Sam Mellinger

The Marcus Peters Experience: The good, the bad and little explanation

The full Marcus Peters Experience is a football game that means so much more to a 23-year-old becoming a national star but not too far removed from being kicked off his college team. A man’s football life can never be summed up in one game but this particular game gets closer than most.

Marcus Peters grew up across the street from his high school football stadium in an Oakland neighborhood many would try to avoid. It was him and 22 friends for McClymonds High, against what was usually two or three times that many on the other side. They played up a level, and won. When Peters was a teenager, he told DeSean Jackson — by then an NFL star — he’d lock him down.

That childhood is in him, and always will be. More than that — he wants it to always be in him, and needs it to always be in him. This is his life, his calling, and in a league that demands full buy-in there are few who give more completely of themselves — the good, the bad, the everything — than Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters.

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On this day, it was not enough. The Chiefs lost to the Texans 19-12. Peters did many things to help his team, and a few things that hurt. He was, on the whole, a huge net positive and somehow the negatives will be remembered at least as much as the good. Wouldn’t be the full Marcus Peters Experience any other way.

“Sometimes you gotta calm him down,” said teammate Ron Parker. “Sometimes you gotta let him be himself. Because that’s all he knows. As an individual, that’s all you can ask for. You want guys to be themselves. Sometimes Marcus gets out of hand a little bit, but he does a good job of calming down.”

Peters made two interceptions against the Texans, and deflected four more passes. Only two teammates — both linebackers — made more tackles. He now has 11 career interceptions, including the playoffs. He made an interception on his first NFL play, and made the Pro Bowl in his first season. He is barely into his second year, and there are men who qualified for the full pension without seeing this much action.

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This Chiefs season is chock full of possibility. This is the team’s best roster in a decade, at least, and they are coming off the first playoff win in a generation. They have Super Bowl hopes that, if not for the sorry history of the franchise, would be taken more seriously around the country.

In that context, Peters is among the very best and most important players here. You always start with the quarterback, and Justin Houston’s return from knee surgery is critical. But Peters is a high-end player at a premium position in which the Chiefs are keep-you-up-at-night thin.

Peters is a terrific talent, too. By the standards of an NFL cornerback he is a good athlete, not a great one. His strengths are in his feel, anticipation, instincts, work ethic and confidence. He is already one of the sport’s better corners, and has a chance to be one of the best very soon.

The problems, of course, are in his emotions. This has always been what’s used against Peters. His college coach kicked him off the team his last year at Washington, though the circumstances are murky enough that he was invited back on campus for his pro day.

On Sunday, in his 20th NFL game, he gave up the game’s only touchdown and one more big play. He was also called for taunting, the second week in a row he was flagged for a personal foul, and two things need to be said about that.

First: any penalty like that should be addressed and avoided. Second: Peters’ offense was wagging his finger, and flagging that for taunting is like going to a rock concert and complaining about the noise.

“I saw the replay and I didn’t think it was taunting, to be honest,” teammate Eric Berry said. “I heard some things being said when the call was made that I didn’t agree with, from another side, another party. So if you’re going to call it both ways, call it both ways. I’ve seen worse, I’ll put it like that. I’ve seen worse.”

You won’t read or hear much from Peters about this game. He answered only two questions before leaving the locker room for the team bus. Asked about an intense back-and-forth with the Texans’ receivers: “Great football today.”

Asked about the taunting penalty: “It’s football. It was great football. Great call by ref. All I could do was my job.”

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And, that was it. Peters was gone. That’s his right, of course, to speak as much or as little as he likes to fans through the media. His reluctance is our loss, because he’s passionate, smart, and fearless.

But he also, genuinely, does not care what anyone thinks of him. There are people in the public eye who say that, and wish they meant it. Peters doesn’t have to say it. He makes it obvious. All that matters to him is football, and family, and the only people outside of the locker room whose opinions matter to him are back in Oakland.

“He loves the game so much,” Parker said. “He leaves everything out there. Us guys in the (defensive backs) room, we understand that, man. We (couldn’t) have a better person in our DB room (than) Marcus.”

The taunting penalty didn’t end up costing the Chiefs. They gave up a field goal on the drive, which was the likely outcome even if the officials hadn’t tried to police an NFL game like Sunday School.

The play that did hurt was the touchdown, when Texans star DeAndre Hopkins beat him with a sort of swim move downfield. The two locked arms for a moment, awkwardly, and the official’s mic picked up Peters arguing that Hopkins pulled his hand down. But Peters stuck his arms out and appeared to give up on the play, hoping for a penalty.

The referee threw a flag, but it was on Peters for pass interference. The touchdown stood. Maybe Hopkins would’ve scored on the play anyway, but it was a strange sight for a guy whose primary problem has been that he often cares too much.

Even so, Peters did more than enough to help the Chiefs win. Cornerbacks give up plays. Receivers are too good and the rules too biased for offense for it to be any other way. The Texans, in particular, are loaded with receiver talent, and Peters’ four passes defended and two picks are better than most corners could’ve managed.

The first pick was particularly strong, a diving catch in the end zone where his instincts told him where the ball was going and his strength and confidence allowed him to get there.

The second pick was more opportunistic, but still required skill. He had good coverage on Hopkins down the right sideline, and the ball was thrown a bit behind the receiver, who dived and saw the ball bounce off his left hand. Peters’ quick hands corralled the ball, and the Chiefs had a chance to close the gap late.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid has made a reputation for and largely built his success upon backing his players. He will rarely, if ever, criticize a player publicly.

“He had some good plays,” Reid said. “And there’s some things he’ll continue to work on. That’s a competitive kid. That happens. He’ll get better at that.”

Reid was asked three more times about Peters’ gifts and curses, and somehow managed to both acknowledge the faults but maintain focus on the strengths.

Peters has always been this way. Talented, but mercurial. Productive, but risky. Prone to make big plays, but some of those the wrong way. The expectation was that in his second year, Peters would shave some of those rough edges while continuing to grow his strengths.

A week ago, he was called for pass interference in the end zone, a personal foul face mask, and was the main antagonist in a minor scuffle that included him shoving Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.

Some of that, presumably, was the result of an emotional overload from the season opener and his raised fist protest during the national anthem. He had no such obvious explanation here on Sunday. He was good, but the Chiefs need him to be better.

They cannot be a good team without him on the field, but they can’t be a great team without him better managing his emotions.

Peters is his own man, usually for better but occasionally for worse. It’s up to him to, in Reid’s words, “clean that up.” A disproportionate amount of the Chiefs’ success this year depends on it.