Frank Zombo can be forgiven for putting gear into the wrong locker at the Chiefs practice facility.
During his five-year stint with the Chiefs, which came to an end when their 53-man roster was announced last month, Zombo had occupied the same locker space. That space now belongs to safety Jordan Lucas.
Zombo, re-signed by the Chiefs this week, said he catches himself putting belongings into his old locker.
But everything else feels familiar to Zombo, who was brought back to KC for depth at outside linebacker as the team prepares to play the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football.
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“I’ve been doing it for quite a while — it’s like riding a bike, I guess,” Zombo said.
Zombo built an eight-year, 105-game career as a special teams warrior. But he also saw ample time as a starter the past two years, when he made 20 of his 36 career defensive starts on defense.
When he didn’t make the Chiefs’ roster out of training camp this season, Zombo said his good-byes. Within two hours of getting the news, he was headed back to his home in Michigan.
The Chiefs had kept four outside linebackers: Justin Houston, Dee Ford, Tanoh Kpassagnon and rookie Breeland Speaks. Getting cut was disappointing, and Zombo mulled the possibility that his NFL career could be over. But the team’s message to Zombo at the time was to stay in shape.
“You never think it’s going to happen, but you know it’s inevitable,” Zombo said of getting cut. “I was going into my ninth year in the NFL. Eventually, it’s going to happen.
“It was sad to say goodbye to people, but at the same time (the Chiefs) said it’s not going to work out right now, but stay in shape and be ready because you might be playing again.”
Zombo said three other teams checked on his availability. But if he was going to play again, there was only one place for him.
“I wanted to come back to Kansas City,” Zombo said. “I didn’t want to screw up anything with Kansas City. This is where I want to be.”
No breaking in new coaches, teammates or playbook for Zombo.
“I can teach the playbook,” he said. “I don’t have to sit in my room all night and study. I don’t have to look at the schedule on the board. I know it. It’s been the same the last five years. It’s what I know. I walk into the building and I know everybody.”
That was part of the reason the Chiefs reached out. They signed two outside linebackers this week, including Nate Orchard, who has been with the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills in the past few months. It may take Orchard time to get up to speed.
“He had great knowledge of what we’re doing,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “It’s an easy plug-in from that standpoint. ... The system isn’t going to weigh him down. It’ll just be, is he ready to play.”
Zombo said he enjoyed the leisure life of a man without a team, golfing and fishing over the past few weeks. And he watched, or studied, every Chiefs game.
“When you’ve been around football so long, it’s hard to watch it as a fan,” Zombo said. “Every game I watch, I break it down.”
What Zombo has seen is a Chiefs team that has started 5-0 for the second straight year largely on the strength of a Pat Mahomes-led offense. The defense stepped up in last week’s victory over Jacksonville, but it was costly.
Houston injured his hamstring and is listed as doubtful for Sunday. Kpassagnon suffered an ankle injury, missed practice time this week and is listed as questionable. The Chiefs needed replacements at the position
Zombo answered the call.