KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Justin Houston had just put together the most dominant season by a pass rusher in Kansas City Chiefs history, piling up 22 sacks and coming within a half sack of the NFL record, when then-general manager John Dorsey rewarded him with a lavish contract.
Six years, $101 million, and $52.5 million of it guaranteed.
The first two years have hardly been worth it.
The blame certainly doesn’t rest with Houston. Rather, it was a series of misfortunes that began with torn ligaments in his knee and spiraled into more knee problems that ultimately limited Houston to just 16 games combined over the past two seasons, depriving the Chiefs of their top pass rusher as they pushed for an AFC West title and earned a first-round playoff bye last season.
But Houston isn’t one to make excuses, even if the injuries were beyond his control. He instead plans to make up for lost time, and that means providing the Chiefs with a return on their investment.
“After going through what I went through last season and now having the opportunity to play again, it’s a blessing,” he said. “I’m excited to get to play again. I’m playing at 100 percent now. Last season I was maybe 75. I just didn’t have the endurance that I regained this offseason.”
Indeed, knee trouble that robbed him of last offseason kept him off the field until November, when he returned for a game against Tampa Bay. The following week in Denver, he piled up three sacks and looked so much like his old self that the Broncos benched their left tackle.
But that performance wound up being a mirage more than the norm. He had another sack that following week but kept experiencing pain in his knee, and the Chiefs shut him down a few weeks later in the hopes he would be able to contribute in the playoffs.
He wound up making five tackles in a divisional-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“One injury was the cause for two seasons,” Houston said of his knee issues. “It was just the time of the injury. I got hurt the end of the one year and it lingered on until the next year.
“It’s not bad luck,” he said. “It was just one major injury.”
Houston insists he’s the closest to 100 percent that he’s been since that breakthrough 2014 season, the one that netted him the big contract. He spent the offseason working out close to his Georgia home and reported to camp in excellent condition, and he hasn’t missed a beat during any of the practices.
He was limited to a handful of snaps in the preseason opener against San Francisco, just like the rest of the starters, but played most of the first half in last week’s game in Cincinnati.
“I like what I’ve seen,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It looks like he’s doing well. He would tell you that he has to keep pushing and keep going, which he’s doing. He’s working his tail off. And just make sure he gets back into the swing of things. But he sure looked pretty good to me.”
Pretty good to defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, too.
“It’s good to get him back healthy, and a lot of it is exactly that — if he feels healthy, then that’s a huge step,” Sutton said. “We all know he’s a good football player and he’s getting back the mental part of it, before you react and go. Anytime you don’t get to play a lot — he was in and out a lot last year even when he came back — it takes a while to get that reaction.”
Houston thinks his reactions are getting quicker throughout the preseason, and that he’ll be even better by Friday night’s preseason game in Seattle. But the ultimate goal is to be ready for the opener Sept. 7 in New England, where Houston intends to hit the ground running.
“Hopefully, I return better than what I was in 2014. That’s my goal,” he said. “My expectations are higher. I want to be more dominant than I’ve ever been. That’s my goal. That’s my plan.”
NOTES: Reid said Wednesday that starters will play about three quarters against Seattle with backups playing the fourth. … K Cairo Santos, OL Parker Ehinger, WR Seantavius Jones and CBs Terrance Mitchell, Jacoby Glenn and JR Nelson will not play against the Seahawks because of injuries. SS Eric Berry (heel) and DL Chris Jones (knee surgery) could make their preseason debuts.