KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eric Berry lingered a little longer than the rest of the Kansas City Chiefs after pregame warmups, soaking in as much of the atmosphere of Arrowhead Stadium as he could Sunday night.
After a frustrating, disheartening 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers a few hours later, the star safety was among the last to step into the showers.
He was among the last to get dressed. He was among the last to walk out of the red-carpeted locker room and head up the concrete tunnel.
It made perfect sense.
It might be his last time doing any of it.
Berry played this past season on the franchise tag, a one-year deal worth more than $10 million, after he failed to reach an agreement on a long-term contract.
And after possibly the best season of his career, Berry stands to make a whole lot more than that in free agency, raising the possibility that he might be dressing in some other locker room next season.
It’s just one of many crucial roster decisions facing the Chiefs after one of the best seasons in recent memory.
Sure, the loss to the Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs will leave a sour taste in their mouths, but it came after a 12-4 regular season and an AFC West title.
Then there was the moxie they showed against Pittsburgh on Sunday night.
The Chiefs struggled offensively, committed a slew of penalties and generally made life easy for the Steelers.
But they still drove downfield for a touchdown in the final minutes, only for a two-point conversion to be wiped out by a penalty and another chance at it coming up empty.
“Sometimes things don’t go your way,” Berry told a small group of reporters who stuck around to speak to him. “You’ve got to pay attention to the little details, especially in the playoffs.”
Now, the Chiefs enter a potentially crucial juncture for the franchise, which still has not been to the AFC title game since 1994. Here are some of the key decisions facing them:
POE MAN PAID: Also reaching free agency is big nose tackle Dontari Poe, a former first-round pick whose uneven play has made his future in Kansas City a big question. If the Chiefs work out a deal to keep Berry, it almost certainly means that Poe’s career with the Chiefs is over.
WHAT ABOUT SMITH: Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has etched his name in the Kansas City record book in a number of categories in just four seasons, but some wonder whether he can take the franchise to the next level. He threw for just 172 yards with a touchdown and a pick against Pittsburgh.
Smith still has two years remaining on his contract, but cutting him becomes much less expensive after this season. The question then becomes: Is there anybody worthwhile to replace him?
“Everybody is running through their head on what they could have done differently,” Smith said Sunday night. “That’s just the nature of losing. You’re going to do that. It’s going to play some mind games with you. I think, obviously, when you get away from it for a little — you get removed — you have to set your sights on, ‘What do we need to do moving forward?'”
WHAT ABOUT JAMAAL: The Chiefs’ running game, led by Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, struggled much of the season. That made not having Jamaal Charles on the field even more glaring.
The four-time Pro Bowl running back played briefly after having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee, but persistent pain in both of his knees sidelined him again. He had operations to clean up both of the injuries late in the season and expects to be back next season.
But will the Chiefs pay him $7 million next season, the final year of his contract, or cut ties with one of the most beloved players in franchise history?
“I can’t answer those questions,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It’s too early.”
DRAFT TARGETS: The Chiefs kept trying to plug holes in the linebacker group all season, especially after losing Derrick Johnson to a ruptured Achilles tendon. That position becomes one of their biggest targets in the draft, along with help at running back, wide receiver and in the secondary.
WHO MAKES THE DECISIONS: While Reid has another year left on his contract, general manager John Dorsey’s deal expires after this season. Rumors have circulated that Green Bay might be interested in bringing him back, but would the Chiefs let him walk given all his success?
“The finalization hits you right between the eyes,” Reid said Monday. “You know, I don’t want to get away from the fact that the guys on the team had a good year. The organization had a good year. At the same time we have to take care of business and improve as we go forward here.”