Vahe Gregorian

Eric Berry’s return to Chiefs offers fresh hope despite prime-time loss to Chargers

Chiefs rookie LB Dorian O’Daniel talks Eric Berry’s return, loss to Chargers

Chiefs rookie linebacker Dorian O’Daniel talks to reporters about return of All-Pro safety Eric Berry, and what went wrong down stretch of loss to Chargers.
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Chiefs rookie linebacker Dorian O’Daniel talks to reporters about return of All-Pro safety Eric Berry, and what went wrong down stretch of loss to Chargers.

Fifteen months and 29 games later, including too many weeks of mystery and vagueness that made you wonder if this would ever happen, safety Eric Berry at last returned to the Chiefs’ lineup on Thursday night.

You could sense the giddy anticipation of what that could mean via social media the last few days, amplified anew the moment he came out for warmups at Arrowhead Stadium before the AFC West showdown against the Los Angeles Chargers.

You could see it in his swaying embrace with linebacker Justin Houston before they took the field, a hug that stood for all they have shared — including Houston’s fierce devotion to Berry as he was treated for cancer — and all they yet might achieve together.

And you could soon understand in a brand new way what all the commotion was about when it comes to the would-be savior of a suspect defense that threatens to undermine an auspicious season.

From both how the game began, with Berry energizing the defense (even if he clearly was working through some rust) and blitzing to play at least some role in Philip Rivers’ throwing an interception on the second play from scrimmage …

To how it ended with Berry out of the game: a dreadful 29-28 loss after the Chiefs bungled a two-touchdown lead and surrendered a touchdown and two-point conversion with 4 seconds left.

“One play can cost you a game, playing in the secondary,” said cornerback Kendall Fuller, who blamed the stunningly open conversion pass on a miscommunication.

That notion was accented by the image of Berry on the sideline in a stocking cap swapped for a helmet after sitting out the entire second half, a fresh reminder of how much this team needs him if it’s going to have a chance to make this season special.

Evidently, the shutdown was part of the blueprint to bring him back gingerly from an as-yet unspecified heel injury he incurred in camp as he was recovering from the ruptured Achilles’ tendon he suffered in the 2017 opener at New England.

“We came in with a plan, and we just stuck with it,” Berry said. “We didn’t want to push it past that, so we just stayed true to that.”

Asked if he had been on a snap count, Berry said the specifics were between him and coach Andy Reid.

Why there has been and continues to be such a shroud around this is baffling, and, for that matter, Berry didn’t share much in the approximately 2 minutes he spoke publicly for the first time since July in St. Joseph.

About the only point of note came when he was asked if he had felt much different this week than the last few.

“Not really; I probably could have come back last week, but there was still that hesitation, I guess,” said Berry, who returned to practice the week of the Dec. 2 game at Oakland. “I didn’t feel it in my spirit, so I just said I would wait until this week.”

It was perhaps a curious choice of words, and Berry took some guff for it from itchy Twitter fingers late Thursday night.

But sometimes it’s worth trying to understand what somebody meant instead of just what they said, and it seems reasonable to interpret the point thusly: Berry has had both physical and psychological hurdles to get over on his way back.

Meanwhile, as much as the Chiefs might have needed him at the end of the game on Thursday, they’re going to need him more in the upcoming games that will define the season.

So, think of Thursday as priming the pump towards that: a crucial step towards an essential development, the full return of a player that changes everything around him on defense, between his sheer abilities and his gift for leadership that has been augmented by all he’s been through.

Just having him back, rookie linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said, felt like this: “I mean, it was amazing. Just that energy. You can’t make it up; you can’t explain it. It’s communication out there. It’s confidence and swagger. …

“As a Chiefs fan, and a Chiefs player, it’s great to see someone who is so important to this organization be back and healthy and confident out there.”

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland reacts to 29-28 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, and the return of All-Pro safety Eric Berry.

Berry wasn’t at his best Thursday, and how could he be? He was in on six tackles in the first half, though, including a dynamite stop inside the 10. But he seemed tentative at moments, a step off at others and perhaps was gassed by the time Tyrell Williams ran past Berry and Rivers hit him for 44 yards late in the first half.

“There are a couple he’d want back, but I thought he did good,” Reid said. “He hasn’t played, he hasn’t had pads on since training camp. … So this was kind of expected. Nice and slow.”

It’s hard to be patient now, of course, with so much at stake. The Chiefs could have sealed their third straight AFC West title and a first-round bye as well as tightened their hold on a No. 1 seed with a win.

Even so, this was the start of the stretch run in an entirely different way, illustrated in part by the Chiefs allowing seven points with Berry in the lineup and 22 without him in the second half.

A star is back in the lineup, reported no setbacks during the game, and presumably will be a few steps closer to being himself when the Chiefs resume play Dec. 23 at Seattle … and so forth.

Berry in 2015 was named NFL comeback player of the year after his return from Hodgkin lymphoma, as inspiring a story as you could have.

The success of this comeback, though, could have entirely different implications for a franchise that hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 1970 … and for a young man who’d like nothing more than to help take them to the upcoming one in Atlanta, minutes from where he grew up.

In some ways the impact of his return was obscured by the loss, in others illuminated by it.

But add it up, and it means this: the Chiefs almost certainly need a healthy Berry in order to avoid another crushing postseason.

Veiled as the circumstances of his injury might be, no one wants him to fill that role more than he does. That’s something he began in earnest on Thursday even at less than himself and in only a half of play -- but with the bigger picture looming largest.

“Just wanted to be smart,” he said, “about the whole situation.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.