Before the Chiefs’ 19-7 victory over the San Diego Chargers in their season finale, Justin Houston stood in the middle of approximately 15 teammates and delivered a message.
“This may be the last chance you play this year, bruh,” Houston began. “You’ve got to love this (stuff), bruh. You’re gonna be without this (stuff) for six months, bruh.”
Houston was just getting started.
“Bro, it ain’t going to be because of this game,” he said. “We’re leaving it all out there, every play, every snap, bruh. We’re giving it our all out there, every play, every snap … play with your heart; we need it.”
You already know what happened after that: After breaking his teammates down — and using enough “bruhs” to rival his lymphoma-stricken buddy Eric Berry’s liberal use of the word — Houston proceeded to record four sacks and lift his season total to 22, two more than the previous club record set by the late Derrick Thomas in 1990.
In many ways, it was a fitting end to a history-making season for Houston, who established himself as one of the league’s elite players — in a contract year, no less. On Wednesday, he was named the winner of the Deacon Jones Award, given annually to the NFL leader in quarterback sacks.
“I’m very honored and humbled to earn this award named after one of the greatest defensive players and sack masters of all time,” Houston said in a statement. “I’d like to thank my teammates, coaches and our fan base. They rallied behind us all season long and helped fuel our pass rush. To have my name mentioned in the same sentence as a player like Deacon Jones is truly a blessing.”
Houston fell just a half-sack short of the NFL’s single-season record of 22.5, set in 2001 by the Giants’ Michael Straham.
“I’m proud of him for what he did,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “At no point did you feel like he was going for the record. You felt like everybody around him was pulling for him, but it wasn’t from him. He was all about winning and trying to be the leader of the defense.”
“He kept it upbeat and positive for the guys,” Reid said. “I would have liked to see him get that other half. It’s got to be out there, somewhere. Doggone it. He brought a great energy to the team.”
Houston’s caliber of play has never really been in doubt. He was the Chiefs’ best defensive player even last season, as his pass-rushing and run-stopping skills — he’s great at setting the edge and keeping contain — set him apart.
In fact, Houston’s Pro Football Focus grade this year of 50.1 ranked first on the Chiefs and fourth among all defensive players, behind only Houston end J.J. Watt (106.0), Oakland linebacker Khalil Mack (56.4) and Denver linebacker Von Miller (55.7).
Yet Houston had never really been a vocal guy — the last frontier for a great player. Not even back in college.
“I really didn’t say too much,” Houston said. “I really took it on because I know Eric used to do it at the beginning of the season. Then, when he went down ... that’s why I started doing it.”
Berry and Houston are close — Houston even traveled to Georgia to see Berry on off days at least twice after his diagnosis last month. Houston says he realized his words held some weight with his teammates after Berry suffered a high-ankle sprain in week two against Denver.
“Somebody’s got to do it,” Houston said. “I wouldn’t say (Coach Reid) puts a lot on my plate, but he just feels like I’m the right guy to do it, and a lot of guys listen to me. I try to motivate other guys. Sometimes, somebody’s got to speak up.”
Houston said he doesn’t plan out what he says to his teammates — he just speaks from emotion, how he’s feeling at the time.
“I didn’t have a problem doing it,” Houston said. “We’re all a family around here, so I don’t mind speaking up with the fam. We treat everybody like brothers around here.”
Houston’s overall body of work this season certainly caught the eye of Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, who admitted Houston didn’t do anything to hurt his stock.
“No, absolutely not,” Dorsey said. “And I applaud Justin for all that he has done.
“The guy is a good player. We all know that.”
Dorsey and Houston’s representatives had discussions regarding a new deal before the season, but a person with knowledge of the situation told The Star in August that the two sides were “far apart” on a contract extension.
There was little indication that changed during the season, and when Dorsey was asked where the two sides stood during a recent media session, he declined to give an update on the state of those talks.
“That part of it has been going on, but again, it is conversation,” Dorsey said. “It’s the part of the business side that I don’t want to talk about. No disrespect there, but I don’t think it’s good. I can say it’s ongoing business. That’s ongoing conversation.”
Houston, 25, made $1.4 million this season in the final year of his four-year rookie contract. He skipped the entirety of the Chiefs’ offseason training activities, though he reported for training camp on time.
At one point, teammate Tamba Hali’s five-year, $60 million extension (with $35 million guaranteed) was considered a starting point in the team’s negotiations with Houston. But it’s safe to say that contract extensions recently signed by Watt — $51.8 million guaranteed — and St. Louis’ star pass rusher Robert Quinn — $41.2 million guaranteed — have upped Houston’s asking price.
If the two sides cannot reach a new deal, the Chiefs have the option of franchising him for around $13 million next season — that’s the franchise-tag level for outside linebackers — though Houston could get more if he argues he should be labeled as a defensive end. Defensive ends are paid at a higher average rate than outside linebackers.
“In my opinion, he plays outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme,” said Dorsey, who will have to do some cap gymnastics to carve out a significant chunk of space regardless of how Houston is designated.
Whatever you want to call him — linebacker or defensive end — it doesn’t change the fact that in the biggest season of his professional career, Houston not only delivered on the field, he also tried to deliver off of it with his leadership.
“I just feel like it’s a group effort, a team effort, so if I can say something to get these guys going ... we want to win and anything can help,” Houston said. “If you can touch one person in the locker room, that can make a difference.”