Training camp is sweet relief for Chiefs
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- He forgot. For Eric Berry, that was sweet. The best sign of all.
He'd cut. And plant. And backpedal. And twist. And jump. It was natural, painless, and free. So much so, that he didn't realize he was doing this on his left knee, the left knee that'd been torn to shreds and built back up again. He'd forgotten about the block that ended his 2011 season, the surgery, the hours of rehab and drudgery, 10 months of football purgatory.
"Like before practice, you know, I might have a little butterflies or whatever," the Kansas City Chiefs' Pro Bowl safety told FOXSports.com on Friday night. "But when I got on the field, it was just instincts. And I'd forget.
"I'd be like, 'Oh, dang, I just cut off the leg I had surgery on — like, full-speed.' So I guess nothing's wrong with me."
Berry might've forgotten, but the peanut gallery didn't. A crowd in the thousands gathered to watch the Chiefs' first official preseason practice at Missouri Western State, and to observe three players in particular: Berry, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki. Or, as they're known around these parts, The ACL Crew.
"They're running around and they've got some bounce in their step," coach Romeo Crennel said. "So I feel pretty good about them."
But not half as good as the three players did about being back in the fold, especially after being felled by the same freak injury on the same (insert your favorite expletive here) knee. It wasn't pretty: Moeaki tore his anterior cruciate ligament in last fall's final preseason game. Then Berry did the same during Week 1 against Buffalo. Then, at Detroit, Charles went down. Bang. Bang. Bang. The campaign wasn't a month old, and it was already veering off the rails.
So Friday was about vindication. Validation. Relief.
They rehabbed together. Suffered together. And, in the end, smiled together.
"That's what keeps (injured) guys going to rehab every day, going through the tough times," Moeaki said.
"They made me believe in myself," Charles said.
"It was fun. Most of all, it was fun," Berry said.
It was fun watching Charles stretch out the defense during 11-on-11 drills, pick a hole, and turn on a dime. It was fun watching Moeaki break past his man on a seam route, shift into another gear, and extend a giant paw out into space to try and corral an overthrown ball. This pass would fall incomplete, but not by much — and not before Moeaki got what looked to be a finger or two on the pigskin first.
"Felt natural," the big receiver said of his near-grab, which was THIS close to becoming the catch of the afternoon. "Just need to get our timing down. And that'll come."
It will. Eventually. The comeback trail, especially this early in the preseason, is about discretion, restraint, and the long haul. Crennel and his staff plan to ease The ACL Crew back into the rotation, limiting their reps and even tossing a few off-days into the mix.
"We might have to manage them a little bit if they get a little irritated in the joint they had the surgery on," Crennel allowed. "That joint hasn't been stressed the way it's going to be stressed in pads and out there on the football field. Most of the work they've been doing in off-season, it's all planned (or) it's all straight-lined. They know when they're going to make the cut, they know when they have to turn, they can go straight ahead. On the football field, it has to be a reaction. You may be going full-speed this way and have to plant and go back the other way.
"Some of that will irritate the knee, initially. Then when you get irritated, you get a little swelling. If there's swelling in the knee, then we're going to have to back off just a little bit until that joint gets acclimated to the kind of workload the guys have to endure."
In other words, it'll take a little time. Time, they've got plenty of. Now that the trio is back on the field, the next little hurdle — or milestone, depending on how you want to look at it — comes Sunday, when the Chiefs are expected to begin full-contact drills. Fingers crossed.
"I guess we're going to see when it's time to really put on the shoulder pads," Charles said. "I can't really judge myself right now — when I put the pads on is when I really can judge myself."
Full-speed in July is good. Full-speed in December is better. Baby steps.
"I always get excited to watch Jamaal run," quarterback Matt Cassel offered with a grin. "He's an explosive player and an exciting player, and you know he adds — it's not a cockiness, (but) what it is, it's a subtle confidence that he has out there that I think everybody responds to."
Charles had another word for it, of course.
"I got my swag back," he said.
Confidence. Swag. Whatever term you like, it sure was a sight for sore knees.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org