Justin Houston suffered from an unfair shadow of his own making

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 27: Outside linebacker Justin Houston
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 27: Outside linebacker Justin Houston /

The Kansas City Chiefs released Justin Houston on Sunday, a superstar defender whose reputation suffered from his own shadow.

I can’t shake the notion that Justin Houston somehow deserved better than this.

It’s not just the end result, the release of the veteran pass rusher from the only team he’s ever played for, the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s also not just the timing of it all, a cold goodbye that will go down as one of dozens of moves conducted during one of the two or three busiest times on the NFL’s transaction wire.

Instead, I can’t help thinking that Justin Houston has deserved better for some time now, a player who has long stood in the shadow of his own making.

* * *

It wasn’t Justin Houston’s fault that John Dorsey wanted to wait.

After the conclusion of the 2013 season, the first for Andy Reid in Kansas City, the Chiefs were an ascending young team. Dorsey and Andy Reid had gone from picking first in the previous NFL Draft to the postseason and Chiefs Kingdom was excited. The defense was a particularly bright spot, and it featured one of the NFL’s brightest young pass rushers in Houston, who had just set a career-high with 11 sacks—in only 11 games.

Houston made it clear that season that he was one of the NFL’s rarest assets: a consistent pass rusher. He was also closing in on the end of his rookie contract. The question was there as to what the Chiefs might do.

John Dorsey decided to wait. Houston made him pay. Literally.

The next season, Houston responded with a season for the ages. It’s a frustrating slight that J.J. Watt ended up winning NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 because Houston not only turned the proverbial corner but rocketed far beyond any expectations with an incredible 22 sacks in 16 games. Pro Football Focus credits Houston with 87 total quarterback pressures that year, including 56 hurries beyond the sacks.

During the previous season, Houston had missed 13 tackles. In 2014, that total was down to 4. Houston had done the work and he was duly rewarded.

By the time the Chiefs signed Justin Houston to a long-term extension in July, 2015, a contract that weighed in at a hefty six years at $101 million, Dorsey explained his patient approach. In quotes to reporters, Dorsey applauded Houston’s growth as both a leader in the locker room and as a run defender on the field. He was no longer just a pass rusher. He was an elite all-around defender.

“I just think that when you have a player of this magnitude, you have to do a deal of this magnitude,” said Dorsey at the time.

Chiefs fans would forget that truth over the ensuing years.

* * *

If numbers were plants, the figures “22” and “101 million” have blossomed into shade trees that have loomed over Houston in the years since signing the deal.

Since his record-setting year (and record-setting contract), Houston has fallen off his historic sack pace. That’s to be expected but box score analysts (and Houston’s detractors) will be quick to tell you that Houston has never had double-digit sacks in any season since signing that contract—that franchise back-breaking, salary cap-limiting, outrageous-in-hindsight contract.

Because of the lack of assumed output or effectiveness, Houston has been held up as a poster child for a contract year performers by the casual fan. It’s easy to agree with them on the surface. The fall from 22 sacks to 9 isn’t exactly an inspiring trajectory. It also didn’t help that Houston only played 16 games total in the two years immediately following the contract.

But here’s the truth: injuries are not only unpredictable but they’re also not the fault of the player. Ask Eric Berry. Some players become iron men, a la Mitchell Schwartz, while others seem cursed. It’s not up to the player, and Houston definitely fell victim to an unfortunate series of knee issues that haunted him for two seasons.

Even then, the Chiefs weren’t exactly helping his cause. When he was healthy enough to play, Houston was also facing double teams on a regular basis thanks to the fading talents of Tamba Hali on the other side and the inability of Dee Ford to develop quickly enough to take his place. For a short stretch, Justin Houston was synonymous with the Chiefs pass rush. There was no one else.

Over the last two years, however, as Houston has approached and crossed the 30-year-old mark, he’s remained a very, very effective pass rusher. He has 18.5 sacks over the last two seasons combined in 27 starts. PFF has credited him with 112 total quarterback pressures in that same span and ranked him at No. 80 overall among the NFL’s best 101 players from the 2018 season.

* * *

“I want to be known as one of the best to ever play the game, so that’s my motivation for my success,” said Houston when he signed his six-year extension.

Despite the many doubters out there who have already dismissed him as overpaid or injury-prone or worse, that quote will ring as hollow, as if it comes with a qualifier that should read “until you pay me.”

But here’s the reality. Twenty-two and 101 million are memorable figures, yes, as ones that speak to the peak of Justin Houston’s greatness. They’re not a shadow that looms over him. They’re not tentpoles of what might have been or answers to some Chiefs trivia game.

Even more, Houston continues to add new figures to a career that has somehow become underappreciated, as illustrated by how quietly a player with 78.5 career sacks exited out the back without any real fanfare.

Maybe history will be kinder to Houston. Perhaps Chiefs fans will miss him more when he’s no longer around and putting up numbers elsewhere. However it happens, here’s hoping the shade over Justin Houston gives way to more light—at least enough to illuminate the dominant, all-around performer he’s been and continues to be.