AS THEY navigated a steep path to the practice field at Missouri Western State on the second day of training camp, safety Eric Berry and running back Jamaal Charles couldn't help but bump into each other from time to time. In an emotional sense, their proximity mirrored that of last year, when the two players spent the majority of the season rehabbing from season-ending knee surgeries. Berry, a Pro Bowl pick as a rookie in 2010, tore his left ACL in the first game of the '11 season. Charles, an All-Pro in '10, suffered the same injury a week later.
Like many young players who sustain their first major injury, the pair went through stretches of despair, anger and disappointment. They got through it by leaning on each other—and on tight end Tony Moeaki, who joined them in Pensacola, Fla., having torn his left ACL in the preseason. "There were a lot of tough moments in the beginning, a lot of thinking, a lot of pain just feeling like everybody had forgotten about me," says Charles, who had been coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. "I started hating everything around me because nobody was talking about me anymore. It was like no one knew who I was. But God puts everybody through different things for different reasons. It's about how you come out of it."
Charles, Berry and Moeaki have come out of it with no loss of confidence or talent, a major reason the Chiefs are the pick to reclaim the AFC West title they won two seasons ago. Consider: Despite that trio's absence, No. 1 draft pick Jon Baldwin's sitting out the first five weeks with a broken hand, quarterback Matt Cassel's missing the final seven games with a fractured hand, and being outscored 89--10 in the first two weeks, Kansas City still was in position to win the division on the final Sunday of the season. Part of that was thanks to a young, opportunistic defense that, even without Berry, ranked sixth in the league against the pass and 11th overall.
Now the Chiefs have all of their high-profile contributors back healthy and have added veteran right tackle Eric Winston, former 1,100-yard rusher Peyton Hillis and ex--Raiders cornerback Stanford Routt. No one on the roster is more than 30 years old. "We're getting back players who can actually make plays," says fifth-year cornerback Brandon Flowers. "When you add that this team has faced every type of adversity you can face, that instills a tough mind-set in us. We went through three quarterbacks, had our home-run-hitting running back out, our safety out, our wild card in the pass game out, and we still had a decent season. So the attitude with everybody back in place is, Let's go win some games. If distractions do occur, we know how to deal with them."
"When something you love so much is taken away from you, that's tough," says Berry. "Having those other guys there with me was big. There were times I was like, Forget this. I'm not going to rehab today. But I'd have a text from Jamaal in my phone like, 'Come on, man. We've got to get better. We've got goals we need to meet.' And vice versa. It would be days when Jamaal would be in there and he'd be like, 'Man, forget this.' I'd just lift him up."
If there was a positive in all the pain, it was that the injuries occurred so early in the season the players had close to a full year to recover. Berry and Charles appeared to be their old selves during training camp—running, cutting and showing the burst that made them special. The return of Charles especially will be a big boost to a unit that scored 10 points or fewer in nine games, with only the continued excellence of Dwayne Bowe (a third 1,000-yard season in four years) preventing a complete offensive meltdown.
"Being out of football, something you've done your whole life—I'm just so happy to be a part of this again," Charles says. "I told my teammates, 'Y'all just don't know how happy I am to be around you.' I went through a struggle, and every time I'm on that field I'm going to bust my tail. God gave me this chance, and I've got to go out there and show what I can do, and what we can do."
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 27
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 7--9
16 at Buffalo
23 at New Orleans
30 San Diego
14 at Tampa Bay
1 at San Diego (Thu)
12 at Pittsburgh (Mon)
9 at Cleveland
16 at Oakland
30 at Denver
The 2011 first-round pick out of Pitt could not have had a rougher start to his rookie season. The lockout prevented him from having contact with the team during the off-season. Then two weeks into camp he broke his right hand in a fight with respected veteran Thomas Jones and missed the first five weeks due to the injury. Once on the field he had more than two catches in just three games and averaged fewer than 25 receiving yards per game.
But the 6'4", 230-pound Baldwin is coming off an outstanding off-season—Chiefs staffers say he has shown greater maturity and focus, and he has consistently made impressive catches during workouts—and he appears ready to take on the role of complement to Dwayne Bowe, the team leader in catches over the past three seasons. Baldwin has the size, speed and athleticism to be a dominant receiver, and Bowe's early absence from camp (he reported on Aug. 17, after signing the franchise tender) has accelerated his development. "From going through the OTAs and minicamps and being able to be talked through the routes," Baldwin says, "I feel so much further ahead in terms of understanding defenses clearly and being able to react on the field and play naturally."
1 in 10
Sacks by the Chiefs per fourth-quarter drop-back by an opposing quarterback, a rate bettered by only one team, the Rams.
Percentage of his snaps that Dexter McCluster spent in the backfield. The Chiefs plan to use him full time at wide receiver in 2012.
Touchdowns allowed by new Chief Stanford Routt, the most by an NFL cornerback. Number two on that list? Teammate Brandon Flowers, with eight.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
The secondary was a strength even before the return of Berry, a force at safety as a rookie in 2010.
DAVID E. KLUTHO