KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston says he’s ready to "dominate."
It will be coach Andy Reid’s call whether he has the chance.
The four-time Pro Bowl pass rusher returned to the practice field Thursday with the hopes of making his season debut Sunday at Carolina. Houston was removed from the physically unable to perform list a day earlier but has not played in a game since having surgery to repair his left ACL in February.
"Feel good. Ready to get back out there with my guys," said Houston, who was voted to the Pro Bowl last season despite missing five games with the bothersome knee. "Been grinding, working with the guys. It is just fun to be back out there with them."
Houston hurt his knee midway through last season, and at the time the Chiefs believed it had merely been a hyperextension. He rested it in the hopes that it would heal naturally, and played in a playoff win over the Texans. But it was during that game that he said he tweaked it again, and he hardly made it onto the field in a loss to the Patriots that ended the Chiefs’ season.
Houston had the knee examined a few weeks later, and noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews discovered that his ACL was not functioning properly. It was repaired in February and rehab quickly began.
"I was concerned. I knew I couldn’t move the way I wanted to and how I was capable of," Houston said. "When it happened, the coaches, nobody made me go out there. I wanted to be out there with my team. Any chance to be out there with my team, especially the playoffs, I wanted that chance."
The Chiefs were roundly criticized for their treatment of the injury. Many believe it should have been diagnosed and repaired last season, when the knee trouble began, and that could have allowed Houston to recover sooner and be ready for this season.
Instead, the procedure wound up costing him the first eight games and the bye week this season, to go with the games he missed last season while hoping it would heal.
"It’s the playoffs," Houston said, when asked whether he regretted trying to play through it. "If we weren’t going to the playoffs, that’s a different story, but guys play their whole careers and don’t get to the playoffs. I wouldn’t turn down the chance to be there with my guys.
"I felt like during that time I did everything in my power to get ready to play."
The Chiefs (6-2) have survived without Houston in large part due to the emergence of Dee Ford, who already has nine sacks this season. But with little production from Tamba Hali and the rest of the Kansas City linebackers, Ford was poised to see more double teams and a tougher path to the quarterback.
In that respect, Houston’s return to the field couldn’t come soon enough.
"He’s played a lot of football. I don’t think it will take him long" to get up to speed, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. "I’m sure there’s a period where he’ll say, ‘I can process that quicker.’ That will be the biggest thing. He knows the system, so it’s not a knowledge deal.
"It’s just reactions," Sutton said, "seeing things fast as you want to see them."
Sutton isn’t sure whether Reid will give Houston the green light to play Sunday, nor was he willing to guess how many snaps Houston would play once he does make it onto the field.
"I think you just have to see. I don’t think he knows, we know for sure until he gets out there," Sutton said. "Games are different than practice. It’s faster, the tempo is up. I think when he gets out there he’s going to say ‘Hey, I’m golden, ready to roll, no holds-barred,’ or, ‘Hey, I need a little break here.’ I don’t think there’s a guarantee on any of those."
Notes: Hali returned to practice after getting his normal Wednesday off. … DE Jaye Howard (hip) and WR Jeremy Maclin (groin) remained out of practice Thursday. It is unclear whether either will be available against the Panthers.