In his first visit to Chiefs training camp in St. Joseph, former general manager Carl Peterson indulged an inquisitor about Derrick Thomas.
The cornerstone of the Chiefs’ success in the 1990s. … A game-changer with his speed and first step. … Not crushing quarterbacks but more interested in the forced fumble.
No more than 50 feet away as Peterson continued, a cadence of thwaps, like a boxer hitting a speed bag in perfect rhythm, diverted attention.
Justin Houston was getting in his post-practice work, a hand-eye coordination drill on a blocking sled. This is how Houston finished every day, he and Tamba Hali, and sometimes younger Chiefs following the leaders.
“Obviously a standout player,” Peterson said. “He’s on his way.”
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star’s Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
Perhaps one day to the place where Peterson was heading in the next few days — to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Peterson would soon be there to pay tribute to inductee Will Shields, the great Chiefs offensive lineman.
While there, Peterson would also remember his friend, Thomas, his first draft pick as the Chiefs’ new general manager in 1989 and to whom he paid the ultimate tribute — Thomas’ posthumous Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2009.
“He has a chance,” Peterson said of Houston. “He has the talent, and, knock on wood, he stays healthy.”
Comparisons between Justin Houston and Derrick Thomas gained momentum as the 2014 season unfolded and Houston’s sack totals went from those of a solid Pro Bowl selection to epic.
Starting with the Chiefs’ third game, a victory at Miami, Houston recorded at least one sack in six straight games, including five in a two-game stretch.
At midseason, Houston had 12 sacks. Since Thomas’ final season in 1999, only two Chiefs have amassed that many sacks for an entire season: Jared Allen with 15 1/2 in 2007 and Hali with 14 1/2 in 2010.
Clearly, Houston was bound for something special.
After two games without a sack, a new streak started. Houston recorded at last one sack over the Chiefs’ final six games, culminating with a four-sack game in the finale against the San Diego Chargers. That matched the best game in the NFL last season.
The final tally: An NFL-best 22 sacks, eclipsing Thomas’ team record of 20 set in 1990 and falling half a sack short of Michael Strahan’s league record from 2001.
Following the path of Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier and Thomas, the Chiefs are convinced their next great linebacker has arrived. This summer, they rewarded Houston with a six-year, $101 million deal, with $52.5 million guaranteed.
The Chiefs speak of Houston as a cornerstone player, just as the organization described Thomas in the 1990s.
“He became a symbol of our success,” Peterson said. “He was our game-changer.”
Houston is becoming that player for the Chiefs. But can he become as productive as Derrick Thomas?
After four seasons, the former Southeastern Conference stars — Houston from Georgia, Thomas from Alabama — posted similar numbers. In 63 games, Thomas had 58 sacks and appeared in four Pro Bowls.
Houston has 48 1/2 sacks and three Pro Bowl appearances.
The biggest statistical gap speaks to their difference in playing styles. Four years into his career, Thomas had 21 forced fumbles. Houston has forced seven.
“John Elway said Derrick never wanted to kill him, he just wanted the take the ball from him,” Peterson said. “Derrick could change the course of a game with a single play. Invariably, when we needed a sack, Derrick, he’d get it. If we needed a fumble, he’d force it or get it.”
Thomas holds the Chiefs’ record with 45 forced fumbles, and in 1992 he recorded a team-record eight. He also recovered more fumbles than anybody in Chiefs history with 19, sometimes recovering the fumbles he forced with a quickness that left many offensive linemen wondering what had just zipped by.
“The first step is what made Derrick so phenomenal,” said Rich Baldinger, a former Chiefs offensive lineman who played four seasons with Thomas. “His first step was so quick, and his flexibility, knowing how to drop his shoulder and turn the corner.”
Although the players’ listed dimensions are similar — both 6 feet 3, with Houston listed at 258 and Thomas at 255 — they took different routes to their sacks.
“Justin’s physicality is special,” Baldinger said. “So even if he doesn’t beat someone with his speed like Derrick could, he has the ability to bull-rush him.
“Also, you have to account for No. 50 when you’re run-blocking. He can defeat any tight end in the league. Ain’t no tight end that’s going to block him.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton calls Houston an ideal power-and-speed player who brings versatility.
“We move him around a lot, which really helps us from a scheme standpoint,” Sutton said. “You don’t know where he’s going to be or what he’s going to do. Sometimes he plays inside, sometimes on the right side. For a guy to be able to do that, it helps us and makes him an effective player.”
One of the most important common denominators is what surrounds the two defensive playmakers.
A year before the Chiefs took Thomas in the first round with the fourth overall selection, they had drafted defensive Neil Smith from Nebraska with the second overall pick. Together, Thomas and Smith grew into a dynamic duo, playing off each other. They were teammates through the 1996 season, and Smith was a first-team All-Pro once and played in five Pro Bowls with the Chiefs.
Alongside Houston there’s Hali, a five-time Pro Bowler who is about to begin his 10th season. When Houston was breaking into the league, Hali absorbed the double teams. Now, it’s Houston drawing the double teams — and sometimes more.
“I told Tamba, ‘Go tell (Houston) he owes you some of that money,’” said Peterson, who drafted Hali. “‘You make him better and he makes you better.’”
Where the Chiefs would like to see Houston catch Thomas is in team success. Through their first four years, Thomas’ teams went to the playoffs three times. There would be three more years of playoff appearances, including the 1993 AFC championship game.
In 11 seasons, Thomas played for six playoff teams and three division winners. In Houston’s four seasons, the Chiefs have appeared in one playoff game and haven’t won a division title.
Houston has the sack record, and he has established himself as one of the NFL’s top players (and among its richest). Thomas’s first four years statistically were his best. Houston wants to keep rising.
“How do I top last year?” Houston said. “I put last year behind me and look forward to this year. I’m going to continue to do what I do …continue to stay focused and work like I’ve been working. Nothing changes.”
Tale of the tape
Here’s how Justin Houston stacks up with Derrick Thomas through their first four NFL seasons:
6 feet 3
6 feet 3
Sacks (single-season high)
Pro Bowl selections