Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dexter McCluster breaks free from Washington defensive back Trenton Robinson to score a touchdown on a punt return during the first half of last Sunday’s game in Landover, Md.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The most accurate description of Dave Toub may be that he’s a special teams savant.
He’s able to make the rudimentary plays in a football game, kickoffs and punts, seem downright exhilarating. He’s able to get guys who’d rather be playing offense or defense to volunteer for kick coverage or a field-goal unit. He’s able to coax points out of places they shouldn’t be scored.
In fact, what he’s helped Kansas City accomplish through its first 13 games has only been matched or exceeded seven times since 1941, and two of those were by units that Toub coached in Chicago: The Chiefs already have two punt return touchdowns and two kickoff return touchdowns.
“He loves special teams,” explained wide receiver Dexter McCluster, who has both of the Chiefs’ punt return touchdowns. “He probably wakes up and watches film in his bathroom.”
It’s hard to find guys with that kind of zeal for special teams.
The job usually comes under the microscope only when an important field goal is missed, or when an opponent springs a big return of its own. It’s a thankless task. And not surprisingly, coaches tend to gravitate toward sexier positions on offense or defense as soon as they can.
But for Toub, who tried and failed to make it in the NFL as an offensive lineman out of UTEP, the position is also a passion. He spent time as a defensive line coach in the college ranks, but has been coaching special teams since joining Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia in 2001.
It was with the Bears where he really made his mark, though. Devin Hester, Danieal Manning, Nathan Vasher and Johnny Knox formed one of the most formidable return corps in NFL history, and in 2006 and ‘07 they cranked out a combined five touchdowns off punts and kickoffs through 13 games.
Hester has 14 punt return touchdowns, an NFL record. Toub was his coach for all but one.
“We had a good crop up there as well,” Toub said. “The same thing happened in Chicago. Once you score, it kind of feeds off itself, and guys really start buying in, and they want to get in the end zone. We have three guys who can do it.”
Actually, the Chiefs have three guys who already have done it.
Along with McCluster’s punt return touchdowns, one of which happened last week in Washington, the Chiefs have gotten kickoff return TDs from Quintin Demps and Knile Davis. Demps also took his back last week, the second time in franchise history that the Chiefs have had one of each in a game.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that such a rare feat has been accomplished before in Kansas City. The Chiefs, after all, have a proud history of special teams standouts.
Abner Haynes and Noland Smith excelled in the 1960s, and J.T. Smith twice led the league in punt return yardage in the 1970s and `80s. Tamarick Vanover made a habit of returning punts and kicks for touchdowns in the 1990s, and Dante Hall set all kinds of records in the 2000s.
“I know a little bit about them, Dante Hall, of course, dynamic, explosive, a great returner,” Demps said. “It starts with great coaching, and then the other 10 guys blocking, doing their jobs, and having a great returner pays off.”
Each of the three returners in the Kansas City arsenal brings something different, making it a challenge for opponents to be prepared. McCluster is the slight jitterbug with the asp-like movement, Demps the speed guy with the devastating cutback, and Davis is the runaway truck who has just enough shiftiness to leave a woebegone tackler scraping himself off the turf.
It’s a bit like having different styles of relief pitchers — a sinker-baller, a left-hander, a flame-throwing right-hander — warmed up in the bullpen and at your disposal.
The proof is in the numbers, too.
McCluster leads the NFL in punt return yardage (631) and needs just nine yards to break Vanover’s single-season franchise record set in 1999. Demps and Davis are a big reason why the Chiefs rank first in average starting field position (32.8) by more than a yard over second-place San Francisco.
“When you have not just one guy but multiple guys running kicks back and sparking the team, it just speaks for everybody around,” McCluster said. “When I make a return, it makes them want to make a return. We feed off each other. We have fun with it. And it’s been working for us.”
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