JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The happiest locker room in the NFL is Tamba Hali teasing Justin Houston about making too many sacks.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Cmon, Fifty, Hali says, addressing Houston by his jersey number. Youre leaving me behind already?
Houston laughs, slaps his leg, does his best aw-shucks and says something about only wanting to get one.
Yeah, well, you got one, Hali says. And then you got three.
The Chiefs linebackers laugh again. Houston is putting on a T-shirt, which reminds Hali of an eased dress code for what might be the franchises happiest flight home in three years. They are winners again, finally, a 28-2 beatdown of the Jaguars here that looked an awful lot like so many of their sorry performances last year only from the other sideline. What a change.
What a needed change.
Hali is done teasing Houston now but not done joking. He starts talking about the game, one of the Chiefs most dominating performances in years, and says the dexterity he showed on an interception he returned for a touchdown comes from the piano lessons hes been taking.
Thats not the real story, of course. He knows piano has nothing to do with why the Chiefs locker room has gone from the feeling of a weekly funeral last year to something closer to a birthday party at the moment.
So Hali starts going through the reasons. Some players who are no longer here. Some who are new and cant remember a 2012 season so dreadful that a 2-14 record doesnt do the misery justice. Virtually every major decision made within the organization over the last nine months has been an effort to put as much space as possible between last years shame and this years potential.
Especially the head coach, Hali says. His staff, theyre tremendous. Its just, that feeling, the losing, I dont want to feel it anymore. Especially for me. Ive been here too long. That same old, We lost, man, we just couldnt win. Uh-huh. No more.
The Chiefs did more than start their new existence with a win. Their quarterback was efficient and mistake free. Their trend of dangerous punt returns continued from the preseason. And their defense was so dominant they should roll over and smoke a cigarette.
But if you know the Chiefs, you know that this was bigger than any of that. More important than just winning the season opener, or executing in all phases, or whatever coach-speak cliché you want to apply.
This was an exorcism of sorts.
Old demons gone.
In each of the last two season openers, the Chiefs were the ones getting blown out. For virtually all of last season, the Chiefs were the ones throwing stupid interceptions and missing tackles on special teams and going all fetal-position when the other team drove into the red zone.
The Jaguars are an NFL team in only the most technical sense, so any grand proclamations about the Chiefs should include that qualifier, but thats also sort of the point: last year, the Chiefs were only an NFL team in the most technical sense.
Its nice to be back among the competitive, and as much as the Chiefs have spent the last nine months or so pretending 2012 never happened, well, it did. The only way to really bury those memories is to do what the Chiefs did here on Sunday.
You try to put it in your past, but its always in the back of your mind, Houston says. All we can do now is try to use it as motivation.
This Chiefs season is about forgetting last year. Thats why chairman Clark Hunt fired his head coach and fired his general manager and restructured the way everyone worked.
And its why those inside the team are trying to accentuate those differences, talking much more about having 29 new players on the 53-man roster than having mostly the same nucleus.
Its an interesting study when you look at it that way, and so far it is an unmitigated success. Gone is the bend-but-dont-break defensive philosophy that too often bent and broke. Gone is the need to gameplan around a quarterback without discernible strengths. Gone is the general atmosphere of paranoia, both in the front office and pockets of the locker room.
No more Todd Haley telling TV cameras we did too many of the things that get you beat, and no more Romeo Crennel standing behind a lectern saying he doesnt know what happened. At the most basic level, these New Chiefs are competent, which is a welcomed change.
They are innovative on offense, using Jamaal Charles as a receiver and gameplanning around quarterback Alex Smiths accuracy and brain. They are aggressive on defense, often lining up more attackers than the offense can block. And they are reinvigorated, convinced now that they can show theyre not the bumbling embarrassment of the last two seasons.
At least thats the hope, and for a season opener, they couldnt have done much better no matter the competition.
People are not going to forget about (last year), says receiver Junior Hemingway. I mean, we can sit here and say (it). But you have to go out there and do it.
As much as anything said in that very different Chiefs locker room, Hemingways words make perfect sense. At least they did to me. This is the first in a 16-step process of putting a real nightmare into the past.
I was thinking about his words on my way back to the press box to write this column when a stadium employee caught my eye.
Heres your story, he said. They suck, they suck, they suck, they suck.
He was talking about the Jaguars, of course. I smiled. For so long, he wouldve been talking about the Chiefs.