Justin Houston has never been much for speaking publicly or to reporters, so when approached in the locker room here he frowned and flexed his neck and generally gave the vibe of a man who’d rather be stuffed in traffic.
I just want to know how you’re feeling.
Neck loosened. Frown washed.
“I’m feeling great, man,” he said. “I’m good. I’m 100 percent.”
The last part of that is important. We’ll get to that in a minute. Houston is the Chiefs’ star linebacker, owner of both the richest contract in franchise history and a moody knee that essentially robbed him of the end of the 2015 season and his effectiveness for all of 2016.
This is, somewhat quietly, one of the most critical issues as the Chiefs chase the Super Bowl. The offseason was mostly about Jeremy Maclin’s release, and then John Dorsey’s firing. The preseason has largely been about Patrick Mahomes.
None of that is half as as important to the 2017 Chiefs as Houston’s health, because it’s hard to see them progressing in the playoffs without a great defense, and it’s hard to see them with a great defense if Houston isn’t strong at the end of the season.
“This is a huge year,” he said. “Definitely gotta make a statement.”
Houston has mixed feelings about last season. In a way, he’s proud. He played. Came back in November, eight months after an ACL and LCL surgery that he says the doctor told him would keep him from playing at all.
“I said, ‘You ain’t God yet,’ ” Houston said. “That’s the only person I listen to. God is the only person who can tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Houston played one of the best games of his career his second week back, at Denver. Three sacks, 10 tackles. The Broncos benched their right tackle because of him and essentially stopped running his way. That game was bonkers. The last-minute drive, including a fourth down and two-point conversion. The bank-shot game-winning field goal in overtime.
But there is no way the Chiefs could’ve won that game without Houston. That’s the guy he is when healthy, when strong, but he just wasn’t healthy or strong much last year.
He can say that now.
“Oh, man, I probably was, to be honest … ” and here he paused for a moment, looking at the ceiling. “I wasn’t even 75 percent.”
The problem, Houston said, was more about stamina. Maybe he fooled himself at times, because he had moments the knee felt great. Strong. But those moments wouldn’t last.
The knee gave him flashes, but a defensive star like him is expected to play every snap, all three downs, maybe 75 plays per game. You never know which of those can turn an outcome, good or bad. A year ago, the more the game went on the more Houston’s knee gave out.
“I didn’t have no endurance in my leg,” he said. “It would feel good, but then after the first quarter it would die on me. No endurance.”
He thinks that’s different now, and we have to use that qualifier because there’s no way to know for certain. Not yet, anyway. Houston played all 25 snaps of the first half with the first-team defense in Cincinnati after he and most of the starters played just four snaps in the preseason opener against San Francisco.
He had no sacks and four tackles. He appeared to be moving well. Set the edge on most run plays, though he did allow Jeremy Hill around his side for a 12-yard gain. He got around his blocker on a few pass plays, bothering Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, but didn’t get home.
The adage about not putting too much into preseason is particularly true about Houston. He is one of the sport’s premier defensive players, and preseason is much less about results for him than process, so in that way he’s encouraged.
“I can just focus on football and not worry about no injuries, just focus on football,” he said. “That’s life-changing, right there. To go through what I went through last year, and now this, it’s a huge blessing. I can put extra work in. Instead of rehab, I can put extra work in. That’s huge for me.”
This is still a long journey for Houston. He feels good, but it’s only August. The tests that matter most won’t even be in September — they’ll be in December, then hopefully January, and if everything goes right February.
There are too many factors in a football season to say that one is imperative, or even clearly more important than the rest. But the way this team is built, it’s hard to imagine them progressing in the playoffs without Houston at or near full strength.
So far, results are good.