Seven games into the 2023 NFL season, there’s been a lot of heat on the Kansas City Chiefs’ special teams coordinator Dave Toub. His unit has been fooled on a couple of fakes — and has had a fake of its own go sideways.
But those are just the plays fans will most likely notice; most good special teams plays fly under the radar. And Toub’s unit is back to being one of the league’s best. It’s currently ranked second in special teams DVOA.
One of the plays that helped raise that score took place during last Sunday’s 31-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, when newly-reacquired wide receiver Mecole Hardman went back to doing what he did best during his four years in Kansas City: returning kicks.
With 6:32 left in the matchup — and the Chiefs leading 24-17 — Hardman whipped off a 50-yard punt return, putting the Chiefs in business at the Los Angeles 35-yard line. Six plays later, quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ 8-yard touchdown pass to running back Isiah Pacheco iced the game.
“It’s good to have him back,” Toub told reporters on Thursday. “He’s got a lot of juice out there. He’s obviously [got] a little bit more speed than we’ve had — and he’s got a lot of experience back there.”
While Toub acknowledged that wideouts Kadarius Toney (and Skyy Moore) will be standing behind Hardman on his depth chart, the kick returner job is his.
“He’s gonna be emphasized in practices from this point forward,” said Toub. “He’s a good catcher, you know. Is he the best catcher in the world? No. But he’s a good catcher — and he’s smart enough to know [that] if he’s out of position, [he should] let the damn thing go — you know what I mean?”
That’s not to say, however, that Hardman is perfect.
“But [at] certain times, you’ve got to go back and get it,” added the coach. “When they over-kick your coverage — [when] you’re running away from the coverage — you’ve got to go get it.”
Still, Hardman turned in a terrific play in a critical moment of his first game back in Kansas City — which is all the more impressive because it came with the Chiefs’ defense on the field rather than the special teams punt return unit. Toub thinks we can expect to see that happen fairly regularly.
“We put our defense out there a lot,” he explained, “because of what’s happening to us. Any fourth-and-four (or three), we’re gonna have [the] defense stay out there from now on — because teams run fakes on us.
“But the thing is [that] they’re not only stopping the fake, now they’re getting better at the return part; they’re blocking guys up. They did a really great job.”
Toub specifically mentioned the work of defensive linemen like George Karlaftis, Matt Dickerson, Mike Danna and Derrick Nnadi.
“They’re big guys running down the field making blocks for you. So it’s impressive.”
Toub has made a special effort with the regular defensive players to have them ready for this extra duty.
“You see a lot of teams have [the] defense stay,” he noted. “Their job is [just] to make [the other team] punt. So they punt — and you see [the defense] walking off the field even before the ball’s even caught sometimes. But the play isn’t over.
“We emphasized it, and we keep working on it — and they take pride in it. It really paid off in [Sunday’s] game.”
Looking ahead to Sunday’s rubber match with the Denver Broncos, Toub is — as usual — keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, which includes the possibility of snow and temperatures in the 20s. Toub thinks the weather will essentially eliminate what they usually see when they play 5,000 feet above sea level.
“That’s what I’ve been telling the guys,” he revealed. “That extra five yards you get for the altitude? With the cold weather? Pfft! Gone. So we look to possibly get more returns — kick returns for us and for them.”
There’s one other potential issue. On Thursday, placekicker Harrison Butker missed practice with an illness. So safety Justin Reid — who spelled Butker for some placekicking and kickoffs when Butker was injured last season — worked with the other specialists on Thursday.
Toub believes that Butker will be available to play — but as long as there is a question, Reid needs to be ready.
“If we knew that [Butker] was going to be out [for a long time], we’d want another kicker,” Toub acknowledged. “I feel comfortable that Justin could come in — but you want a real kicker in that situation.”
Toub is confident in Reid — but that confidence extends only so far.
“He’s good enough to get us through a game,” said Toub. “He can make an extra point.”
But pressed for a more specific characterization of Reid’s skill, Toub ran up the white flag.
“If he wanted to be a kicker at the NFL level? I don’t think he could do it,” said Toub with a smile — as reporters laughed. “I love him — but he will understand why I am saying that. He’s a good safety.”
Get well, Mr. Butker.