Chiefs must put holdout aside and sign Justin Houston to a new contract

06/18/2014 2:09 PM

06/18/2014 8:18 PM

There is only one way for this to end, and by now, surely both sides know that.

Sometime between now and the start of the NFL season, the Chiefs will rip up Justin Houston’s contract and sign him to a new one that could buy and sell the old one a few times over.

They may or may not hold a news conference. But either way, when he’s asked about it, Houston will thank the organization and talk about helping his team win games. Coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey will thank Houston for his hard work and exemplary attitude and talk about how they’re looking forward to winning games together.

That’s the only way for this to end.

Houston is noticing other stars around the league being taken care of by their teams. He wants the same treatment. The Chiefs see Alex Smith leading and attending minicamps through a contract negotiation, and can’t be encouraged that another core player has removed himself from his teammates to make a financial point.

But both sides know that the current emotions will be washed away with some paperwork. Both sides know that any alternative will harm the Chiefs or Houston or both, an outcome that nobody wants.

The holdout of the Chiefs’ most valuable defensive player turned serious this week as he is skipping mandatory minicamp in Kansas City. The loud statement of symbolism will cost him around $70,000, which can be seen as a small price in pursuit of a contract worth as much $50 million or more.

Houston is 25 years old and coming off another standout season. He is the best pass rusher on a defense predicated on getting to the passer, and on a team still built on defense.

The 2014 season — Houston’s fourth — is scheduled to be the last of a rookie deal he signed after being drafted in the third round. His $1.4 million salary would make him the third-lowest-paid starter on defense, ahead of only Marcus Cooper, who was a seventh-round pick last year, and barely ahead of Dontari Poe, who is in his third season.

It’s time for Houston to be paid closer to his value. He knows this, and the Chiefs know this.

That’s part of why the Chiefs saved some $7 million by cutting Brandon Flowers last week. The money is set aside, with a purpose. Now, they will reinvest it in one of their best players.

Houston was far from a flawless prospect but probably would have been a first-round pick out of Georgia in 2011, but slipped to the third round because of a reported failed drug test.

One relatively minor mistake three years ago (and the NFL’s overreaction to it) has already cost him millions, but Houston has kept his mouth shut. He has been a model teammate, drawing praise from Andy Reid last year for constantly deflecting the credit he earned for 11 sacks in 11 games, winning AFC player of the week and month awards along the way.

Two years ago, in the awful dysfunction of that 2012 season, some of Houston’s teammates quietly accused the now-dismissed front office of limiting his pass-rushing opportunities to artificially suppress his next contract. Houston said nothing.

In the meantime, he has seen former fifth-round pick Richard Sherman of the Seahawks and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey get new contracts. Houston has been respectful and mostly deferential toward Tamba Hali, but also knows that Hali signed a five-year, $56 million contract after his breakout season in 2010. Hali’s contract is a good negotiating point for Houston, actually.

Hali is still a very productive player, but nobody on the team, including Hali, would say he’s better than Houston. In particular, Hali compliments Houston’s mind as much as his physical talents. There’s no reason to believe Houston is on the verge of decline, or that he is the type of player to grow complacent with a big contract.

Because of the way the league’s CBA is structured, holdouts are often the most effective tool a player has. Hali held out of the first week of training camp in 2011 before signing his contract.

Just like Hali then, Houston has earned this payday. He deserves it. When he came into the league, he heard from advisers and coaches and friends that the money he “lost” by slipping in the draft would come if he worked hard and proved himself.

Houston has done his part, and in a league where players have precious few opportunities for leverage, it’s entirely understandable why he wants the financial security that his talents are worth in the NFL marketplace. Missing five games because of a freak injury last year may have reinforced the reality of how quickly it can all evaporate.

Houston’s mother raised him and his 10 brothers and sisters mostly by herself. She taught them to let their work do the talking, which is exactly how Houston has made himself one of the NFL’s best linebackers.

The Chiefs know all of this too, of course. And they know that skipping minicamp is a warning shot of sorts, one of the few ways a player can show he is serious.

This is out of character for Houston, but he has built up enough capital that the organization and his teammates won’t hold it against him. They all understand that Houston has earned his turn.

They all understand that there is only one way for this to end, with a signed contract and smiley news conference with a star player and the team that depends on him putting business behind them and again pushing forward with a mutually beneficial relationship.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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