KANSAS CITY, Mo. — His signature dreadlocks are gone, leaving behind only closely cropped hair. Tamba Hali blamed the change on advancing age and a receding hairline.
“I’m getting older,” Hali said after the Chiefs’ mini-camp practice Tuesday, “and sometimes genetics play a key role.”
Though he’s heading into his seventh season with the Chiefs, Hali should still be in the prime of his career for some time. But his altered hairstyle serves as a reminder that his reign as one of the NFL’s top pass rushers won’t last forever, and if the Chiefs are to make better use of his abilities, they’d better not wait long.
Hali had 12 sacks last season and played in the first Pro Bowl of his career.
“The Pro Bowl was fun,” he said. “I got a chance to see some of the better players in this league and go against them and compare yourself and actually talk to guys like Dwight Freeney, who is an elite pass rusher in this league and one of my favorite guys. Just talking to him and seeing where his mind is and how he prepares for games and vice versa.… Being around those guys was a great experience.”
Hali’s performance last season came as no surprise to the Chiefs or their fans. In 2010, he led the AFC in sacks, with 14½, and after being named the franchise player was rewarded with a lucrative, long-term contract.
Hali has always been a tireless worker, and that relentless style endeared him not only to his teammates, but fans who regularly watched Chiefs games.
“Football is his life,” former Chiefs running back Thomas Jones said. “You can tell. I get to the stadium at 10 and the game starts at 12. As soon as I walk into the locker room, he’s coming in from the field and already drenched in sweat with his football uniform on already. And I’m just getting to the stadium. That’s a testament to how serious he is about football and about his position.”
But to his peers around the league, nothing boosts stature like a visit to the Pro Bowl. Hali was 64th on the NFL Network’s list of top players last year after leading the AFC in sacks. But he is 34th this year, even after a decline in sacks.
“Maybe (he’s) not a household name that some of these other defensive ends and outside linebackers are, but he’s all the player,” San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith told the NFL Network. “Sometimes you see that all they care about is the sacks. They don’t play the run nearly as tough because all they’re worried about is getting their numbers. He’s not that guy. He’s a guy that takes pride in playing tough every single snap and just does it all.”
To Hali, there’s no greater praise.
“I think guys see how I play the game and that I have a passion for it,” Hali said. “I hope guys have a respect for that, but I don’t pay much attention to it that much.
“Guys are looking at me and ranking me somewhere and saying, “This guy does his job,’ that means a lot. Those are colleagues and if that’s how they feel about you, that means a lot.”
Hali’s two best NFL seasons have been with Romeo Crennel as the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator. He expects to continue to flourish with Crennel as his head coach.
“A veteran coach who knows what he’s doing,” Hali said. “He expects a lot from us.
“With him as the coach, everything is structured. We’re not guessing where we’ve got to be. We’re not coming in with a different schedule. The schedule is not changing. We know where we’ve got to be every day. That way, it works for us as players. We know what it takes.”
Hali isn’t the senior member of the Chiefs defense, but among the core group only linebacker Derrick Johnson, at 29, is older. It could be a sign of his changing role in Kansas City that the Chiefs placed the locker of their first-round draft pick, nose tackle Dontari Poe, immediately next to Hali’s.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, or perhaps the Chiefs want Poe getting a close look at how Hali prepares.
“That’s on all of us,” Hali said. “But he’s next to me so I guess he’s going to be hearing from me.”