Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson has been playing the game long enough to know that the business side can often seep into the football side of the sport.
So when Johnson reported to the Chiefs’ first voluntary practice of organized team activities on Tuesday and saw that two of his fellow defensive stars — outside linebacker Justin Houston and cornerback Brandon Flowers — were absent, he simply shrugged.
“This is voluntary OTAs, so it’s one of those things where you worry about the guys that are here,” said Johnson, a defensive leader who just completed his ninth season. “I’m a guy that’s been through this. It’s not a big deal.”
Perhaps. The Chiefs declined to comment about why both players missed Tuesday’s practice, and when asked, a team spokesman simply mentioned that the practice was a voluntary session.
However, the fact remains that all the other veterans were there, so it’s certainly safe to wonder why each player was absent. Houston has one year left on his contract and is believed to be seeking a new one, so he is likely trying to send a statement to the team with his absence.
Their teammates, however, were understandably hesitant to say much on the situation.
“I’m worried about playing quarterback,” Alex Smith said with a laugh. “To be totally honest, I’ve got enough on my plate. I think that’s the same for everybody here.”
Smith’s words ring true, if for no other reason than he’s got his own contract issues to worry about.
A league source told The Star on Tuesday that while the Chiefs and Smith’s representatives have had talks surrounding an extension — he has one year remaining on his deal — those talks have been “almost nonexistent” in recent months, which is an indication that negotiations have hit a bit of a snag.
ESPN’s Ed Werder also reported Tuesday that there are “substantial issues” between the two sides and a “sense of pessimism” surrounding a potential deal.
All of this runs somewhat counter to what coach Andy Reid said earlier in the day, when he appeared on the NFL Network show “NFL AM” and suggested that he was optimistic the two sides will agree on a deal at some point.
“There has been open communication,” Reid said. “I’ve always believed that if there is open communication, then normally good things happen. I’m sure something will get done; I can’t put a time frame on that but I’m sure something will get done.”
When told about what Reid said, Smith agreed Tuesday.
“Absolutely, I do,” Smith said. “But other than that, (I’m focused on) playing quarterback. That stuff gets figured out.”
While it remains to be seen whether the Chiefs can strike a deal with the 30-year-old Smith, who had a career year his first season in Kansas City — and really came on in his last six games, when he completed 129 of 194 passes (66 percent) for 1,542 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions — one would think the club would be motivated to strike a deal with Houston, an emerging star who will earn only $1.4 million this season on the last year of his rookie deal.
That figure will make Houston the second-lowest-paid projected starter on the entire defense. At 25, he’s coming off a career year in which he made 11 sacks in 11 games and posted a Pro Football Focus grade of 32.5, which was the highest on the entire defense and tops among all of the league’s 3-4 outside linebackers.
Houston’s agent, Joel Segal, did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did Flowers’ agents, Mitchell Frankel and Tony Fleming.
Flowers’ absence is a little more mysterious. Unlike Houston, he is being paid well, with $30 million still due on a contract that will run through the 2016 season, and he made the Pro Bowl last season despite injury issues and a handful of rough performances.
If the Chiefs ultimately decide to trade Flowers, 28, who is not considered to be an ideal fit for their press-man scheme, they stand to save $3.5 million on the cap this year and $11.5 on the cap next year. If they cut him after June 1, they can save roughly $7.5 million on the cap both this year and next year.
Both scenarios — but the latter, especially — could conceivably free up enough money to pay both Houston and Smith. According to NFL Players Association records, the Chiefs are currently $3.6 million under the cap, but new deals for both players could be crafted so that the team will only be saddled with a relatively small cap charge that first year, with the bulk of the deals set to hit the cap in future years.
All of that is stuff to consider down the road, however. Nine more voluntary practices remain before the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp starts on June 17, so until Houston and Flowers show up, backups such as linebacker Frank Zombo and cornerback Marcus Cooper, who stepped in on Tuesday, will keep getting chances to show what they can do.
“I didn’t know Flo wasn’t gonna be here,” Cooper said. “I just come and take care of myself. … I always prepare to be the starter because you never know, but I can’t really focus on what he’s doing.”
Cooper is just entering his second season, but his mentality mirrors that of vets like Johnson, who has seen it all and done it all and insisted that for all the budding story lines to come out of Tuesday’s practice, it was all just another day at the office in the National Football League.
“You’re never surprised in this league,” Johnson said. “We’ll worry about the guys that are here, get better, and when the season comes, we’ll have everybody intact.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.