KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- After a four-week absence, running back Larry Johnson returned Monday to a Kansas City Chiefs team that has changed significantly while he was gone.
For one thing, the offense and defense are both riddled with injuries. As many as six defensive starters could be out for this week's game against New Orleans.
For another, the offense has evolved behind the surprising play of Tyler Thigpen. Although he's lost all three games he's started since the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks went down for the season on Oct. 19, the second-year quarterback is showing improvement every week.
No longer are the Chiefs a power-running attack. Much of the time they're putting Thigpen in the shotgun, where he's most comfortable, and throwing the ball. Thigpen has thrown 124 passes without an interception, and was 27-of-41 for 266 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday's 20-19 loss to San Diego.
Coach Herm Edwards said he had a good conversation with Johnson on Monday and was satisfied he has a good attitude. After being benched for three games for violating team rules, Johnson was suspended last week by commissioner Roger Goodell for violating NFL player conduct rules.
"He's doing good. He's excited about getting going," Edwards said. "We had a good discussion about where he's at, what he's trying to do. Just come in here and get ready to play and find your niche in what we're trying to do. Our offense has changed a little bit. But he's going to be involved in it. He's excited about being back."
Johnson's off-field issues include a lawsuit filed Monday by a woman seeking damages on her claim the two-time Pro Bowler spit a drink in her face Oct. 10 at a Kansas City bar and threatened to kill her and her boyfriend. Johnson has been charged with simple assault for the alleged incident, and faces a December court date on the same charge over another incident earlier this year at a different bar.
Kolby Smith, who had been starting in Johnson's place, sustained a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago, which greatly increases his value.
Asked if Johnson would play Sunday, Edwards said, "Oh, yeah. Our offense has changed a little bit, but we're still going to try to run the ball, with him being one of the better backs in the league."
The Chiefs (1-8) are one of the most hobbled teams in the NFL. As many as six defensive starters will probably be listed as questionable this week.
"I've never played on a team with as many injuries that have compiled over time," left guard Brian Waters said Monday. "But this is the NFL, where one person goes down, it creates another opportunity for someone else. There have been a lot of people who have made their career and went on to star in the NFL based off somebody else getting hurt.
"As long as guys keep getting that mind-set, that every time somebody gets hurt, it opens up another opportunity for someone else."
"We should know a lot more on Wednesday. Tamba and Johnston will have MRIs this week," Edwards said. "Those are the cards we've been dealt."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press