The amount of ink used to describe the bravery, determination, inspiration and recovery of Eric Berry is well-spilled. The Kansas City Chiefs safety's miraculous return to the field from a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma last December has been the highlight of 2015 for the team's fans -- beyond any on-field performance or offseason acquisition. Berry's message -- both stated and lived-out -- of triumph over trials and strength in the face of fear will move the hardest of hearts. If anything, it deserves even more attention.
But one underrated story in the midst of Berry's return is the response of the front office and coaching. It's a story marked by numerous changes on the fly when a team loses an impact player, a franchise player, a difference maker in the secondary in a passing league. Looking back at it all, now that Berry has returned to his place on the field, it's an impressive story that deserves ink of its own.
The Chiefs had been in this position before, albeit with a different general manager and coaching staff. Berry was lost to injury for the entire 2011 regular season, a frustrating season that included a coach on a hot seat and four starts from Tyler Palko among other issues. By season's end, Jon McGraw had started nine games, Kendrick Lewis was the best safety on the team, and, oh yeah, Sabby Piscitelli was also around. Suffice it to say, without Berry, the quality was lacking.
When Berry is healthy, there's no doubt he's a game-changer in the defensive backfield. Berry made the Pro Bowl his rookie year (2010) and the two years after suffering a torn ACL in 2012 and 2013. In his first three full seasons in the league, Berry made a difference on every down, generating 5.5 sacks, 8 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles (and another in the playoffs in 2013) and scoring 3 defensive touchdowns. Life without Berry is miserable.
Here's where the story needs to be told, the ways in which John Dorsey and his front office staff provided versatile, talented options for the Chiefs coaching staff. Because when Berry went down for the second time and lost the bulk of the 2014 season, the Chiefs were in a much, much better position to handle the loss -- a surprising cushion that Dorsey deserves far more credit for.
In 2014, Berry was lost for several weeks with a high ankle sprain that kept him from playing from Week 2 until Week 8. After returning from injury on November 2, it was only 18 more days until Berry's concerns of chest pain led to him being out for the rest of the season. The sum total of Berry's 2014 season: 37 total tackles, 2 passes defended.
Both before and in the midst of Berry's health concerns, John Dorsey's series of shrewd moves remade the Chiefs secondary even as they were set to lose their best player.
John Dorsey's savvy signing of former Miami Dolphins CB Sean Smith the previous season looks even better. Several teams were reportedly interested in Smith in 2013, but Dorsey won him over -- a hard move for most teams coming off of a two-win season. Yet Smith's reputation wasn't that strong at the time. Here's The Phinsider's Kevin Nogle on why the Dolphins would let Smith leave:
Some team out there will overpay for Smith, falling in love with his size, 6'3", 218 pounds, and the skill he showed early in 2012 when he shut down receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and A.J. Green. However, the Dolphins will look at the inconsistency Smith routinely displays. The team will look at the lack of interceptions from a cornerback who is constantly in position to force the turnover.
The Chiefs did fall in love with Smith, and in Bob Sutton's scheme, grew into one of the NFL's best corners. Smith was an Pro Football Focus All-Pro last year and helped the Chiefs pass defense absorb the loss of Berry on the field.
In another savvy move from the previous season, Dorsey had taken advantage of his team's position at the top of the waiver wire to bring in several players who would turn into serious contributors, a list that included DB Ron Parker. An undrafted free agent out of Newberry in 2011, Parker had found temporary homes with the Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks (three times!) over two full seasons. The Chiefs represented his sixth chance at sticking with an NFL team.
Parker became an immediate contributor during that 2013 season, playing in all 16 games. As the Chiefs made the necessary adjustments around Berry's absence, Parker made 15 starts for the Chiefs in 2014 and showed tremendous versatility to play all over the secondary. It was that performance (84 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble) and utility that made John Dorsey believe enough to sign Parker to a five-year contract this past offseason.
Alongside Parker is another astute move by Dorsey: Husain Abdullah. Over the course of four NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Abdullah blossomed from an undrafted free agent to a regular starter at safety. After suffering a concussion in 2011, Abdullah missed several games and subsequently took off the entire next season for The Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca each Muslim is required to make in their lifetime if they are physically able. While Abdullah had certainly shown promise on the field, he was a free agent wildcard.
John Dorsey thought enough of Abdullah's potential to take a flier: a one-year, $715K contract to place him on the list of options for Bob Sutton's defense. Abdullah ended up making two starts and appearing in all 16 games in 2013, prompting Dorsey to give Abdullah a 2-year, $2,275,000 following the season. Abdullah ended up starting all 16 games for the Chiefs in 2014, providing solid safety play across from Berry and giving the Chiefs even greater depth and versatility moving forward.
The present impact
Fast forward another year and we've arrived at the unexpected: a healthy Eric Berry back on the field for the Chiefs. This time, however, the team is loaded with or without him. Philip Gaines has enjoyed his first full year at the pro level. Marcus Peters is an early favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Tyvon Branch is also a positive contributor at safety if he can stay healthy. Steven Nelson, last year's third round choice, was a noted nickel corner in college who should grow into the same at the pro level. Add these to the return of Sean Smith from suspension, Parker and Abdullah, and you have perhaps the most talented secondary in football.
In the course of three offseasons, John Dorsey has built the Chiefs secondary into a unit that could withstand the unexpected loss of a three-time Pro Bowler. The Chiefs coaching staff has taken the on-paper potential and turned it into actual on-field production. Together, it's a story that deserves to be told, even as we continue to rightly champion Berry's return as the main story.