Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Chiefs might be the only NFL team that has more questions heading into the regular season than it had at the start of training camp.
Most of it pertains to injuries. Linebacker Derrick Johnson has been hobbling around on a bad ankle, cornerback Brandon Flowers has a bum heel, safety Kendrick Lewis is dealing with a shoulder injury, and backup cornerback Jalil Brown has been trying to recover from a groin strain.
Then there’s the suspension of linebacker Tamba Hali, who violated the league’s substance-abuse policy, and a ragged preseason that ended with three straight losses. The defense was bludgeoned by St. Louis and Seattle, and the offense looked herky-jerky whenever it saw the field.
“They’re not going to cancel the game and we’re going to play,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said almost defiantly. “We will play, and I think those guys will represent themselves very well.”
Just who “those guys” are Sunday against Atlanta is another question.
Johnson was hurt in the Chiefs’ preseason finale against Green Bay, and he spent a sweltering workout Monday riding a stationary bike in the corner of the practice field. He said afterward that he’s planning to play against the Falcons, but the Chiefs are already hedging their bets.
Cory Greenwood or Brandon Siler would slide into the starting lineup, but they don’t have the experience or credentials of Johnson, who made his first Pro Bowl last year after making a career high 131 tackles, picking off two passes and making two sacks.
“Right now, it’s about getting healthy and seeing if I can help this team,” Johnson said. “The plan is to get back on Sunday. I’m a ballplayer, so it’s going to be hard to sit this one out.”
They’ll already be playing without Hali, who is also coming off his first Pro Bowl. He’s not eligible to practice or play until Week 2.
The defense is further depleted in the secondary, where Lewis is almost certain to miss the Falcons game after getting hurt in the Chiefs’ second preseason game.
Flowers hasn’t practiced fully since July 31, and his backup Brown could miss the opener,, leaving third-string defensive back Jacques Reeves to start against one of the most dynamic pass offenses in the NFL.
“You’d like to have all your guys all the time, but in this business, you don’t have all of them all the time,” Crennel said.
“You have to depend on other guys to step up and do their part.”
There was a silver lining with regards to Flowers, who stretched with the team Monday and tried to do more in practice. But even he isn’t sure whether he’ll be ready to play.
“If I’m out there on Sunday, that means I’m ready,” he said. “Nobody likes being away from the game, but you can never predict injuries. I want to get out there.”
So to summarize: The Chiefs could be without two starting linebackers, their starting safety, their best cornerback and his backup — and that’s not even factoring in safety Eric Berry, who is coming back from a torn ACL, or defensive tackle Anthony Toribio, whose ankle is ailing.
Not exactly the way anyone wants to start a season. And the Chiefs lost several key players early last year, too.
“Other guys have to step up and they have to be relentless,” Crennel said. “Like Eric Berry, he’s going to be relentless with or without Tamba. I think other guys will have to play the same way. Tyson Jackson, he plays his game. (Glenn) Dorsey will play his game.
“It’s the young guys that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get from this scenario.”
Guys like defensive tackle Dontari Poe, the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick.
He’s a 350-pound question mark after putting up modest numbers at Memphis and then turned heads with his almost incredible athleticism at the NFL combine. Poe could start his first regular-season game in a Chiefs uniform, something few people anticipated in April.
“Some teams may get banged-up in training camp, they get healthy during the season, and vice versa. That’s just the way football goes,” cornerback Stanford Routt said. “I’ve seen teams where there are questions in training camp, and you know, they’re not expected to have a good year, and they blow it out of the water. I’ve seen the direct opposite, too.
“We don’t have questions,” he added. “Everybody else has questions.”