Tamba Hali has long been optimistic about the progress of Justin Houston’s rehab from offseason knee surgery, but there was a moment Tuesday when Hali realized how well the Chiefs’ star outside linebacker seemed to be doing.
“Yesterday, Justin — with a table this high — jumped on it and stood,” Hali said, holding his hand about four feet off the ground. “I said ‘If you can do that, you’re able to play.’ ”
Houston won’t be ready to play in the Chiefs’ next game, Sunday at Oakland, but his return appears to be near. On Wednesday, Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder said Houston met with orthopedic surgeon James Andrews on Oct. 3 — right after the Chiefs’ 43-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers — and was cleared to progress with “football-type activity” as he continues to rehab an injured anterior cruciate ligament.
Burkholder said Houston cannot practice until Monday at the earliest — players like him who have been placed on the physically unable to perform list have to miss the first six weeks of the season — so he’ll be given simulated football activity this week. Burkolder said the plan is for the Chiefs to make a decision at the end of the week about when he will be taken off the PUP list and practice.
“All part of the progression,” Burkholder said. There’s a lot that goes into that with myself, coach (Andy) Reid and (general manager) John (Dorsey).”
Houston was injured in the Chiefs’ 11th game last season, against the Bills, and didn’t play the remainder of the regular season. He did play in the Chiefs’ AFC Wild Card playoff win at Houston, however, and had his ACL surgically repaired in February.
Houston’s work ethic is part of the reason Dorsey predicted in April that Houston would play at some point this season. He’s been rehabbing with the team since training camp and has been spotted walking around the locker room with no brace on his knee and without a limp.
“He’s in pretty good shape,” Reid said. “Right now, he’s running around and doing a lot of things.”
Still, Reid added, it’s going to be a “day-by-day” thing with Houston, who won’t be rushed back even though the Chiefs only have five sacks in four games — second fewest in the league behind the New York Giants’ four.
“You’re going to do everything possible not to put him in a position where he’s not ready to play — it’s a violent sport we’re playing, you want to make sure he can get out of his own way and do the things he needs to do, obviously,” Reid said. “And that you have to see, firsthand. We can talk about it and do all that, but until they get out there, move around and practice, you have no idea, really.”
Houston, Reid said, is eager to return, however.
“Does he want to play right now? Yeah, it’s killing him not to play, that’s the kind of guy he is,” Reid said. “But you have to do what’s right, I think. And whatever’s right for him and that leg, that’s what you have to do. You take everything else out of it.”
Reid’s technique for keeping anxious players from rushing back is simple.
“Just shoot ’em straight,” Reid said, gesturing with his hand. “The thing I’ve found is if you tell them the truth and ask them to do the same with you, and you’ll hopefully have a good relationship with them. I’ve been lucky that way over the years.
“But I’m not gonna put them out there if I don’t think they’re ready to go, or the docs don’t think they’re ready to go. These are competitive guys that want to be out there, and sometimes you have to tell them, ‘Hey listen, pump the breaks for about a minute and make sure you can really go.’ ”
Houston’s teammates are excited about the latest development, however. The Chiefs, 2-2, have missed his presence on the outside. And with Tamba Hali on a pitch count, of sorts — the 32-year-old with balky knees has only played 51 percent of the defensive snaps — the Chiefs could use Houston, who had 22 sacks in 2014 and would have been the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year were it not for an absurd season from the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt.
“Anytime you’ve got one of the best, or our best, player coming back on the field, you’ve got to think that’s a great sign,” Hali said. “He’s doing things people who (hurt) their knee wouldn’t be doing, and I’m seeing it firsthand.”
Still, the Chiefs know that Houston’s return — and there is certainly some optimism for an early November comeback — might still be a little ways off, so the players who are healthy enough to play up front right now simply need to take care of business.
“It’s cool man, but everybody’s got to do their part — he’s just one guy,” defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. “We do depend on him ... it would help us as the inside linemen. He definitely can set the edge, and he definitely can cause two people to block him, so it will free us up a little bit.”
sacks in 2014
Chiefs only have five sacks in four games this year.