KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First off, context: Justin Houston is averaging 1.43 sacks per game. Coming into Sunday, six different NFL teams were averaging 1.2 or fewer. As a roster.
Which led to this question being posed to Houston after his Kansas City Chiefs emasculated the St. Louis Rams, 34-7:
Are you the best outside linebacker in the NFL?
"I’m going to let somebody else make the judgment," Houston said with a grin after an afternoon in which he accounted for three of the Chiefs’ seven sacks. Then he opened up.
"I think I’m the best any time I step on the field."
Well. Alrighty, then.
"I think any player thinks that. As a player, you’re supposed to think that you’re the best at what you do. So if you ask me about me, (I’ll say), ‘Yes,’ but I’m going to let the next person be the judge, though."
Just pay the man. Is that too much to ask?
Houston is 25, a pass rusher reaching the height of his pass-rushing powers. The former Georgia standout has played 50 career NFL games. He’s recorded three sacks or more in a game in five of those, or 10 percent of his professional appearances. He has 10 in 2014 — tops in the NFL as of early Sunday evening — which puts him on a pace for 23.
Now No. 50 might get there, he might not — you don’t run into offensive fronts as porous as the Rams’ every week, though two lick-your-chops meetings with Oakland are still up on the dance card, which means anything’s possible.
What’s worth noting is that Houston’s previous career high is 11, in 11 regular-season games, set last year. So if you’re keeping score — and Houston’s agent, Joel Segal, sure as hell is — since coach Andy Reid and new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton rolled into town, No. 50 has 21 regular-season takedowns in 18 regular-season appearances.
Oh, yeah, and he makes a reported $1.43 million, the last of his four-year, team-friendly rookie deal. Which is, as has been widely discussed, a pittance relative to his production, to say nothing of his peers: Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil has a reported $3.5 million option bonus on the table this season and is in line to make $4 million in 2015; Denver’s DeMarcus Ware is taking home a reported $3 million this fall.
The Chiefs have asked, through their public wait-and-see silence, for Houston to play for his supper. No. 50 is playing like he wants to buy the damn restaurant.
"You can’t let (the contract talks) be a distraction at all," the fourth-year linebacker said. "I sit back and watch the other guys.
"And I talked to some of the coaches, and the coaches, they’ll be honest with me. And they tell me: ‘Don’t let it distract you, your time is coming.’ And I know I’ve just got to be patient. My time will come."
When that time is, well, go figure. Conventional wisdom in the spring and summer was that Houston, being young and fit and frisky, would be getting a fat-and-happy new contract before the season started, and the other big potential free-agent-to-be, quarterback Alex Smith, might have to sweat the process, so to speak. Instead, it was Smith who got a new deal over Labor Day weekend, and the scuttlebutt now is that Houston might be the one getting tagged next February, if it comes to that, just to keep the Georgia native from hitting a market that would embrace him with open arms.
"If you just focus on the game of football, it’s very easy," Houston said. "I don’t worry about it."
Fair enough. But even if it’s in the back of his mind, it’s there. Every week. Whether it’s because of the dangling carrot or the lack thereof, it’s working: Houston is playing like he’s got a stinking point to prove to somebody, whether that’s Chiefs general manager John Dorsey or the free world. And get this: One of the few knocks on No. 50 was that his numbers came in bunches, often against weaker lines, but Houston this autumn has recorded at least one sack in five straight contests dating to Week 3 in Miami. The most he’d ever recorded sacks in consecutive weeks before 2014 was two.
We’ve noticed. His foes have noticed. His coaches have noticed. His teammates have noticed. Dee Ford, who may be slotted to replace Houston or 30-year-old Tamba Hali, has noticed.
"Hard work pays off, man," Ford said. "And I sit there and I watch it. I’m a part of it. Hard work pays off. The skill of pass rushing, it’s not underrated anymore, but it used to be. But it’s an important skill, and it’s a hard skill, and you have to be in another zone in order to make this thing work. Justin, he’s just really hitting his prime right now. It’s a beautiful thing to watch."
Sunday was beautiful for the home folks, too, though the biggest sack of the day actually wasn’t one of Houston’s — it was the hit that came with 6:21 left in the first half, with the Rams having set themselves up at the Chiefs’ 6 after recovering a botched exchange between Smith and Jamaal Charles while the game was tied at 7-7. The visitors faced a third-and-6 and St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis, under shotgun, sashayed for a few seconds before being thrown for a 14-yard loss by hard-charging safety Ron Parker.
"I know I wasn’t supposed to go (and leave my coverage)," the safety would say later. "When I looked to the sideline, I (saw) my defensive backs coach, he’s looking at me, like shaking his head. So I’m like, ‘I know, my fault.’ I wasn’t supposed to go. But I was just out there playing ball, and that’s just reacting, just playing football."
The Rams’ subsequent 38-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide right, the Chiefs got the ball back with 5:32 before halftime, and methodically drove 37 yards to set up their own 53-yard field goal make. It was all puppy dogs and rainbows for the rest of the dance.
"When those guys up front are getting after it, it makes everything tougher on the offense," Parker said. "The quarterback (doesn’t) have (any) time to really throw the ball downfield. So it’s like you’ve got Justin coming up one end, you’ve got Tamba coming up the other end — it’s real tough. And then the way we’ve been covering the last couple weeks, it’s real tough. With them getting pressure and us covering like that, that’s playing good football, good team ball, up front and on the back end."
The penetration never let up, and the playoff train rolls on. Next up, the J-E-T-S, a team that can’t seem to stop throwing itself in front of large, moving objects. Gang Green was giving up the ninth-most sacks per game (2.6) going into Week 8, and got dropped four more times Sunday during a soul-crushing 43-23 home setback against the Bills.
And speaking of large, moving objects, there’s No. 50, biding his time, waiting for the Brink’s truck, taking it out on every quarterback under the sun, halfway to Derrick Thomas’ single-season record of 20 sacks with nine games still to play.
"I (want) to have a big season every year — that’s my goal, that’s my plan," Houston said. "I plan on continuing to have that as long as I play football."