One of the running jokes around the Chiefs, and especially here during training camp, is about the grey and basic sweatshirt that might as well be permanently attached to general manager John Dorsey.
If it is 60 degrees in the morning, he will wear that sweatshirt. If it is 98 degrees in the afternoon, he will wear that sweatshirt, pretending not to feel the heat.
“It’s easy,” he says, shrugging. “You don’t have to think.”
There is a proud tradition among football people and some other obsessed professionals to wear the same thing every day. “Cuts the drag,” is how Michigan coach and khaki enthusiast Jim Harbaugh puts it. But with Dorsey there is a little more to it, too.
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Dorsey sees the sleeves as protection from the sun, to avoid problems with his skin later. And while the sweatshirts he wears here in August look exactly like the ones he wears in Kansas City during the December freeze, there’s a big difference.
“Feel this,” he says. “The secret is, this cut is about as thin as your t-shirt.”
This is symbolic, in many ways. Dorsey knows he can come across as a bit of a meathead, and there are times he plays that up. It’s easy, he’d say. You don’t have to think. So he’ll keep things light when he can, joking about your alma mater or your middle name, and he prefers to answer questions in the simplest and vaguest ways possible.
But just like with that sweatshirt, everything has a purpose. You just have to pay attention to see it.
This column was written mostly from a 25-minute-or-so conversation with Dorsey the other day at camp. We talked about a wide range of topics, from the draft to free agency, to the failed negotiations with Eric Berry, to Tyreek Hill’s transition to professional football.
But the most interesting part of the conversation was about Justin Houston, now six months removed from ACL surgery, and when he’ll be back on the field.
“Athletes take different levels of jumps in how fast they can come back from this thing,” Dorsey said. “Knowing how he physically is, and his structure and all that, you hope and wish he comes back.”
I mentioned that sounded different from what he said before the draft, when he expressed more confidence in Houston’s return this season.
“That’s the eternal optimist in me,” Dorsey said. “I’m the eternal optimist. I think he’s going to fight through, and do all his due diligence. This is me now, but I think somewhere down the line, there is a chance he does come back and play.”
Again, I mentioned that sounded different from what he’d said in April. Back then, he said Houston would play this season, though he didn’t commit to how soon. Now, he was talking about eternal optimism.
So I asked if he expects Houston to play, or if he hopes Houston will play. There’s a big difference.
“Expect is a strong word,” Dorsey said. “What I’m looking for, I think he’ll be Justin Houston on the field when he gets there.”
One more time, that sounds different from what he said before. I didn’t have Dorsey’s exact quote from April in front of me, so I asked if I was reading too much into the difference with what he’s saying now.
“I think you are,” he said.
The rest of the conversation was, actually, optimistic. Some of that has to do with the time of year. In every sport, and with every team, the buildup to the season is undefeated. Every move fills a hole, every returning player is improved, and another year with the system can only make the whole thing better.
But there is enough specific to the Chiefs to give this substance. Dorsey and coach Andy Reid took over a more talented roster in 2013 than some fans are willing to admit, but entering their fourth year together have what looks like the best Chiefs team in quite some time.
They won their first playoff game in a generation, and filled their biggest need by signing Mitchell Schwartz. That turned their right tackle position from a glaring weakness to an undeniable strength, which is particularly important considering Alex Smith’s skill-set.
There are superficial ways to look at this, too. Nine Chiefs landed on the NFL Network’s top 100 players list, more than any other team in the league. On Madden ’17, only the Patriots have a higher team rating in the AFC.
Not surprisingly, then, Dorsey said the most important thing he and the men he works with did this offseason was re-sign so many of their own free agents — Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Jaye Howard among them.
“You wanted to retain as many of the core nucleus guys who were in free agency as you possibly could,” Dorsey said. “I think we did as good a job as we possibly could do. Plus, we got lucky because Cleveland pulled the deal on Mitchell Schwartz, and we got an offensive lineman, and finally addressed that right tackle position, and actually began to solidify the offensive line.”
There was more. Dorsey expressed frustration at not working out a long-term deal with Berry, and said the sides will talk again after the season. On losing Sean Smith in free agency, Dorsey correctly pointed out that the Raiders had a mound of cash they had to spend to satisfy the CBA, and so would’ve always won a bidding war with the Chiefs.
More than anything else, there was a confidence about Dorsey. He and Reid had to fix so much from the 2-14 team they took over. Not so much talent at the top — Houston, Berry, Johnson, Tamba Hali and Jamaal Charles were a good core already — but in depth and structure.
Reid has fixed the structure. His ability to be both demanding and player-friendly helped the Chiefs to their first streak of three consecutive winning seasons since the 1990s. Dorsey has fixed the depth, particularly on the defensive line, in the secondary, at running back, and now along the offensive line.
That depth will be tested now as much as ever, because of Houston’s injury. He is their best overall player — one of the sport’s best pass rushers, which overshadows his ability to mix in coverage and playing the run.
The Chiefs will be forced to scheme some pressure, with various blitz packages, and rely more on a talented defensive line to rush the quarterback.
“What you do is, you thank God you have the coaching staff you have,” Dorsey said. “There’s varying degrees of packaging you can use to offset the loss of a player like (Houston). Then, (Dee Ford), the guy you drafted two years ago to apply some pass rush, now he’s got to step up and put his best foot forward. That’s part of the patience thing we talk about in building a team. You gotta have a degree of patience here. I feel more comfortable now than I did my first year.”
In almost every way, Dorsey has good reason to be more comfortable now than ever before. The Chiefs just won their first playoff game in a generation, and then went out and filled their biggest need.
It’s just that Houston thing ...
I went back to see what Dorsey previously said about Houston. There is a material difference with what he said this week, about being an “eternal optimist.”
“I’m not a medical expert,” he said in April, “but I can tell you Justin Houston will be playing this season.”
When, someone asked then.
“When it’s a good time,” he said. “But, not being a medical expert, I really can’t definitively tell you that answer. I would say that our doctors have reassured us that he will play this season.”
That is, you will notice, different from using words like “wish” and “hope” and saying things like “expect is a strong word.”
Now, maybe this is all nothing. Maybe Dorsey went too far back in April. Maybe the organization decided to bring expectations down, for no other reason than to exceed them later. Reid was similarly vague when asked about Houston’s return last week, saying only that he wouldn’t be on the field before breaking camp here on Aug. 18. He wasn’t pushed on whether Houston would play this season.
Asked for clarification, team trainer Rick Burkholder said through a team spokesman that the original projection of six to 12 months still holds. Six months from the surgery would be now, which isn’t happening, and 12 months would mean missing the entire season, which the Chiefs consider unlikely. But even that word — unlikely — is different than what Dorsey said in April.
This is a critical point for the Chiefs’ season. With the signing of backup quarterback Nick Foles, the emergence of running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, and the improved offensive line, Houston may be the Chiefs’ most important and irreplaceable player.
Everything the Chiefs do under defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is based on quarterback pressure and disrupting the opponents’ timing. Houston is the best the Chiefs have with that, and it’s not close. If they can’t generate enough pressure, the coverage breaks down and their ball-control offense has to play catch-up.
Houston’s return is no small point, then. A disproportionate amount of the Chiefs’ success this year may depend on whether Dorsey and the Chiefs are now merely lowering expectations, or operating with new information that makes his return less likely.