Three of the four most powerful men in the organization that just won the AFC West are huddled, alone, in the darkness and relative quiet of a muddy tunnel in an outdated stadium.
Clark Hunt, the Chiefs chairman, is there. He has one hand on Mark Donovan, the club president, and the other on John Dorsey, the general manager. They are co-workers, and Clark is the boss, but their relationship is closer and more layered than that. This is the best team Hunt has had in his 10 years running the Chiefs, and you can imagine he is thanking them for their work and congratulating them on getting this far.
It is a personal moment, peace in the middle of chaos, and...
“HEY!” yells security. “CLEAR THE TUNNEL! THE TEAM IS COMING THROUGH!”
Hunt looks up. The three men snap away from their moment. Security has a point. The team is coming through. The men in suits clear the tunnel.
The tunnel of the new division champions is lively and you know this because Eric Stonestreet is in full warmup gear and cradling a football like he’s Omar Epps in The Program and high-fiving everyone who passes, or at least, everyone who won’t give him a hug.
It’s funny to watch the reactions. Some guys just walk by Stonestreet, like he’s a stranger. Others embrace him like a best friend. Travis Kelce could not have been more excited to see Stonestreet. Same with Rick Burkholder, and Tammy Reid, and Eric Fisher. Alex Smith went out of his way for a high-five.
The locker room is even livelier. Marcus Peters has assumed the role of team DJ from his first game in this league, and he turns his portable speaker up so he and Eric Berry and anyone else who want to join can dance and sing along.
“(Expletive-ing) AFC West champs!” Eric Fisher screams. “That’s awesome!”
None of this is enough, of course. The Chiefs expected to get to the playoffs. They were supposed to get to the playoffs. This is Dorsey and coach Andy Reid’s fourth year together, and if the team isn’t in the playoffs by the fourth year, it is quite possible the next year will be someone else’s first.
In 2013, bringing respectability back to the team was enough to call it a success. In the 2015 season, they won a playoff game, finally, after 22 years. This needs to be more than that, and everyone knows this.
But winning is hard. Winning consistently is even harder. They deserved to celebrate. They should celebrate. They’ve earned this week off. Let the pressure and focus come next week.
This week’s reading recommendation is John Branch on why Steve Kerr does not #StickToSports, and the eating recommendation is the royal breeze at Ruby Jean’s Juicery.
Please give me a follow on Facebook and Twitter, and as always, thanks for your help and thanks for reading.
This is how it should be. Everything in professional sports is framed by the playoffs, which is how it should be, particularly in the NFL, and particularly for a program in its fourth year building on a good core with good coaches.
But it shouldn’t be lost what the Chiefs just did.
They went 12-4, their best record in 13 years. They won what everybody calls the toughest division in the NFL, by sweeping it. They beat the Raiders and Falcons on the road. They played their best late in the season.
They did all of this through injuries to — deep breath — Justin Houston, Marcus Peters, Derrick Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Jeremy Maclin, Phil Gaines, Allen Bailey, Jaye Howard, Spencer Ware, Alex Smith, Dee Ford and others.
They had some luck along the way, sure, obviously, but good teams make their own luck and take advantage of it and one more time I will ask if we’d be saying the Chiefs were just unlucky if they lost all those close games and finished 7-9 or whatever.
The Chiefs are a longshot to win the Super Bowl, even as the No. 2 seed. The Steelers would be a difficult matchup (though I do think the Chiefs would be favored) and the Patriots are everyone’s favorite.
But just for a moment, why not, imagine a parade and if the first thing you think of isn’t what kind of even-crazy-people-think-that’s-crazy stuff Travis Kelce and Marcus Peters will do, then you and I are just different that way, I guess.
Hell of a time for your first game, jeez.
If you believe in weather forecasts 12 days out, looks like a cold but pleasant day: high of 38, low wind, partly cloudy.
Beyond that, you should expect to eat your face off in the parking lot. You should expect to leave decorum at home, and accept that brats and ribs and beans and beer in the morning is not only socially acceptable but, really, demanded.
You should expect to see at least one person passed out by kickoff. You should expect to see at least a few others who look like they’ll pass out soon, and they will range from obnoxious to harmless, and you should treat them like an animal at the zoo: be entertained, if you can, but do not taunt or provoke them. Nobody wants a stampede.
Once you’re in the game, you should expect louder noise than you probably think, shorter concession lines than you probably think (because people will stay in their seats), and a big ol’ CHIEEEEEFS at the end of the national anthem, including from some who are still angry because they think Marcus Peters disrespected the anthem.
Once the game starts, depending on where you’re sitting, you should expect to see at least one fight and extreme reaction to every big play. If Cairo Santos misses a field goal, you should expect that reaction to be close to apocalyptic. If Cairo Santos misses a game-winning field goal, you should expect that reaction to be beyond apocalyptic.
And if the Chiefs win, you should expect one of the best sports experiences of your life.
It is my staunch belief that the Chiefs are a very good team. Maybe even the third-best team in the NFL, behind the Patriots and Cowboys. They have a lot going for them, and in no particular order:
▪ They are balanced, and without going through the rest of the league, there can’t be too many teams who’ve won lots of games mostly on defense, others largely on special teams, and a few on offense like the Chiefs.
▪ They have Pro Bowl caliber players at every level of the defense (depending on Dontari Poe’s back, anyway) and two absolute and complementary mismatches on offense with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.
▪ They have a proven and experienced coach, and we can make all the clock management jokes we want, but he’s quietly gotten much better there this year.
▪ If Justin Houston’s knee allows him to be Justin F. Houston again, the Chiefs will be close to full strength, which is both rare for the playoffs and a huge difference from a year ago at this time.
▪ They have won a long string of close games, many of them tilting on a single play, and you can call that luck if you want, but that’s how NFL games are often won, particularly in the playoffs, and a track record like that and the confidence that comes with it is important.
▪ At first blush I would not pick them to win a playoff game against the Steelers, but I recognize that they’ll probably be favored in that game, and am open to having my mind changed by what happens on Sunday and what I see when I watch more of the Steelers’ recent games (their win streak is largely against bad teams, and I want to see where their defense is vulnerable).
▪ If it comes to it, I believe the Chiefs can win in New England. This depends on Justin Houston being healthy, but with pass rushers who can get to Tom Brady without blitzing, and two dynamic playmakers on offense, the Chiefs have the pieces that can give the Patriots problems.
This is also a team that’s flawed in some fundamental ways. Opposing offenses should spend every snap either throwing at corners who are not Marcus Peters, or running between the tackles, until proven that won’t work. Opposing defenses can bracket Kelce, and hope to limit Hill by keying on him on offense and kicking away from him on special teams* and if that happens the Chiefs could have a hard time scoring points.
* Seriously, if he’s allowed to return a punt in the playoffs, the opposing special teams coach needs to explain why.
In other words, the Chiefs are a lot like any very good team in any NFL season. That’s the fun of the league. That’s the nervousness of rooting for a team in this roulette tournament.
Maybe a little. But I say only a little.
The similarities are that the Chiefs have alternated between rotten and nonexistent in the playoffs for most of the last 50 years, and that the fans have been trained by the team they love to expect the worst.
The differences are in specifics, and in scope. Specifics, because the Chiefs have been in the playoffs. Several times, in fact! Most of that is the different structures of the NFL and major league baseball, but a lot of it is how severely mismanaged the Royals were for a long time.
And scope, because by now, with two pennants and a World Series trophy and all the pictures of the parade and the dog pile and Alex Gordon’s homer off Familia and Eric Hosmer’s dash home on Duda — “Bless his heart,” Rusty Kuntz said in the coldest quote of the decade — it’s now easy to forget just how hopeless and pointless and infuriating it was to be a Royals fan two short years ago.
I know I’ve said this before, so I hope you forgive me for repeating, but I don’t think it should be forgotten: Royals fans were furious pissed off in July 2014. Of everything I’ve ever written, nothing has been ripped apart more than the column in July 2014 that did not call for Dayton Moore and Ned Yost to be fired.
People wanted me fired, because I was pointing out that in that moment, firing the GM and manager would not accomplish anything. Like, any words in English that did not include the phrase “fire those idiot bums” was not welcome in Kansas City.
Two months later, the ground at Kauffman Stadium was literally shaking from the noise of a Wild Card Game. A few weeks after that, the Royals were playing in the World Series. A year after that, they held a parade that many people attended.
My point here is that the angsts have similarities, but fundamental differences, the way a hamburger slider has similarities, but fundamental differences, with a pepper crusted strip.
A thought experiment: take away Scott Pioli’s ugliness, but keep his ineptness, and let it last for two decades, with tragicomedy like coaches showering with clothes on and relay throws hitting guys in backs and climbing walls for balls that bounce off the warning track, then restart with A Process that is seven or eight years in the making and appears to be stuck in the mud ... and THEN you get to where Royals fans were in July 2014.
Speaking of the Royals!
In the current century, the AL Central’s current run of three consecutive pennants is matched only by the AL East from 2007-09 (Red Sox, Rays, Yankees, in that order, though the Yankees won four straight from 1998 to 2001).
I believe this is more coincidence than anything else, because there are good teams in every division, and a break here or there changes so much.
But I would like to hijack your question a bit and talk about the Royals’ chances in 2017. At the moment, it feels like I’m more optimistic than most Royals fans, because I believe they have at least a puncher’s chance at the postseason.
If you want a number on it, and we’re including wild-card spots, I’ll say 41.4827 percent.
Some of this is because the Royals’ record could be propped up by what looks to be a soft division. The Indians will be very good. According to this, the Red Sox are the favorites for the AL pennant, followed by the Indians, Astros, Blue Jays and Rangers, which feels about right.
The Royals’ odds are behind the Tigers, which does not feel right, because I believe the Tigers will stink in 2017. I believe the White Sox will also stink, and I am quite certain the Twins will stink.
With the unbalanced schedule, that gives the Royals the opportunity to have a better record than they would in another division, which would help them chase a wild-card spot if the Indians run away with the division.
I know we’ll talk a lot more about this as time goes on — 42 days until pitchers and catchers report! — but a soft top five of what needs to go right for the Royals in 2017:
▪ Health. This is true of every team, every season, but I believe particularly important for the Royals.
▪ Eric Hosmer needs to produce to his considerable talent. He wasn’t as good as 25 homers and 104 RBIs made him look last year, and he is absolutely capable of having a season that earns MVP votes.
▪ The rotation has be better than many expect, which means this has to be Danny Duffy’s new normal, and he needs help from Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy.
The offense didn’t get enough blame from fans last year, in part because Joakim Soria got too much, but Hosmer can’t do it by himself. Jorge Soler, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Sal Perez ... these guys are too good to finish third-to-last in runs like they did last year. We can talk about some of this being made up by injuries, and there is truth to that, but Kendrys Morales led them in slugging last year and he is no longer a Royals employee.
▪ The Royals’ front office believes the team can cover Wade Davis’ absence with numbers, particularly in young power arms (Matt Strahm isn’t the only one). I tend to agree with them, but the margin for error is thinner than it’s been since before the Royals got good. An injury or bad year by Kelvin Herrera, for instance, throws the whole thing out of whack. But even if we assume Herrera dominance — and, for what it’s worth, I assume Herrera dominance — the innings in front of him aren’t as locked in as they have been in the past. I agree with Lee here: Ned Yost is going to have to manage differently.
First part: I have no idea.
Second part: I think. Maybe. But it would be harder.
Houston has now missed 16 of the Chiefs’ last 23 games, including the playoffs. He has played 13 or fewer snaps in two others, so he has essentially been on the field just five times in what amounts to a season and a half.
The Chiefs are 15-3 without him, so you can cloak yourself in that comfort if you like, but if the only thing that matters this year is making the Super Bowl, then the only thing that matters this year is whether they are good enough to beat (probably) the Steelers and if so, whether they are good enough to beat (probably) the Patriots.
Those teams, specifically, become much harder to beat if you’re not hitting the quarterback. Dee Ford has been very good this year, and he deserves the Pro Bowl spot, but he also has four tackles and as many sacks as you do since Nov. 13*.
* Maybe fewer. I don’t know who’s reading this. Maybe you’re Rakeem Nunez-Roches. Hi Nacho!
Andy Reid, and Tamba Hali, seemed confident that Houston will play the first playoff game. There is a big difference between Houston playing, and Houston being HOUSTON. He “played” in Foxborough last year, you might remember.
You might hear people talk about how Houston’s importance is overblown, because of that 15-3 record without him, or because Dee Ford has been more productive rushing from the defense’s left side, which is Houston’s side when he’s healthy, but that’s all nonsense and you should not believe them.
The best Chiefs team is the Chiefs team with a healthy Justin Houston, because a healthy Justin Houston is far better than Dee Ford, who will still be on the field, and it also means Tamba Hali is fresher and stronger with fewer snaps and Frank Zombo is taking fewer snaps as a special-teams guy posing as a pass rusher.
The Dolphins opened as a 10-point underdog, so using this chart, roughly translates into a 21 percent chance of winning. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s that high. I know the Dolphins beat the Steelers earlier this year, but that was a long time ago, at Miami, both teams are much different now, and besides, I believe that the existence of that film and experience actually increases the Steelers’ chances.
The Dolphins, to me, are essentially three things: Adam Gase, smoke, and mirrors. That is no way to win a playoff game in Pittsburgh.
It is frustrating, if you’re a Chiefs fan, that the Patriots have what realistically amounts to a bye into the AFC Championship: no wild-card game, and then a home game against the Dolphins, Texans or Raiders.
But they earned it with a 14-2 season, ducking good teams is no way to make a Super Bowl, so the Chiefs will have to earn it.
We’ll get into this more next week, when we know who the opponent is, but I do think it’s a mistake to remember the Chiefs getting emasculated by the Steelers on Oct. 2 and assuming they can’t win a rematch, and I say that as someone who at the moment would pick the Steelers to win.
The Chiefs are a much different team than they were then, and they have a lot of different ways they can win. I know the history at Arrowhead, but you’d obviously rather play there than in Pittsburgh.
Again, I believe with all my heart the result will be much more about how the Chiefs play, than who they play.
I am so glad you asked this question. Any division or even conference championship gear is an impulse buy. That’s it. You are not going to be pumped up about that shirt in a week.
And maybe that’s OK! Wear the dog out of it for a week (or two, if your team has a bye). Wear it to the game, if you’re going, or to watch the game, if you’re not. And then use it to mow the lawn or sleep or whatever. But one of two things are going to happen.
Either the team is going to advance, like you mention, and then there’s a better shirt to get, or they’re going to lose, and then you’re not going to wear what’s going to feel like a participation ribbon.
I’m not telling you not to get it. I’m just telling you to understand what you’re getting into.
I think we all know how Kim Anderson’s time at Mizzou is going to end. The question, at this point, is more about when, and then whether his replacement can push the program back to competitiveness.
If my math is right here, Kim has won 24 games and lost 14 players to transfers since taking the job. That’s less than ideal. It is hard to believe there are many, if any, historically competitive programs in worse shape at the moment. Instead of a True Son, and a solid man, and all of those things, Anderson will be remembered as the coach who took over a rotten program and made it worse, and that makes me sad.
The good news is that in basketball, the turnaround is always possible. And quick. I’ve heard this logic from a few coaches, that the best jobs to take are often the ones people think are the worst jobs to take, and vice versa, because expectations can work for or against you.
Whoever replaces Anderson will take over a better roster than Anderson did. This isn’t as true as it used to be, because more SEC schools are dumping their leftover football money into basketball, but there is room underneath Kentucky near the top of the league and Missouri is better positioned to plant the flag there than most.
They have a history of caring about basketball, and are the biggest program in a state that produces a lot of really good players. This is a job that you should be able to be a regular in the tournament, and every four or five years or so be a top 10 team.
This depends on whether Mizzou is willing to spend or wants to go cheap on a coach again, but to me, this should still be an attractive job.
Michael Porter is probably too late to save, but there are always kids in Missouri. Carte’Are Gordon is in Webster Groves, and is Rivals’ No. 16 player in the 2018 class. He’s verbaled to SLU, but maybe you can change his mind. Courtney Ramey is in Webster Groves, and is Rivals’ No. 29 player in the 2018 class. Torrence Watson is from St. Louis, a four-star shooting guard in that same class.
This is how it is most years. Go get those players, fill in the roster with others, win. It can be done. It’s been done. It will be again. But they need to get this right, because right now basketball is losing money and fans.
I don’t know. I would like to know more, and will try to find out more.
I will say that I don’t think it’s this simple. All of these guys — especially rich and established stars like Houston and Charles, but also guys further down the list like Gaines — work or consult or both with their own trainers.
I’m not sure about Gaines, but I know Charles and Houston each went to James Andrews for surgeries, so you’d assume that was done the way it’s supposed to. Maybe there’s not enough caution in what the Chiefs are doing, maybe they’re doing one thing too much or not enough. We’re all guessing on that.
But I do want to know more. Because something is strange.
I’m typing this from San Diego, on my way to what I believe are the world’s best fish tacos, which is great, but I also just found out my flight back is delayed two hours, which is not as great.
I never thought I’d be bummed to be “stuck” in San Diego a little longer, but the kids are sick, and not sleeping, which means my wife isn’t sleeping and it’d be nice to be able to help out a little more.
But, positive! I went on a run this morning, by the water, which almost distracted me from the awful shape I’m in at the moment. It’s cool to dry heave on the side of the running trail, right?
I said a lot of this in the Insta-reaction, but I’m sad that the Chargers are probably leaving, and not just because this is one of my favorite cities in the country. The fans here deserve better. I understand the politics, and that the state is broke, so public money is (smartly) not a real option.
But the Chargers have been here 50 years, they’re part of this community, and they should play their games here. One of the theories you hear is that they’ll go to LA next year, but in a temporary setup — maybe even in a 25,000-seat MLS stadium, which sounds incredibly strange — and in the meantime a solution in San Diego will be found and the Chargers can move back in a few years.
I really hope that’s what happens.
And only partly because San Diego is awesome.
Well, yeah, it is frowned upon.
I have an Arsenal shirt, because the Arsenal sometimes does stuff like this, but that’s about it. I have a Run TMC shirt, and a Monarchs shirt, and a Kansas City A’s shirt, and probably something else I’m forgetting at the moment, but those are different.
You’re right that it’s frowned upon, and I suppose there’s an argument that those frowns are outdated, at least for a columnist, but I get it.
This is something we talk about here from time to time. It’s hard to fully explain, but the short version is that I love sports as much now as I ever have in my adult life, but it’s certainly not the same that it used to be, or that it would be if I had a real job. I want to be clear that it’s not worse or better. Just different.
This job changes the way you watch sports. You start to watch for stories, or moments, and even when I’m not working and just watching a game because sports are fun, I find my mind running away from me sometimes with column ideas or imagining what the deadline situation would be if I was working.
In some ways, it probably does take some of the fan out of you. Sports are, literally, the job. And no matter how much you love your job, your job is still a job. You see behind the curtain a bit, and know that public perception is often very different from at least what you believe reality to be.
In other ways, the job makes you love sports even more. You know more. You know more people. You have a better appreciation for everything that goes into the magic of a game. You see how hard these guys work, how ruthlessly good they are at what they do, even the “worst” players on the roster.
So, anyway. I don’t think a lot of that is what you were asking about.
The kids are geared up, and my wife has some Royals stuff, but I have a lot of sweats and t-shirts and jeans and button-downs.
I tend to take these questions too literally, but I would adjust the premise here a bit.
Yes, I do think the run defense is a big concern, even as I understand that Bob Sutton’s scheme (rightly, I would argue) generally prioritizes defending the pass and making big plays.
But I also think drafting a middle linebacker that high would be bad value. I love Rueben Foster — I actually had him on my Heisman ballot — but I generally believe you can get guys lower in the draft.
Those high picks, to me, should be cornerbacks and offensive linemen and wide receivers and pass rushers and ...
Without knowing what the NFL’s silly season will do to Watson’s draft value, yes, I do believe there’s a chance the Chiefs will take a long look at quarterbacks, and, yes, I absolutely believe he’s worth trading up for.
The Chiefs will probably have extra picks, which makes moving up easier, we’re all guessing here but Watson has every look of a guy who would flourish with what Andy Reid does.
He is big, strong, athletic, has been hugely productive, and even as I understand he’s benefited from having some terrific receivers at Clemson I also don’t think he’s been coached up as much as he would be with Reid.
Some of this is a statement about Alex Smith generally taking a step back in a season he should’ve stepped forward, but not all of it. Alex will be 33 years old in May, and Nick Foles strikes me as a very good backup quarterback.
The Chiefs can walk away from Smith next season, and gain cap space, or they could walk away from him in 2018 with an even more beneficial situation. But no matter what you think of Smith, it’s time to invest again in the most important position.
The Chiefs have a really good young core, that at least in theory should be together for a while. Some of these guys — Marcus Peters will be up sooner than you think — are going to need new contracts. If the Chiefs could have a good quarterback on a rookie deal, it would give them a significant advantage.
Worth a try.
Also, godspeed to whoever the next first-round quarterback is in this city. That guy is going to be a hero, or a goat.
Well, mostly, I’ll spend it working, and I know I type words about sports for a living, so if you want me to say I’ll be “working,” fine. I’ll be “working.”
But Kansas and K-State play basketball Tuesday night. That seems like something I’ll go watch and write about. There will be a Chiefs column to write, probably two, some continued time on longer term projects and hopefully time to re-watch some old Chiefs games and watch some more recent Steelers games.
As much as possible, I’ll be with my wife, and kids. I think my wife and I are going to meet some friends for dinner one night.
My track record on New Years resolutions is a bit like Clarence Gilbert’s career at Mizzou: I’m a volume shooter, with spectacular moments mixed in with embarrassing ones, but I always believe the next shot’s going in so I’m always looking for a next shot.
So, with that in mind, I hope to run at least 4 miles at least three times this week. I hope to get a babysitter one night and spend it with my wife, alone at a restaurant. I hope to generally do a better job of turning off work at certain points in the day.
And, of course, I’ll spend much of the weekend watching football, probably.