Letting Houston walk is a mistake the Chiefs can’t afford to make
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — A rich man — a rich, wise man — offered this Thursday:
"If you’re not performing, you can’t go ask them for money. So if you perform, be a good guy, be quiet. … I did everything they want me to do. I’ve been staying out of trouble since I’ve been here. I’ve been inspiring little kids, so I mean … I think I’m a great person. I’m a good guy."
Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, talking about himself.
But here’s the funny thing: He could’ve been talking about Justin Houston, too.
"I’m not worrying about that contract," Houston said Thursday at Chiefs training camp at Missouri Western State, ending a holdout that lasted days, hours, or minutes, depending on your news source of choice. "When it’s time for that to happen, it’s going to happen. Like I said, my main focus is football.
"If you’re worrying about that contract, it’ll slow you down on the things that you’ve got to do on the field. I don’t want that to happen, so my main focus is football."
Hey, even the dude’s question-dodging was borderline classy.
See, before Big No. 50 was a freaking bargain, he was an absolute, bona fide steal. Houston reportedly flunked his drug test at the NFL Combine three springs ago. He may or may not have been suspended at the University of Georgia in 2009 for the same reason. (Official explanation: a two-game punishment for "violation of team rules.")
But since the fall of 2011 … crickets. Nada, really, at least as far as major, young-athlete-with-fame-and-money blotter issues go.
Compared to peers such as, say, Aldon Smith — who manages to be prodigiously gifted while continually teetering on the edge of causing an international incident — Houston comes off like a choirboy in comparison. Let’s face it: It’s hard, damn hard, to be a Pro Bowl football player in Kansas City, when stuff goes wrong, for that "stuff" to slide under the radar entirely.
Just ask Sean Smith.
Better yet, ask the light pole.
Which is yet another roundabout way of saying that letting the Chiefs’ 25-year-old outside linebacker test free agency is, well … loopy. Moreover, it doesn’t fit the pattern of where the front office — especially general manager John Dorsey — has been steering this boat so far.
Charles was extended Wednesday through 2017, making him the second-highest-paid back in the NFL, which is fair. It also gives the Chiefs some wiggle room to cut bait after the All-World tailback turns 30, which is smart.
And that brings us back around again to Houston, the best pass rusher on one of the best pass-rushing defenses in the NFL. And also its third-lowest paid player on said defense. Houston, at present, is in line to make $1.4 million this fall, or $127,727.73 for every sack he recorded last year. Fellow outside linebacker Tamba Hali made $12.25 million in base salary in 2013, or $1.11 million per takedown.
As with Charles, this particular over-performed contract is not necessarily the Chiefs’ fault. Houston is playing on the last season of a four-year, slotted rookie deal. He was a first-round talent who ended up playing like one. But a third-round pick is a third-round pick, and rules is rules.
"That’s in God’s hands," said Houston, who stayed away from OTAs and minicamp in June on advice from God, his agent, or both. "I’m here now to play football. I’m not worried about that. I’m here to help the team and do what the coaches tell me."
We know what you’re thinking: Idiot Columnist Says Pay Justin Houston Because He’s A Nice Guy. No, no, no, sarge. It’s risky business, especially under a salary-cap system, to reward a player for what they’ve done rather than to compensate them for what they’re expected to do.
Unloading the Brink’s truck for Houston is not so much about merit badges as it is about a number: 9.18. Of the top 10 active NFL leaders in career sacks, that’s the number of takedowns, per year, those players managed from ages 25 through 28.
Houston turned 25 in January. He’s racked up 21 sacks over 27 tilts the last two seasons. So nine to 10 sacks per season, presuming moderately good health, is a fair number, a reasonable projection through the age of 29.
Regardless of whether you see Dee Ford as insurance or leverage, precedent says Houston will be collecting those numbers here — or collecting them somewhere else.
Reporter: You confident a deal can get done that’ll keep you in Kansas City? Are you confident you’ll be a Chief for a long time?
"I have no idea," Houston replied. "I’m not even worrying about (it). Like I said, I’m here to play ball; I’m focused on this season, taking it one day at a time.
"Like I said, when it’s time for me to get my deal done, it’s going to happen. God’s got a plan, so when it’s ready for it to happen, it’s going to happen."
Soon would be nice. Charles got his. Houston wants next. Dorsey continues playing contract Tetris with a tight cap window, trying to make all the funky pieces fit before bodies start flying out the door.
"It happens," center Eric Kush said. "We understand that’s what’s going to happen. We’re awesome friends while we’re here. And you know, some people disappear."
Some people shouldn’t.