The Chiefs’ wild, bizarre, controversial, and quite literally post-last-second loss to the Raiders is by now five days old and admittedly I haven’t scoured the Internet for everyone’s takes but I also haven’t seen much talk about what I believe could be the most concerning factor going forward:
Justin Houston’s calf.
Houston is the Chiefs’ best all-around football player, and when right he’s a top-five defender, easy.
He is not right.
Houston is an elite pass rusher, perhaps even better against the run, and also pretty good in coverage, even he’s doing it a little too much. When right, he changes what the Chiefs are defensively and what the opposition can do against them.
He is not right.
For the second consecutive week, Houston did not record a sack or even a quarterback hurry. He looked a little better in Oakland than he did against Pittsburgh — he was running a little smoother, and there were moments you felt a sack was coming — but if you didn’t know who he was there was nothing that would’ve told you he’s a great player.
I know a lot of you are upset that he’s seemingly dropping into coverage more than usual, but I am taking that as a sign that the coaches know he’s not at Full Pass Rush Juice. If that’s what’s happening, that’s a big problem.
We can all pick out our pet projects about why that game — honestly, that’s as close as a game as you can have, it’s like the Chiefs won the popular vote but lost the electoral college — swung to the Raiders and many of them are true.
But there is no question in my mind that they would’ve won if Houston was at the NFL’s week 7 version of full strength.
And, unlike an offense that’s been mostly great this year and a defense that can welcome back Steven Nelson and tweak some strategical subtleties, Houston’s health is something they can’t just watch film on and improve.
Houston has finished just one of the last four seasons at anything resembling full strength, and none since 2014.
I assume 11 days between last Thursday and next Monday will help, and I assume the bye week after the Dallas game will help even more. Maybe by then his calf will be strong, and this will all be a distant memory.
But even if it means the Chiefs losing a game they otherwise would’ve won, I’d be in favor for putting Houston on a pitch count or even sitting him some games if it’s the difference between having him at full strength for the playoffs.
He’s just too damn good not to have right when the games start to matter.
This week’s eating recommendation is the loaded tots at The Bar, and the reading recommendation is the Washington Post’s collaboration with 60 Minutes on The Drug Industry’s Triumph Over The DEA.
We usually wait until the 10th or 11th question for the weekly list, but I’m unpredictable, so let’s do it:
1. Kansas vs. Missouri. This is less opinion than fact. The sports rivalry is the most intense by a fairly (un)healthy margin, but it goes so far beyond sports. How many rivalries dictate where people live in a city?
2. New KCI vs. Old KCI. I’m taking this list off script, you guys. It’s actually a little hard for me to understand why anyone is still Old KCI. That used to be my team, but that was long before the financing details came out, both about the costs of a new terminal vs. renovation and that it’ll be paid for by users (not new taxes). I’m still going to be annoyed at how many people are convinced a new terminal will be a huge boost for the local economy, but whatever.
3. Alex Smith Haters vs. Alex Smith Defenders. Other than rehashing the same points about whether KU and Mizzou should play, the most consistent part of the last five years of Kansas City sports is whether Smith is a decent quarterback. This season is hard for some to process.
4. Chiefs vs. John Elway. No single human has caused more anguish, anger or jealousy in Kansas City than Elway. I almost wrote that more broadly, but I don’t want to get responses about Art Modell. The Chiefs have gotten in their own way plenty, but it’s hard to think of one man being in the way of one franchise as much as Elway as both a player and now executive.
5. Rockhurst vs. Blue Springs. I’m putting this here as a placeholder for whatever high school rivalry you hold dear, from Olathe South-Olathe North to Odessa-Oak Grove. The intensity and personal nature of a genuine high school rivalry is just impossible to duplicate.
6. Kansas City vs. St. Louis. Even this feels a little too high. The cross-state thing has always been fun to me, in the sort of way that watching some guy get racked on YouTube might be fun. You might watch the clip, and giggle a little, but you won’t feel particularly good about it and it’s definitely not something you want to spend a lot of time doing.
7. Royals’ 2015 Memories vs. Father Time. This is A Thing, right? The Wild Card Game and the push to Game 7 and the wire-to-wire thrill ride of 2015 changed baseball in Kansas City forever. But it did not kill all of the Royals Fan Defeatism, which still lays mostly dormant but watch what happens if and when Eric Hosmer signs with the Red Sox or something.
8. Chiefs vs. Raiders. This is lower than most of you would probably have it, especially after Thursday. And I do love this rivalry. You might think I’m joking, but Oakland is no worse than my second favorite stadium to visit*. It is so damn fun. The atmosphere there is truly unlike anywhere else. I’m talking myself into pushing this higher on the list, but in the end, I’m probably prematurely downgrading the rivalry because the Raiders are moving to Vegas in a few years.
9. Kansas vs. K-State. Also lower than most of you would probably have it, but honestly, is anyone pumped up about this anymore? KU isn’t good enough in football to be anyone’s rival, and K-State hasn’t been a threat to KU in basketball in years. Even back in the day, when the on-field/court rivalry was more intense, it never felt like hatred. More of a brotherly thing.
10 (tie). Peter Vermes vs. Professional Referee Organization. Real Salt Lake is the answer Sporting would probably give as the club’s biggest rival, but Vermes is a throwback to Norm Stewart and Billy Tubbs in the old Big 8.
Iowa State Fans vs. Last Call. Thirstiest fans in the Big 12. No offense, K-State. You’re second.
Let’s pump the brakes on declaring anything proven from an exhibition game played on Oct. 22 without zone defenses, offensive sets, full rosters, normal rules, and after something like 11 practices.
I know the thing is to talk about everything each team gained — basketball-wise — from that game, but that feels an awful lot like Prisoner Of The Momentism. Let’s be realistic.
They played a scrimmage. An intense scrimmage, with play-by-play announcers, a pay-per-view audience, and lots of off-the-court posturing from both sides. But, still. A scrimmage.
To say this game gives either team a head start on the season is a stretch. Each team will have more practices between that exhibition and their season opener than they had before the exhibition. Missouri has 71 more days before its conference opener, and Kansas has 66. One-hundred thirty four more days until the conference tournaments, and 142 until the NCAA Tournament.
If either team has a head start on Oct. 22, that will long be washed away. If either school makes a Final Four run, do you think any logical human will say it’s because they played an exhibition game on Oct. 22?
The last Kansas team to make a Final Four lost to Davidson in December and many KU fans freaked out. The season was done. The team was terrible. Except then KU didn’t lose another game for more than a month, and didn’t lose in the NCAA Tournament until facing Anthony Davis and that team of basketball cyborgs in the championship.
Do you think that KU team was any good on Oct. 22?
Or that the answer to that question is relevant?
I believe that KU is in another Final Four Or Bust season. I believe Mizzou will be terrifically fun and entertaining, and by March will absolutely be a team nobody wants to draw.
But I believed that before Sunday, and before watching the replay.
What happened on Sunday was fun, and unquestionably significant for off-the-court reasons. But it’s a fool’s errand to dissect the game and try to take anything important for the rest of the season.
I do say that. A lot. Because it’s true.
One thing I want to make clear: referees affect games, but I still don’t know that I can think of anything other than the 1972 Olympic men’s basketball final that I can say was decided by officiating.
That is absolutely still true after last Thursday.
The referees stunk when they took the flag off the field on Amari Cooper’s blatant push-off on the Raiders’ first touchdown, and they stunk on the holding penalty on Ron Parker at the end.
They also stunk on the penalty that nullified the Chiefs’ fumble recovery in the second quarter.
But, they also missed some calls the other way, perhaps most notably a pass interference on Eric Murray near the goal line that erased a very catchable touchdown for Jared Cook and forced a field goal in the fourth quarter, and another pass interference on Phil Gaines that preceded the blocked field goal in the second quarter.
That’s up to 11 points of good fortune on those two calls.
This is one of my biggest annoyances with complaints about officials: fans see the calls that go against their team, but not those that go for their team.
Again, I want to be clear: referees absolutely can affect games, but to blame the outcome on an official is cowardly and weak.
The officials didn’t keep the Chiefs from gaining one single first down in the 4 minute offense. The officials didn’t keep the Chiefs from stopping a 4th and 11 on the last drive. The officials didn’t miss eleventy gajillion tackles. The officials didn’t fail to pressure Derek Carr.
I wrote this in the game column: the Chiefs could have made any one of at least five plays and won that game.
They did not. That’s not on the officials.
They were absolutely frustrated by the officiating, and I believe they admitted it.
Andy Reid went further than any player I heard.
“It’s a shame that it came down to that, right?” he said. “The guys play, let them settle it right there on the field. It came down to calls, one way or the other. It came down to calls. That’s too bad.”
I asked him to clarify, if he was saying there were bad calls, or that the officials should let some stuff slide at the end. He said that would be a false interpretation.
“You don’t ever want it to come down to that type of thing,” he said. “We have no excuses. We have to play better, coach better.”
Alex Smith said, basically, the same thing. To me, it sounded like the line you hear in basketball — let the players decide the outcome at the end, not the refs. He said that would be a false interpretation.
“No, you still call it,” he said. “You call it the same you would any other time. If they’re cheating, you throw the flag, right? That’s the deal.”
So, take that however you want.
If you were in that room, I think you would’ve come to the conclusion that Reid and Smith were ticked off about the calls. I think you would’ve taken their words and body language as that of competitive men who felt they weren’t given the fairest shake.
But, when double checked for clarification by a responsible and very handsome local sports columnist, both made sure they would not be fined.
I know what I think they felt.
That game on Thursday was as close to a coin flip as any game I can remember at the moment. I am not sure how a game could be any closer, actually. Decided by one point, on a drive that included a fourth-down conversion, a touchdown nullified by penalty, and two untimed downs.
So, do I think having one of the best safeties in the world could’ve tilted a coin flip to the Chiefs’ side? Particularly when the Chiefs could not defend the pass? Yes, I do.
But, I also believe this is true: Berry’s presence is most missed in run defense.
Berry was the crutch that allowed defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to focus so heavily on defending the pass, because Berry is so smart, prepared, and talented that he could still offer substantial run support.
I believe Dan Sorensen is an under appreciated player, and does some of what Berry is so good at. But they’re very different players, asked to do different things.
Also, at least two more things about Berry’s injury are true:
▪ There is a statute of limitations on missing an injured player in the NFL, especially when that injured player is not a quarterback.
▪ If your season is sunk because a safety was injured in the season opener, your season wasn’t as promising as you might’ve thought.
Look, if you read this space regularly you are both a hero and probably aware that I believe in rhythm of a schedule. That’s why I thought the Steelers game would be difficult after they were embarrassed by the Jags, and why I thought the Raiders game was coming at a bad time.
So you might think I’d be headed that direction again with this game, because the Broncos have lost two in a row, but I absolutely do not.
The Broncos, um, may just be who we thought they were.
They’ve scored a total of 10 points in their last two games. They were embarrassed at home against the crappy Giants, and responded by being shutout against the decent Chargers.
Their starting quarterback has thrown eight touchdowns and seven interceptions, but at least their backup threw 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last year.
But this isn’t just about the Broncos.
I believe the Chiefs are a good team. Yes, still. I believe they played a D+ game and still had a chance to beat one of the best teams in the league two weeks ago, and I believe they flew two time zones to play a team primed for a good night in the hardest turnaround NFL schedules have to offer and still played well enough for 55 minutes that they should’ve won.
I believe the hardest part of the Chiefs’ schedule is over, and that 11 days off will do wonders for the health of the offensive line and Justin Houston’s calf.
The Broncos are only a little like the Super Bowl championship team from a few years ago, but they have enough dudes — Von Miller, Brandon Marshall, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, etc. — that they’ll play with pride. They’ll probably even talk about how they’re playing for Jamaal Charles.
But just like I thought the Chiefs were getting teams at the wrong time the last two weeks, the Broncos are getting the Chiefs at the wrong time this week.
And that would be true even without the added benefit of playing a night game at Arrowhead Stadium.
I understand the disinterest in Kansas City of remembering that Smith’s best was good enough to help the 49ers to within a fluky special-teams turnover of the Super Bowl in 2011*, and a 6-2 start for a team that finished 5 yards from the Super Bowl championship in 2012.
* A playoff run that included winning a shootout against Drew Brees.
I get all of that.
But can we wait longer than seven games of Smith’s best season in Kansas City to call him dead?
Also, at least part of the current disenchantment with Smith is based on a game in which he completed 25 of 36 passes for 342 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
On his last drive, the one that could’ve sealed the win with a first down or two, he handed off twice and then was sacked.
Now, we can quibble with a lot there. Maybe you see the two handoffs as a sign that Reid still doesn’t think his team’s best chances are with Smith. Or maybe you (absolutely correctly) point out the sack was on Smith, because he should’ve stepped up into the pocked instead of sideways into the rush:
But, come on. Smith wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty damn good, including a 99-yard drive finished by one of those deep throws downfield people still don’t think he can make.
He’s nearly halfway through a season in which he’s leading the league in completion percentage (72.4), touchdowns (15), yards per attempt (8.7, also: !) and passer rating (120.5) while on pace for 4,523 yards and still zero interceptions.
Maybe this is all nothing. Maybe there’s a playoff loss with check down after check down after check down coming in January.
But he’s never had this much talent around him, and he’s never played this well. Can we wait for something more convincing than a loss in which he was pretty good and the team scored 30 points on a short week to crush him?
I think he’s hurt.
Nothing really serious — not even as serious as the calf injury Justin Houston is playing through — but I don’t think he looks quite the same. I want to be clear that this is just me speculating.
I haven’t been told anything by anyone with the Chiefs, even privately. I just don’t think he looks quite the same. He’s always given up some big plays, but that’s more a product of his style and being a corner in the NFL.
The tell, to me, is that he’s not making the big plays and especially that he seems disinterested in tackling. He’s never been a great tackler, but he’s always been willing. Now, he’s either going for the hero strip or appearing in no hurry at all to get to the ball.
Peters is tough, so playing through an injury is the only explanation I can think of that makes sense.
I also want to be clear: I think he’s been good this year, just not as good as we’ve come to expect.
Full disclosure, Nait and I DM’d a bit so I could understand a bit more of the question’s context and I hope he’d agree I’m getting the spirit right here:
Kansas City can be a reserved place, sort of the strong silent type. More of the Barry Sanders way of handing the ball to the referee than Antonio Brown twerking. So in that context, are “characters” dissuaded from coming here in free-agency, and do “characters” drafted or traded here feel limited and unable to play freely?
It’s an interesting question, and at the risk of being the dad sports writer talking about the inner thoughts of 20-something professional athletes, I’ll give it a try.
The short answer is I don’t think so.
I think of places like Pittsburgh and Dallas and St. Louis that might be fairly comparable in ways of demographics and attitude that have won Super Bowls in the last 30 years or so.
I also think of the Royals winning the World Series, and a large part of their team personality was, well, having a big personality in a sport that traditionally wants its ballplayers seen and not heard.
Derrick Thomas and Tony Gonzalez were enormous personalities who thrived in Kansas City. Neither won a Super Bowl, but I’d blame that more on bad quarterbacks and a defense that could not force even one punt that afternoon against the Colts.
Again, I can’t know the inner thoughts of these guys, and nobody knows how they’d be in difference cities and with different coaches, but I don’t think the problem in Kansas City has ever been not enough personality.
Those 1990s teams were full of them, from Dale Carter to Neil Smith to (briefly) Joe Montana.
I believe Andy Reid’s greatest strength as a coach is his ability to straddle two coaching worlds that are generally exclusive from each other — requiring discipline, and letting players express themselves.
Peters’ and Kelce’s rises to relative stardom in the NFL have been fertilized by Reid’s style.
Kansas City has its quirks and its strengths and its weaknesses, but generally, it’s like a lot of places in that it’ll tolerate just about anything if you’re good enough.
I often think of Terez’s Not One Mo’ theory here. Generally and loosely speaking, Terez says you can (and sometimes need) one crazy person on each side of the ball.
The Chiefs have that in Travis Kelce, and in Marcus Peters, and Terez says Not One Mo’ or else the whole thing is thrown out of balance.
For what it’s worth, I think they might be able to take one more, although it would be a risk, particularly if someone like Eric Berry gets hurt.
None, and not just because Cleveland beating New York in the fifth game of an AL Division Series would’ve thrown the numbers off balance, and not just because two years ago a certain small market team won the World Series.
Baseball has far more competitive balance and parity than it is generally given credit for. Jayson Stark writes about this every year during Super Bowl week.
There is no question that more money is an advantage. You should not listen to anyone who says otherwise.
But revenue sharing is more substantial now than ever, and the current CBA allows for what is effectively a hard salary cap with compounding luxury tax penalties. There’s also a more fundamental baseball element to this, that players generally age much faster than anyone expects in a specific player, so when a team gets the first six or seven seasons of a star’s career, that team often gets the best season of that star’s career — and certainly the cheapest.
Johnny Damon, just to use one local example, set career highs in runs, hits, doubles, stolen bases, hitting, on-base, and slugging percentage with the Royals in 2000.
Zack Greinke, to use on more local example, won his only Cy Young Award with the 2009 Royals. He actually may have been (slightly) better for the 2015 Dodgers, but the Royals paid him $3.75 million in 2009 and the Dodgers paid him $25 million in 2015.
After that season, he sighed a six-year, $206.5 million contract with the Diamondbacks.
Nobody got better value from Greinke than the Royals, even if you don’t include trading him for Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and a key piece of the Wil Myers Wait I Mean James Shields Wait I Mean Wade Davis trade.
The draft rules have tightened in some ways, but also become better for small-money teams in other ways. In general, though, baseball has legislated its way toward more inclusion of teams like the Royals, not less.
I don’t know if it benefits, and if it does, I don’t know if it’s for that reason.
But I do feel strongly that the school isn’t getting better by burning through a third coach in eight years.
Look, in some ways this is like the Sheahon Zenger thing. Assuming a drastic turnaround doesn’t happen in these next (very difficult) five games, you can fire Beaty after a 1-11 or 2-10 season and have your news conference where you talk about results and high standards and needing to produce and all of that.
Nobody would make a passionate case in defense of Beaty, at least not based on anything we’ve seen in games. They have lost their Big 12 games by 22, 46, 45, and 43 points. They just set a record for fewest yards in a game.
They lost their MAC games by 18 points to Central Michigan and and by 12 points against Ohio. Central Michigan is 3-4 against FBS competition. Ohio lost by 23 to Purdue, which is 3-4 and just lost to Rutgers.
So nobody would make the argument that you just fired the next Bill Snyder.
But beyond making yourself feel better for a day or two, what would that accomplish?
Can you say with a clear conscience that the guy you just fired had a fair chance to succeed? With a roster that’s only now approaching full scholarships, and even that’s based largely on gray shirts and former walk-ons?
To me, there are only two legitimate reasons to fire Beaty.
The first is that major donors are telling you they are saving their money until you fire Beaty.
The second is that you know, beyond any doubt, that a better coach wants and will accept the job and that donors will cover contract buyouts without it affecting your $300 million stadium rehab fundraising project.
If the donors and other university sources I talked to for the Zenger column are to be believed, then the first isn’t happening. And it’s hard to imagine the second being true.
Beaty was a position coach for a historically underachieving program when KU hired him. He was some combination of the best KU could attract and afford, and just signed his own contract extension.
If you fire that guy now, please explain exactly how this isn’t continuing the same spiral that got you here?
And please explain how giving a guy three years to fix a mess of that proportion is enough.
I do not know if Beaty is a good coach. I do not know if he can succeed, or if he will fail. But I do know that firing him doesn’t help you find the answer, or get you any closer to finding the answer with someone else.
You guys, I just don’t see it, and I’m skeptical of you if you do.
Since 2012, Sporting hasn’t won a playoff game on the road and hasn’t lost a playoff game at home. They are leaking oil, for whatever reason, fundamentally unable to get the result it needs over the last month or so.
Tim Melia’s injury is significant, obviously. He was Sporting’s best player. He won’t play on Thursday, but even if he did that wouldn’t be a solution. Because over and over and over again the problems have been about wasted scoring opportunities, which clearly has nothing to do with an injured goalkeeper.
The autopsy of this season will have to include the Dom Dwyer sale, because giving up one of your most prominent players in exchange for no human soccer players is a strange way to go through a season you’re trying to win.
But the fade didn’t coincide with the trade, and the locker room seemed to be OK with it, and like you say they did still win the Open Cup.
If the biggest problem was empty scoring chances, then you can make the argument that they needed someone exactly like Dwyer, and who knows. Maybe that’s right. Maybe the end of this regular season would’ve been different with Dwyer.
But I also know the missed opportunities were a problem when Dwyer was on the team, and I believe the specific personnel left is a better fit for what Sporting wants to be than Dwyer was.
I can’t swear that I’m right about that. Maybe that’s me trusting Peter Vermes too much, or me believing too much in the wholistic view of a soccer team and not enough in individual skill. But it is what I believe.
This week, I’m particularly thankful for older cousins. We spent the weekend with my sister, whose kids are 10 and 7, which means our 3- and 1-year-olds essentially look at them as celebrities. Parents can try to guide, or push, but there is no influence like the influence of an older cousin. Our 3-year-old is endearingly cautious, but last weekend tried new food three times, went down an enormous bouncy house slide dozens of times, and had what was basically his first sleepover. He never would’ve done that without the older cousins showing him it’s OK.