The topic of this column presents a danger of hyperbolic nonsense, so let’s do this right here at the top:
It is not time to freak out about a heel injury.
But the owner of said heel is so important to the Chiefs, and said heel has enough of a precarious history, that we should probably do this here, too:
It is not time to freak out about Eric Berry’s heel injury — yet.
The Chiefs closed training camp here on Tuesday, and it was the third consecutive practice without one of four or so players they cannot be successful without.
“We’re being cautious with it,” coach Andy Reid said. “Trying to be smart. Eric’s been playing a long time, so he’s doing a great job communicating with us how he feels.”
The context is critical. Berry had what the Chiefs called a sore right heel in last year’s training camp. Internally, there was some concern that it would turn into a significant problem during the regular season.
In the opener, Berry’s left Achilles tendon ruptured. Let’s stress it was not the same heel that bothered him in camp, but these things can be interrelated — compensate for one, put extra stress on the other.
Here we are a year later, and Berry is again missing time with soreness on the same heel that troubled him during last year’s camp.
“We have a better idea now,” Reid said when asked if the experience last year informs how the team treats Berry now. “We didn’t have the same deal last year. It gives us an opportunity to do it this way.”
Reid may have been talking about degree of concern there, and the priority to be more cautious now.
But, just like last year, internal worry exists about Berry’s health.
He almost certainly won’t play in the preseason game against the Falcons in Atlanta on Friday. The best-case scenario would then be for him to get back to practice next week, and play some in the third preseason game in Chicago next weekend.
The worst-case scenario is at least worth thinking about, too, particularly now that Daniel Sorensen is out with a fractured tibia.
Berry missed virtually all of 2011 after a torn ACL, most of 2014 with a high ankle sprain and then Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis, and virtually all of 2017 with the ruptured Achilles. He also missed time in the 2014 training camp with a heel injury.
His last full season was his best, including plays so important they swung losses into wins against the Panthers and Falcons. With full health, he could be on a Hall of Fame track.
Instead, he’s a season-changing talent who has missed three of the last seven seasons.
A year ago, the Chiefs’ defense imploded without Berry. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was unable or unwilling to adjust, Sorensen was overexposed particularly against the run, and a consistent pass rush never materialized.
Blaming all of the Chiefs 2017 struggles on Berry’s absence would be inaccurate, but it was clearly among the most important factors.
There’s a financial element to this, too. Berry was the NFL’s highest-paid safety last year, and will be again in 2018. The market for safeties crashed last offseason, a reminder that the Chiefs are spending more than anyone else on a position that’s generally seen as being devalued across the league.
This becomes a massive problem if he’s not available.
Again, when Berry is healthy, he is among the NFL’s most impactful and useful defensive players — particularly among non-pass rushers. In some ways, Sutton has built his scheme around Berry’s diverse talents, deploying him in virtually every way possible depending on the specific needs of a specific play against a specific offense.
He plays the run, covers tight ends, supports corners and even rushes the quarterback on occasion. He is smart, gifted, dedicated, relentless, and he’s also the most respected player in the locker room. Safety or not, that’s a heck of a thing for any defense — let alone one in significant need of playmakers.
This may all be wasted time, of course. This may turn into the kind of thing we talk about when it’s training camp and the Royals stink and college football hasn’t started and anything involving a star Chiefs player is up for over-analysis.
Thing is, Berry’s talent, importance and history mean the Chiefs have to at least think about what another season without all of him would look like.