KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s safe to say there are nine players the Kansas City Chiefs probably can’t live without in 2014, and pick your order: running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry, linebacker Derrick Johnson, outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, quarterback Alex Smith, left tackle Eric Fisher, right tackle Donald Stephenson and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
August hasn’t been kind to most of them.
Charles? Bruised foot.
Berry? Recurring heel problems.
Fisher? Slow recovery from two offseason surgeries that have clearly limited his effectiveness.
Bowe? Suspended for the regular-season opener against Tennessee because of a drug-related arrest last November.
Today, Stephenson joined the bad karma club.
The Chiefs’ 25-year-old right tackle was suspended for four games by the NFL for reportedly violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
While he’ll be eligible for the preseason practices and games — the Chiefs host Minnesota on Saturday night in their home exhibition finale — he can’t return to the active roster until Sept. 30, the day after Kansas City hosts New England on a Monday night.
"I’m extremely sorry that I failed to check with the NFL, NFLPA, or Chiefs medical team before I took a medication that requires a therapeutic use exemption (TUE)," Stephenson said via a statement released Friday by his agent, Ken Sarnoff. "The rules are strict, and without a TUE, the consequence is a four-game suspension. I apologize to the Hunt family, (general manager) John Dorsey, Coach (Andy) Reid and his staff, my teammates, and our awesome Chiefs fans. It is not a mistake I will ever make again. I will train extremely hard during my time away from the team, and I will be ready to contribute to my team’s effort to win a Super Bowl as soon as I return."
If Bowe’s suspension, levied last week, was a surprise, Stephenson’s punishment came as an outright shock.
The Kansas City native, who has made 14 starts over the last two seasons, was expected to anchor the right side of the offensive line on a full-time basis after working as a "swing" tackle in 2013. During a preseason in which the first-team line has struggled to contain pass rushers, especially off the edge, Stephenson had managed to hold his own. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Stephenson had allowed one quarterback hurry in 31 preseason passing snaps. On 299 passing plays last fall, he was credited by PFF with only one sack allowed.
With Fisher’s inconsistency and Stephenson’s absence, an already-thin position on the Chiefs’ roster just got thinner. Veteran J’Marcus Webb has been working as Fisher’s primary backup on the left side, with Ryan Harris the top backup option on the right. Reid had also experimented with starting left guard Jeff Allen at right tackle during training camp. Regardless, the cards are likely to be shuffled again up front, and the end result could mean an increased role for veteran guards such as Jeff Linkenbach and Ricky Henry and backup center Eric Kush — in the short term, at least.
In the long term, if Smith is to repeat the strong numbers he posted under center for the Chiefs last season — 23 touchdowns thrown, seven picks and 3,313 passing yards — it’s starting to look as if he’ll have to do it the hard way.