The list of positive football characteristics that describe Tamba Hali is a long one.
He is a hard worker with a passion for rushing the quarterback. Hali, a nine-year veteran, is a technician in that regard, and he’s also a tough guy who always plays hard. Personnel men call this combination of traits “football character,” and Hali has it in spades.
But Hali is also intelligent enough to understand that football is a business, so in the aftermath of the Chiefs’ 19-7 season-ending win over the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 29, it wasn’t a shock to hear that he understood that because of the economics of the game, he might have just played his last game with the Chiefs.
“I’ve been here nine years ... I don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” Hali, 31, said at his locker. “I’d love to be here. But again, I can’t really worry about it. I’m a football player and I love playing the game, so if they want me here, I’ll still be here (playing) at a high level.”
It would be hard to blame Hali, however, if he simply thought about hanging it up — especially after a physically taxing season in which he managed to start all 16 games and finish with 59 tackles and six sacks despite a balky knee that hampered him all year.
But after the game, Hali downplayed the impact his knee might have on his football future.
“Wear and tear, that’s all it is,” Hali said of his knee. “Nothing major. I didn’t rip my ACL or MCL, none of that. Basically sometimes it swells up on me, sometimes it doesn’t. I think I need some cleaning (in there), maybe. But nothing major happened to my knee.”
In fact, when asked the biggest obstacle to his return to football, Hali said it was more mental than physical, though he insisted that’s always the case after a long season, and that the urge to play always comes back.
“You get three months off and then you want to start playing football again, that’s how it works,” Hali said. “I can’t make a decision today and say I’m done ... of course, it’s draining, mentally, physically … you put so much in and you want so much out of it, but it never pans out that way.
“I question it sometimes, whether I want to continue to play.”
But while Hali is a man with plenty of other interests — he’s very passionate about his music label, Relumae Records, for example — as he stood in front of his locker after the Chargers game, he was comfortable declaring just moments later that he expects to play a 10th season next fall.
“Where my body is right now, yeah,” Hali said. “Where my body was last year? No. I had to push through that last playoff game last year. This year … I’ve been able to eat well, work out and have my body in the best shape to play the games. So yeah, I can make that decision now. Last year, I went to the doctors and I couldn’t bend, and that was a problem. But I could keep going. I love the game.”
That much was obvious on tape this season to the Chiefs’ decision-makers. Hali played with the same energy, spirit and competitiveness he always has.
“He’s got professional pride,” general manager John Dorsey said. “I love everything that he’s done this year … he’s stayed true. What he told me way back last spring, what he was going to do, he did.
“I like the person; I like how he plays the game of football.”
It will be interesting, however, to see if Dorsey likes it enough to keep Hali around for another year. Cap expert Joel Corry projects the Chiefs to have only $400,000 in cap room this year, which means they will need to create a ton of space to be a player in free agency, sign their draft picks — which typically takes $5 million to $6 million — and accommodate the return of their own free agents, such as their other star outside linebacker, Justin Houston.
The Chiefs could free up $9 million in cap space by releasing Hali, who is set to have a cap number of $11.9 million in 2015 on the last year of his deal. Corry believes Hali probably will come out ahead if he hits the open market, as did veteran pass rushers such as Green Bay’s Julius Peppers and Denver’s DeMarcus Ware, who each scored huge deals as free agents last March.
Provided he does return for a 10th season — and again, Hali made it clear there’s a good chance he will — even Dorsey agrees that he isn’t done as a difference-maker.
“You could see yesterday he still has a little spring left in his leg, which was very impressive to see,” Dorsey said.
However, Dorsey might be willing to let Hali walk because at some point the team needs to let outside linebacker Dee Ford sink or swim. Ford, the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, spent the entire season behind Hali and Houston, which limited the amount of snaps Ford got, both in practice and games.
Teams draft first-round picks to play immediately; it represents a chance to get good production for a cheap price. So, the Chiefs might not be able to let Ford sit for another year and again miss out on crucial practice reps. And with Houston seemingly a lock to return — he’s a free agent but can be franchised — Hali would seem to be the odd man out.
Even still, that didn’t keep Hali from mentoring Ford throughout the season.
“I wouldn’t even be to this level without them,” Ford said during the season. “Like I said, I’m willing to humble myself and realize, I’m not ready. I need to learn.”
But the Chiefs might be prepared to bet that Ford will be ready this fall. If they aren’t, and they bring Hali back, it’s probably an indication that Ford hasn’t made the conversion from defensive end to standup 3-4 outside linebacker as fast as they hoped.
Whatever they decide to do with Hali, they’ll need to do fairly quickly. Corry says Hali has a $2 million roster bonus due shortly after the new league year begins in March, which means that if they were moving on from him, they’d be wise do it before they have to pay out the bonus.
If it doesn’t go down that way — and the team does find a way to keep Hali in its 2015 plans — that would certainly be all right with him.
“If they bring me back, yeah,” Hali said with a laugh. “Yeah, for sure.”