KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Every once in a while, Tony Moeaki would try to slip an extra 10 pounds onto the leg press, or try to squeeze out a couple more leg curls when nobody was looking.
It was a competition, after all. Or at least the only outlet for his competitive fire.
The Kansas City Chiefs tight end tore the ACL in his left knee during the preseason, forcing him to have surgery and spend the past four months doing grueling rehab work. But he wasn't alone in this often-solitary endeavor, not by a longshot.
Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry went down with the exact same injury during the Chiefs' season-opening loss to Buffalo, and All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles followed suit in Week 2 at Detroit - three of the team's brightest young stars left to rehab a debilitating injury while the team pressed on without them.
"I was the first one to do it," Moeaki said, "so I was there to answer questions at first, but we're all at the same level, pretty much. It's been real nice working with them."
It'll be even nicer when they're ready to play again.
The Chiefs ended up 7-9 during a roller-coaster year that included plenty of highs - a four-game winning streak, the only victory over the Green Bay Packers - and stomach-churning lows, such as two defeats by a combined 89-10 to start the season, and the firing of coach Todd Haley after a penalty-filled 37-10 loss to the New York Jets in which he earned his own unsportsmanlike conduct flag.
Along the way, the Chiefs also lost linebacker Brandon Siler to a torn Achilles and Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Cassel to an injury to his throwing hand.
They're all expected to be back next season.
Cassel was back throwing passes by the end of the year, though his place on injured reserve meant he wouldn't have been able to help down the stretch. And the trio of torn ACLs has recovered nicely, which means Moeaki, Berry and Charles should be ready by the start of April minicamps.
"They're all making good progress, they're all rehabbing," said interim coach Romeo Crennel, who is expected to learn soon whether he'll get the permanent job. "I've been told they're on schedule as far as their rehab goes. Whether that's football-ready or not, I can't say that right now."
Charles may have been the biggest loss.
The fourth-year pro was coming off a breakout season in which he ran for 1,467 yards and caught 45 passes for 468 yards. Without him, the Chiefs struggled to run the ball with any effectiveness, the aging legs of Thomas Jones and special teams standout Jackie Battle unable to pick up the slack.
Kansas City wound up in the middle of the pack in rushing, but with only five TDs on the ground.
Moeaki caught 47 passes for 556 yards during his rookie season, giving the Chiefs a viable threat off the line of scrimmage. The three tight ends who took his place - Leonard Pope, Anthony Becht and Jake O'Connell - combined for 34 catches and 325 yards this season.
The defense was clearly the bright spot, keeping Kansas City in the playoff race until an overtime loss to Oakland in its penultimate game. But it will clearly improve with the return of Berry, who started every game as a rookie and had 72 tackles, a pair of sacks and four interceptions - one of which he returned for a touchdown - on his way to the Pro Bowl.
"We've been through a lot, so whatever happens, thinking positively, we'll make strides to be even better," linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "Getting Eric Berry back - I can't wait for him to get back. We're a young team, so defensively we'll be even better next year."
There are holes to fill on both sides of the ball, particularly along the offensive and defensive lines. A few stalwarts like center Casey Wiegmann and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg appear to be ambling toward retirement, while ineffective play at other positions should open up opportunity.
But the return of players lost to injury could be enough by itself to make the Chiefs the AFC West favorites next season, at least, assuming they're able to perform at the same elite level.
"I'm not one for predictions, but the way we played to finish out the season, especially this last game, even though we're not going to the playoffs, everyone played hard," Moeaki said. "That's a good sign of character, and that's something we can build off of."