Vahe Gregorian

Humbled Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin stays focused on bigger picture

Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin had four receptions for 53 yards in the season finale against the Chargers.
Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin had four receptions for 53 yards in the season finale against the Chargers.

When the Chiefs signed Jeremy Maclin away from the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2014 season, it was largely to reinvigorate an offense that somehow had played the entire previous season without mustering a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.

But part of the dynamics Maclin brought with him was both an infectious fury to play and a nurturing instinct with teammates, and the combination of it all helped stoke some vital energy.

“He brought a certain edge — a competitive edge,” coach Andy Reid said at his news conference Monday in advance of the AFC Divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. “He challenges people. He loves the game, and he’s smart on and off the field. He’s a smart guy, period.

“He’s brought that not only to the position, but to our offense.”

As Maclin snagged a career-best 87 receptions for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns last season, the Chiefs scored 29 or more points seven times in an 11-game winning streak that included their first playoff victory in 22 years and ended with a 27-20 loss at New England.

Along the way, he was enough of a force that you could legitimately suppose the Chiefs might have beaten the Patriots if he weren’t hobbled by a high ankle sprain he suffered a week before against Houston.

Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin will wear special cleats on Sunday as part of an NFL initiative. The shoes' design highlights his JMac Gives Back foundation.

A year later, Maclin will enter the Steelers game lugging the most statistically blah season (other than when a knee injury kept him out in 2013) of his eight-year NFL career.

“It’s been challenging sometimes,” Maclin recently said at his locker. “It’s humbling.”

But there is an important asterisk in this that resounds as much or more as the reasons for the downturn-to-date.

As Maclin considers a season that to now has “kind of tested me mentally a little bit,” even as he smiles and says that as a competitor “you just want to touch the rock,” he has reconciled something else.

Seek to be a great teammate — as he’s most visibly been off the field to Chris Conley, Albert Wilson and particularly devoted mentee Tyreek Hill — and all else will follow.

First and foremost, be reliable. Be accountable. And encourage and revel in the success of others.

There’s something worthy in that mind-set for everyone.

And maybe it’s all the more meaningful knowing that Maclin has been exasperated but reached deep within for patience and fortitude.

“It’s been frustrating at times,” he said. “But at the same time, I love each and every guy in this locker room.

“And I think that’s the most important thing, and I think that’s the bigger picture.”

The picture within the picture was well-captured on Christmas night.

Maclin had a measly three catches for 9 yards as the Chiefs swamped Denver 33-10, but there he was downfield making the last key block on Travis Kelce’s 80-yard touchdown reception.

“I love you, Dog,” a miked-up Kelce told Maclin on the sideline after. “Thanks for the Christmas present.”

As we chatted about the state of his season a few days later, I brought up the play to Maclin in the context of “I know you’re not really out there just to block, but …”

He jumped in before I even finished the point.

“That’s exactly what I’m out there for,” he said. “It’s about helping my team win in each and every form or fashion. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.”

The Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger and Terez A. Paylor previewed the Kansas City Chiefs-Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game, which is at 7:20 p.m. Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. Here's a replay of their Facebook Live session, which was taped Monday a

While he has flashed signs of being himself in two of the last three games, and while you best believe he will be back in the limelight soon if not immediately, his numbers have been a shadow of his 2015 production: 44 catches for 536 yards and two touchdowns, the last of which was Oct. 30.

Some of the diminishing returns are simply a function of missing four games because of a groin injury.

Some are just game-to-game circumstances in terms of how others defend the Chiefs and what quarterback Alex Smith makes of his reads and progressions.

But Maclin acknowledges he’s been off-kilter at times, perhaps evident in a series of apparent miscommunications with Smith that were rare on the field in their first season together.

Then there was what happened as Maclin spent weeks dealing with the injury and contending with the death of a dear childhood friend early in the season, likely what he was referring to when he said last week he “kind of had to clear my mind.”

Suddenly, Kelce made the jump from a budding star to a bona fide one with 85 catches for 1,125 yards.

Then, human whirlwind Hill came of age rapidly in his rookie year with 61 catches for 593 yards and six touchdowns — to say nothing of his work carrying and returning the football.

For that matter, Conley has matched Maclin with 44 catches for 530 yards.

So be it, Maclin says, even if he has to grit his teeth some.

“The balls will fall where they fall,” Maclin said. “But whenever your number’s called, you’ve got to be there for the quarterback.”

When it’s not, or even when it is, he’s made it a point to be there for his teammates.

Beyond the tone-setting work ethic and bristling attitude, it shows up in Maclin coaxing Conley to fly back from Georgia and live with him in the offseason — and work out regularly with Wilson — to prepare for this season.

It’s also been apparent in a relationship with Hill that seems to be as much about helping Hill learn the NFL as it is to help him navigate his way off the field in the wake of Hill’s plea of guilty to domestic battery in 2015 and sentence to three years’ probation.

Hill beams and speaks first of Maclin when he is asked who has most influenced him with the Chiefs, and Maclin provides a little glimpse of why that is when he speaks of Hill.

While noting Hill has much to learn about the position, Maclin said, “The kid is special, man. With the ball in his hands, he can do some things that not many people can do. … You can’t teach that.”

As for what might be taught off the field, Maclin struck the sort of diplomatic tone apt to make an impact.

“It’s not my job to come in here and tell him what to do and what not to do; I’m here to listen,” he said. “I’m here if he needs help with anything, needs advice with anything. I think that’s my job …

“My job is just to be here for him, let him know what I’ve gone through in my life on and off the football field. And just let him know ‘Hey, this is what I coped with. … You can maybe pick up some things from here but also add (your) own little flavor in there, too.’ ”

It’s not the only role Maclin wants to play, naturally, but it’s one that makes him proud and has been an element of the Chiefs’ success this season even as his numbers have dwindled.

“I’ve always said you’re not really reaching your maximum potential as a person,” he said, “until you help others.”

He means that in any number of ways off the field.

As for on it?

Whether it’s with a block, fiery words, encouragement or perhaps his 2017 breakout game just ahead, Maclin still is delivering a competitive edge.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian