive he is and how many natural instincts he has … strong with the catch,” Smith said. “You see it after practice every day … keeping coaches throwing bad balls at him all over the place. … So, it’s not by mistake. You can see the work that he puts in.”
The question now is whether that work will pay off in stats ... and wins. Maclin only cares about the latter, but the former could play a big role in whether the Chiefs improve on their 9-7 record.
The good news is that whenever Maclin needs a road map, all he has to do is watch the video Culley gave him.
“You look at Jerry and even Taylor and all those guys, how they ran routes … everything looks the same,” Maclin said. “Before you make your break, everything has to be the same.
“These (corners) are getting so talented … Sean (Smith) is one of the best in the game at it. He sits and can jump routes if you give him any type of indication that you’re doing anything. (Marcus) Peters does a very good job of it as well, even coming in as a rookie.
“So going against these guys, and also, how I am, how I run routes and nitpicking off tapes like that … that’s not going to do anything but make me better.”