Don't Kill The Mellinger

Twitter Tuesday: Royals withdrawal and are the Chiefs a contender?

Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston tackled New England Patriots running back James White during Monday Night Football on Sept. 29 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. The Chiefs won 41-14.
Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston tackled New England Patriots running back James White during Monday Night Football on Sept. 29 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. The Chiefs won 41-14. The Kansas City Star

So that’s half of a Chiefs (regular) season in the books, and the team that looked like a real contender to draft first overall in May after week one now looks like a real contender to make the playoffs for a second straight year.

It’s worth pointing out here that the Chiefs haven’t made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1994 and 1995, which is so long ago that Joe Montana was the quarterback for one of those years and Steve Bono the other.

Randy did some midseason awards here, and I’m not sure you can argue too hard with any of them, so I’ll only add something about the defense.

Justin Houston is clearly the team’s MVP, and if he keeps this up will not only be in line for a huge contract extension, he’ll probably be “in the conversation” for league MVP. He’s also the most visible guy in what is probably the Chiefs’ biggest strength, which is their defense.

The Chiefs are second in total defense, and first in pass defense, and maybe those numbers are a bit misleading because they’re based on yardage totals^ but the point remains that the Chiefs are bringing defense back in a points-heavy league.

^ The Chiefs are giving up a 92.8 passer rating, for instance.

Toward that end, it’s particularly impressive that they have these good numbers defensively after a first half schedule that’s included games at Peyton Manning, at Colin Kaepernick, at Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady at home.

Take a walk through the Chiefs’ opponents: Denver scored 24 points against the Chiefs, their lowest total at home (they scored 20 at Seattle, and 21 at New England). Miami scored 15 points against the Chiefs, most of them gifted with field position. The Patriots scored 14 points against the Chiefs, and have averaged over 40 in five games since. The Chargers scored their fewest points with their fewest total and passing yards of the season against the Chiefs (totals that were even worse against Miami).

The point is, this isn’t a team beating up on the, um, well, the Jets every week. That they’re doing it without Derrick Johnson, Mike DeVito and (almost entirely) Eric Berry is even more impressive. With an amateur eye watching the tapes, the old coaching cliches play out: they’re sound with their assignments, haven’t given up many big plays, and really seem to have an understanding about what everyone else is doing.

Individually, aside from Houston, Phillip Gaines has come on in recent weeks. Ron Parker has been fantastic, particularly with Berry’s injury. Sean Smith, Josh Mauga, Allen Bailey, they’ve all been very good. Dontari Poe and Tamba Hali have lived up their reputations.

The key, of course, is finding five wins in this crowd: at Buffalo, Oakland twice, Denver at home, San Diego at home, at Arizona, at Pittsburgh and Seattle at home.

This weekend in Buffalo is key, and that’s a place that hasn’t always been nice for the Chiefs. If they can sweep Oakland, you’d have to feel decent about their chances finding two more wins somewhere in the rest of that.

Who knows, maybe they can keep Kansas City’s attention until it’s almost time for pitchers and catchers to report.

This week’s eating recommendation is the Hog Tied sandwich at Beer Kitchen, and the reading recommendation is Seth Wickersham on why Tom Brady has been so good since leaving Kansas City.

As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for your help.

Yeah, I think that’s about right. It’s a strange place to be, because both of the following statements are 100 percent, unequivocally, feel-free-to-slap-someone-who-says-otherwise true:

1. The 2014 Royals season was a raging success and something the men who made it happen should be proud of for the rest of their lives.

2. Holy crap, it hurts to lose game seven of the World Series, in huge part because you never know when or if you can get that close again.

Two things, in many ways directly contradictory, are absolutely true. Me, I think we’re all sports fans because it’s fun, so I lean positive and will remember the 30 days from the Wild Card game to the end of the World Series as the most fun I’ve ever had doing a job I’ve always loved. The best part was hearing from so many fans who’d waited longer than they should’ve for something like that, of seeing so many years of pain and emptiness spill out with joy.

I think that we in the sports media – I’m sure I’m guilty of this at times – do this kind of thing too much, but I believe with all of my heart and mind that what the Royals did changed something real in how people in Kansas City see not just the Royals, not just their sports teams, but at least in some small way themselves and their city.

It’s been so long since something like that happened here. Whenever I write that, I hear from a few Sporting Kansas City fans, and bless their hearts, but that’s not the same thing. Kansas winning a national championship in basketball is great for some people here, but pisses off others. Missouri going to the SEC championship game in their second year in the league is nice, but nothing like this. K-State’s good football seasons unite a proud and loud fan base, but again, these are just segments of Kansas City.

I know that not everyone in Kansas City is a baseball fan, and even among those who are, not everyone is a Royals fan. But there’s something truly enthralling about the everyday nature of a baseball team, and what it does to a city. I’ve written before how covering playoffs in other places gives you that feeling, that every slow and boring part of baseball becomes dramatic and enrapturing during the playoffs, and that I always wanted to see what that would be like in Kansas City. We got it last month in an incredible way, and of course the biggest party of them all was deleted when Sal Perez popped up for the last out.

But if you can be a Royals fan and live through all the grief and disappointment that comes along with that and STILL be more disappointed with the ending than happy with the plot, then I’m not sure that rooting for the Royals is the best way to spend your time.

But I totally understand the other side of it…

… like I say, there’s a strange juxtaposition here. It would be really corny to play the “it’s better to have loved than lost than to never have loved at all” card here, and that’s not exactly what I’m getting at.

Maybe think of it this way: in a month, or a year, or 10 years from now, do you think you’ll smile at the joy of 30 days? Or cry at the pain of one night?

In a lot of ways, getting that close and losing hurts more than, say, if they’d have lost to the Orioles in six games of the ALCS. Sal Perez homered off Bumgarner in game one of the World Series. If that had come in his last at bat, there would’ve been a parade two days later – down Grand Boulevard, just like 1985 – and the entire city would’ve partied so hard you would not have wanted to go in for elective surgery or get on an airplane for at least a week.

It’s a strange thing. In the clubhouse after game seven, there was real, raw pain. Mike Moustakas, in particular. Lorenzo Cain wanted no part of any question with even a hint of “hey, congrats on a great season” in it. I used this line in the column, but you can’t get that far if you’re going to be happy losing.

I guess I think of it a little bit like this. In life, if you get a raise or a promotion, it’s really easy to be excited for a short bit and then realize that the woman across the office still makes more than you, or got her promotion faster than you. No matter how nice the house you buy, someone has a nice one. You can have a great vacation on the beach, but someone’s there for a longer time, with more money to spend on dinner and drinks.

You don’t get anywhere productive being bitter about what you don’t have, especially after you’ve just experienced so much. Someone’s always going to have it better. But it’s OK to be excited about having it great.

You mean … like Ervin Santana? I could see that working, though part of why the Royals walked away from him last year was concern over his medical report.

I do agree with your point, though, that this team is especially attractive for pitchers. The defense will make every pitcher’s numbers better, and a lockdown bullpen means they shouldn’t lose too many wins.

There’s been a movement of sorts among some Royals fans that the team might could maybe get into the James Shields bidding, because the price will be suppressed after his disappointing postseason, and he might be willing to take less to stay in Kansas City and I hope we can just stop that now.

The price may very well have come down during the playoffs, but only very slightly, and still not to what the Royals could or should spend. I also don’t think he’d take less to stay in Kansas City. I’m sure he enjoyed his time with the Royals. He made good friends and memories, and will always be remembered fondly here. But he already took less in one long-term contract, and guys don’t usually do that twice, especially not with two different teams.

And none of this addresses the fact that giving a big-money, long-term contract to a starting pitcher who’s about to turn 33 is probably a bad idea.

I know that’s what we’re supposed to think, but I’m not sure it’s true. Shields will leave a hole in the rotation, and that’s no small thing. I also think his energy and presence will be missed, and I say that as someone who usually thinks that kind of thing is overrated.

But think about this: usually when a team makes the World Series, it’s full of guys who had career years. Among the position players, who had a career year?

Going by adjusted OPS, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Omar Infante, and Billy Butler were each between 10 and 34 percent worse in 2014 than 2013. Alcides Escobar was good, but probably not as good as he was in 2012. Mike Moustakas’ batting average, on-base and slugging percentage all went down in 2014. Alex Gordon was better in 2012 and 2011. Lorenzo Cain is the only position player with what you’d consider a career year.

Now, on the other side, there were a lot of career years. Yordano Ventura would do well to match his 2014 year in 2015. Danny Duffy, too. I’ve always been a believer in Jason Vargas, but 187 innings on 3.71 ERA is pretty damn good from him. It’s almost literally impossible for Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland to be better next year.

But, weigh the two. Isn’t it at least realistic to think the Royals’ regression with their pitching could be washed away by improvement from the hitters? Isn’t it logical to think the Royals, after improving by 14 wins in 2013 and then breaking through all the way to the World Series, might be strengthened by success and stick around? Especially with the shaky looks of the Tigers?

Something changed with the Royals. They all – from Ned Yost to the players – acted like all the questions about them folding under pressure and losing in front of big crowds during the season were stupid, but you didn’t have to listen all that closely to hear them admit in recent weeks that it was a significant hurdle for them to clear.

A team that always looked tied up and overmatched in big situations suddenly turned into Kirk Gibson in 1988.

To me, the biggest reason to be worried about regression next year is something I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about. All but 11 of the Royals’ 177 games this year were started by their regular starting pitchers. That’s an incredibly low number. The training staff is one of the most respected in baseball, and all of the starters have a good reputation with work habits. But there’s some luck in there, enough that it’s a big ask for it to happen again.

But, any team in any sport can be derailed by injuries. Just looking at the makeup of this team, I actually see as many guys who could or should be better next year than not.

I’ve heard this a lot, but Cain isn’t scheduled for free agency until 2018. That’s three years of flexible club control, at costs that would be below market value. Cain is coming off his best season, and a sensational postseason, but it would also be natural for the Royals to want to see him play more than one full season.

One of the best parts of what the Royals have right now is that it’s a pennant winner with so many of the most important pieces locked in long term. Hosmer, Escobar, Davis, Vargas, Moustakas and Cain are each under club control through 2017. Perez is signed through 2019.

If anything, if I was in charge, I’d talk to Gordon about another extension. He’s signed for next year, and holds a player option for 2016 that he told Andy he’d activate. Gordon has been as clear as any player can be about wanting to stay long-term, and from a pure baseball perspective, is both the kind of player a team craves to have long-term and profiles as a guy who will probably age well.

But that’s a great problem for the Royals to have, and ranks below finding another starting pitcher (or two), and figuring out right field and DH for next year.

Twenty-five percent?

Twenty?

The way the contract is structured, the Chiefs could save about $9 million in cap space by cutting him after this season. There’s a chance he could restructure for less money – he’s scheduled to make about $12 million next year – but I don’t know if that’s Tamba.

His desire and work ethic are unassailable, but he also has other interests. Not that we have long conversations every night, but he’s never struck me as the kind of guy who NEEDS football, who would be lost without the structure and rhythm and attention and fame he gets from it. I think he likes football, and especially that he’s so damn good at it, but it wouldn’t shock me if he walked away from the game sooner than a lot of people expect.

Depending on how this season goes, I could see him restructuring to stay with the Chiefs – I do think he likes it here, finally, after the Pioli years – if he thinks they have a good chance of doing something special. But I could also see him finding something else to do with his time and mind.

One of the things that’s hanging out there from the team’s side is that they may need him for 2015 a lot more than they thought two months ago. Dee Ford hasn’t made much of an impact and, heck, Justin Houston’s contract still isn’t done.^

^ Guys, I got all Terez-y and put some gifs in that column, and I don’t get one single bit of dap. I assume this is because you all figured Terez or someone else smarter than me put those in there, but dammit, I did that.^^

^^ With Terez’s help, obviously.

But, you know, long time between then and no.

You just blew my mind. I had never once thought about the man who thanked the Clarks, and asked the cops if Sonic was still open, and told a national magazine about how his teammates “import” women for road games … would be in the Ring of Honor.

But, really, doesn’t he have to be? He just had his 500th catch, which is the most by any receiver the Chiefs have ever had. He led the league in touchdowns in 2010, and has put up some very productive seasons with some very bad quarterbacks. For all of his knucklehead tendencies, he’s been a good teammate.

I know the jokes would come, but yeah, I think he should be in there.

Wouldn’t that be a hell of a thing?

My brain automatically thinks of the stories people would be talking about: two long struggling franchises putting together an unexpected run with an unconventional roster and lucky breaks along the way.

Like how the Royals won without home runs, the Chiefs would be winning without a downfield passing game in a modern NFL that demands one which, now that we see those words on the screen, maybe we can slide back to reality.

I’m cheating a bit here, and taking this response on Twitter to the column on Carl Peterson returning to a game at Arrowhead for the first time in five years, because I think it’s a worthy point.

I agree with you, I do think he’ll be in the Ring of Honor, and I think he’d deserve it. He caught on at the right time, because NFL waters of the 1990s rose and lifted all boats, but he also had an enormous part in turning what had been a mediocre, afterthought franchise into the centerpiece of Kansas City conversations.

He’d have preferred that it included a Super Bowl, obviously, and the jokes about all his job titles and five-year plans^ probably won’t ever totally go away, but that’s a pretty good legacy.

^ I know someone who worked for the Chiefs during Peterson’s years and says he’s gone through every press conference Peterson ever did and swears he never claimed to have a five-year plan to win the Super Bowl.

The tailgating, the energy, the rise of Arrowhead as one of the great venues in the NFL, the winningest franchise of the 1990s … along with no Super Bowls, I think that’s what Peterson will be remembered for, and there are worse ways to be remembered.

The other takeaway I had from writing that column is, man, what a horrid run of power Pioli had. Clark Hunt should have stood up to Pioli more and earlier, but there was a real disconnect between Pioli’s Chiefs and a proud history of the franchise. Peterson’s exile is probably (now) the most public example, but there are stories from all sorts of other men.

I thought it was interesting that Alex Smith made a point after Sunday’s game to say how well the Chiefs do in honoring the past and keeping connections with former players. He’s only known these Chiefs. He came here with Andy Reid and John Dorsey in charge. That’s at least a small sign that things are really changing around the Chiefs. For the better.

I don’t know, 10 percent?

They need to win out. We can agree on that. A two-loss team from the Big 12 is not making it without some unlikely scenarios. K-State is around a five- or six-point underdog this weekend at TCU, then has to play at West Virginia and at Baylor, sandwiched around a layup against Kansas at home. That’s a lot to ask.

If they have a 40 percent chance of winning this weekend, 55 percent chance of winning at West Virginia, and 45 percent chance of winning at Baylor – I’m basically spit-balling here – that’s a 9.9 percent chance of winning out.

That’s just airtight journalism there, an initial spitball being confirmed by slightly more detailed spitballing, but it doesn’t take into account the possibility that K-State could win out and be left out.

So maybe the number should be something closer to five percent.

I like a challenge. Let’s do this.

The Best Non-Z-Man, Non-Barbecue Sandwiches in Kansas City, And Burgers Don’t Count:

5. Pork Tenderloin, Kitty Cafe.

4. Cheesesteak, Local Pig

3. Chicken Salad, Happy Gillis.

2. Il Parma, Bella Napoli

1. Triple BLT, Peanut

So, here’s video taken last year, when Jordan was 51:

Looks pretty easy, right? Let’s get a potential catch out of the way, too. If you gave him two months to train, and told him he could not dunk, Jordan could absolutely dunk until he was 247 years old. At that point, I assume he’d be tired enough of you harassing him that he’d just go play beer pong and smoke a cigar.

But if we’re just talking about surprising Jordan some day and saying, hey big guy, bet you can’t dunk? I think that gets a little interesting. First, you may get lucky and catch him the morning after some epic party where he played poker against bikini models and trash-talked the president and, maybe, he’d be off his game. But barring that, you have to figure that he’s staying in decent enough shape, and being 6-foot-6 with long arms is a pretty good head start.

He’ll turn 52 in February, and I assume could still do at least a 360. I’d bet he could still dunk on Ewing, at least. Probably in dress shoes.

But Father Time is undefeated, as they say, so eventually he’ll lose it. When he turns 74. That’s my answer. Seventy-four.

Seriously.

Got a lot of Joe Buck complaints, and I’m probably not the guy to talk about this because obviously I didn’t see any of the broadcast. So, if you want to just read that sentence and decide I’m unqualified here, hey, I can’t argue back too hard.

But I also think it’s true that fans of a particular team are almost never happy with national broadcasts, especially when their team is losing, and ESPECIALLY when their team is losing against a historically good performance.

There are enough Buck complaints out there – or, at least, enough LOUD Buck complaints out there – to think there’s probably something to it. But I’ve never had a particular problem with Buck, and have thought that he made a change after his ridiculous overreaction to Randy Moss mooning the crowd in Green Bay.

I’d also ask, what was he supposed to talk about? What Bumgarner did was outrageous. He pitched five scoreless innings on two days of rest, after pitching a complete game shutout in the World Series. He was, basically, Sandy Koufax. He was better than Randy Johnson in 2001. Was he supposed to act like this wasn’t happening? Act like it wasn’t all that noteworthy?

I’ve never heard a fan of a particular team talk about how nice it was for the national broadcaster to be so biased toward their team, in the same way I’ve never heard a fan of a particular team say, geez, sure glad the refs were giving us every call today. This is part of the fun of sports, the passion, the way games played by men who are otherwise strangers can get in your heart and distort how you see something.

Again, I didn’t see any of the broadcast, so maybe this was different. But I’d think it was weird if they weren’t talking about how great Bumgarner was.

I’m out of the monsters game, and the Curse of the Shuttlecocks – glorious as it was – is now in the past tense. Has to be. I realize I’m saying this ten months after an incredible collapse by the Chiefs, but I just don’t know that Kansas City can play the hard-luck losers card anymore. Hard-luck losers find a way to choke down the stretch in September, and if not, they sure as hell don’t come back down 7-3 in the eighth inning against Jon Lester, and sure as hell don’t tie the game on a 40-foot chopper in the 12th, or win it on a ball 12 feet out of the strike zone that the catcher somehow pulls down the left field line … and if all of that happens, they SURE as hell don’t sweep the AL West champions in the Division Series, and if they do, well, there’s NO WAY they sweep the AL East champions in the ALCS.

I mean, look. The Chiefs still haven’t won a playoff game in 20 years. Sporting just faded down the stretch and lost the MLS equivalent of the Wild Card game. Mizzou still has the North End Zone. K-State finds itself on the outside of a true national moment, again, and KU football is a mess. Things aren’t perfect, you can always find something to complain about, something on which to blame a silly curse that a sports writer made up with the help of a brilliant museum director.

But, Madison Bumgarner or not, you’re going to have a hard time selling Kansas City as cursed now.

And, actually, this will be an adjustment for people here.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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