In the minutes after finishing something close to a perfect game in the kind of moment he has always thought would define him as a football player, and in some ways a man, Marcus Peters smiled. Teammate after teammate came over for a hug. They knew what this meant to him. Then came the chairman.
He knew, too.
“Congratulations,” Clark Hunt said.
“Appreciate that,” Peters replied.
By then, a crowd of reporters had gathered around Peters’ locker. They waited for him to fully dress — jeans, boots and a throwback baseball jersey. He did not look their way but told a staffer he’d talk in a few days.
“Y’all want to talk to me?” teammate Terrance Mitchell said, joking.
“Yeah, let T-Mitch do it,” Peters said of his fellow defensive back, laughing. “T-Mitch is me.”
Peters was, perhaps, the best player on the field in the Chiefs’ 30-13 win over the Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday. He was, without question, the most interesting.
This was Peters’ first game back after a team-issued suspension — the first of Reid’s five seasons in Kansas City — for losing his mind at the end of the Jets loss.
That the defense played well last week in a win over the Raiders had some in and around Kansas City losing their minds and believing the Chiefs are better off without Peters.
Perhaps it is foolish hope, but Peters’ return — in the Chiefs’ biggest game in coach Andy Reid’s most important season here — may help some gather their heads.
“He’s the best in the league,” Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “Best in the league. Yes. There’s some good ones, don’t get me wrong. But he’s the best in the league.”
Peters made two interceptions and was officially given credit for forcing a fumble that could’ve just as easily been Ragland’s. The first interception was particularly important, because it came with the Chargers driving for the lead. Peters returned it 62 yards — mostly holding the ball out with his left hand, hardly protected — to the Chargers’ 6.
But it was also particularly impressive, because the pass was intended for Chargers receiver Tyrell Williams, and Peters was covering Keenan Allen. Allen is one of the league’s best receivers, and the one who inspired Peters’ “I’m a dad” rant in September. But on this play, Peters had the instincts, preparation, guts and athleticism to peel off Allen and make just the eighth interception against Rivers all season.
“He was hanging on my route and he was playing his route at the same time,” said safety Ron Parker, assigned to Williams on the play. “The kid is smart, man.”
Wasn’t just the three forced turnovers, either. Peters was targeted six times, allowing zero catches, with those two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus. Nobody in the NFL has more interceptions than Peters since his first season, in 2015. In the last 25 years, only Ed Reed and Richard Sherman had more interceptions in their first three seasons.
“When he’s in his zone,” lineman Allen Bailey said, “he’s (expletive) one of the best.”
Peters did not stand for the national anthem, again. He joined Colin Kaepernick in protesting at the beginning of last season, but for whatever reason, anger about that didn’t dig in until this year.
Hunt met with Peters personally in October, and Peters agreed to stay in the locker room during the anthem. Hunt, according to sources, considered it a compromise. But by then, positions had long been claimed.
A lot of us wish he’d stand, but respect his right to protest. If what he does offends you, that’s your right. He’s expressed support for the military, but hasn’t clarified his thoughts on this as much as some other players, and if you can’t get past that and will dislike him no matter what then that is your right.
But the man can play ball.
He is by far the Chiefs’ best cornerback, he is their best playmaker, and depending on Justin Houston’s health, he is their best defender.
Peters is an emotional player, which is sort of like saying a Ferrari is a fast car, but I’ve spend much of the last week or so wondering if the suspension would sort of calibrate Peters back to what he was his first two years in the NFL and less like what he was the first 12 games of this season.
Because he wasn’t as good. Clearly. Wasn’t covering quite as well, wasn’t as dangerous making plays, and by all appearances decided he never wanted to make another tackle.
My working theory, whatever it’s worth, is that Peters misses Eric Berry’s daily presence. Peters reveres that man. Berry is one of the few teammates who can truly influence Peters, change his view, focus his mind, and maybe the injury let Peters drift a little.
Again, that’s just a theory.
But this is all fact: Peters is prideful, self-aware and owns his mistakes. He’s among the most self-critical players in that locker room.
The suspension must’ve shook him, must’ve made him think. Berry has been more regularly involved during recent weeks, so maybe that’s helped, too.
In Peters’ first game back, he played (by far) his best since last year, and perhaps ever, against a good group of receivers and a quarterback that had gone for 1,348 passing yards, 131 points, eight passing touchdowns and no interceptions over the last four games.
Football players are largely made by how they respond in bad times. This is a brutal sport, and even the supremely talented need grit. They need a stubborn belief and useful pride.
Peters must have been embarrassed by the suspension. He apologized to his teammates upon returning, and Parker said he got the feeling Peters wanted to prove to the team that he missed them.
Bailey said he could tell Peters was different this week. Peters is obsessed with football, hyper-competitive even by NFL standards, but a suspension shines light in some dark places.
This was a good reminder, then, that at his best Peters is among the NFL’s absolute best. He is a shutdown corner in a league desperate for even mediocre corners. He is the biggest playmaker on a defense desperate for them.
You don’t have to like the anthem stuff. That’s fine.
But if you let that blind you to what Peters is as a football player, you’re missing one of the Chiefs’ most valuable pieces, and a guy they’ll need at his best to win in the playoffs and make this season a success.