In the Chiefs’ locker room after their wearying 17-16 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, linebacker Tamba Hali stood by his locker, exhausted and subdued.
Here was a snapshot of what it means when they say someone left it all on the field.
“He’s so quiet and humble right now,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “All the passion comes out of him.”
It builds up in those intense minutes before the game, when Hali’s pensive personality yields to an inner Terminator, and he’ll yell out through the room whatever comes to mind. Like, “It’s time, guys, it’s time!”
And it only bubbles further when the true measure of it all arrives: in the heat of a game that could go either way, as the Chiefs were in on Sunday only to prevail with a heaping helping of what Hali does best.
“At a certain point,” he said, “you have to ante up your game a little bit. We do that, because we know what’s at stake.”
So Hali uncorked 2 1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles, including the one that snuffed out the Texans’ last chance when Derrick Johnson recovered the ball at Houston’s 1-yard line with 1:34 left.
“We put in some different blitzes, and you’ve got to choose,” Hali said, smiling. “I don’t want to say it, but you’ve got Derrick, me and (Justin) Houston all on the same side (on those). And you’ve got to choose who you want to block.”
Yet after it all, Hali seemed more relieved than overjoyed.
“It’s draining. It’s definitely draining, because you put so much into the game. After the game, you want to be happy about it,” he said, suppressing a yawn and adding, “But we’ve got another tough game coming up.”
Eight years into his Chiefs career, only days from his 30th birthday on Nov. 3, Hali senses this is a time like no other he’s experienced in the NFL.
And he’s playing to maximize it, becoming as essential to this 7-0 renaissance as any other component of the team.
Of the Chiefs’ NFL-best 35 sacks this season, Hali has 10. He ranks third on the franchise’s career list with 72 1/2, just behind Art Still’s 73.
Maybe most to the point, Hali’s relentless way is contagious and helps galvanize and energize a dynamic defense, a defense that is the most substantial reason why the Chiefs have morphed from the worst team in the NFL in 2012 to the only undefeated team after Denver’s 39-33 loss at Indianapolis on Sunday.
And nothing distinguishes this defense like the sack race between Hali and fellow linebacker Houston, who had a half-sack on Sunday to leave them tied with 10 apiece.
“Havoc in the backfield,” Hali said. “That usually helps.”
Said Houston: “We feed off each other. You can’t double both of us. You’ve got to pick your poison.”
Even with quarterback Case Keenum making his NFL debut, Houston largely averted taking a swig of that through the first half by running more than it passed (16-12), gaining 4 yards a pop on the ground and generally avoiding third-and-long situations.
Accordingly, the Chiefs had no sacks in the half.
“You can’t rush the passer if you can’t stop the run,” Hali said.
Then came the second half.
Between tightening up on first and second downs to force more passing scenarios, holding the Texans to 9 yards rushing and some tweaking of defensive schemes, the Chiefs cranked open the floodgates on Keenum.
It started with a trickle, Johnson’s sack of Keenum on the Texans’ first drive of the half, and it ended with a deluge.
With the Chiefs nursing a rickety lead, the Texans’ final three drives were extinguished with sacks by a Houston-and-Hali combo (with Hali forcing a fumble), a Hali solo sack and Hali solo again (forcing another fumble).
Afterward, Hali credited the “wisdom” of the coaching staff for the radical change from last season, when the Chiefs managed just 27 sacks and 13 takeaways in 16 games and went 2-14.
Considering the Chiefs have 35 sacks and 19 takeaways through seven games with much of the same starting defensive personnel, no doubt the credit is due.
“You don’t know where we’re coming from,” Hali said. “We might all line up one place, and we might do something unorthodox. It just gives us an opportunity to rush the quarterback more efficiently.”
Or as Keenum put it: “They were doing a good job, and I got confused.”
But the credit ultimately goes to these hungry players.
And especially to one who knows that it’s all about the precious present.
“You see it so often — guys get so emotional, and they say, ‘Hey, this is what we should do,’ ” Robinson said. “But they go out on the field and it doesn’t get done. Tamba’s one of those guys that when he says it, it translates over to the field.
“It’s at the point where, eight years into his career, it’s time. And I think he understands that. And he goes out and plays like that.”
With nothing left by the end.