Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Chiefs’ future, Royals’ payroll, and distractions

Missouri played BYU last year at Arrowhead Stadium.
Missouri played BYU last year at Arrowhead Stadium. along@kcstar.com

This would be a great weekend for a college football game at Arrowhead Stadium. October weekends are always the best. Cool enough for sweatshirts, warm enough you don’t need gloves. Perfect tailgating weather.

The Chiefs would love this, too.

“We’re a matchmaker with a bank,” team president Mark Donovan said. “That’s what makes us popular.”

With the news that Kansas City wants in on the return of the Big 12 championship game, it’s worth mentioning that the Chiefs remain active in trying to attract major college regular-season games. They have talked with Nebraska, Notre Dame, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas State and others.

How great would it be to renew Nebraska-Oklahoma here? Nebraska-Missouri would make a lot of sense, both geographically and sentimentally.

The problem comes in logistics. Schools are hesitant to move home games off campus, and with the loss of the Rams, St. Louis is presumably more motivated than ever to regularly host Mizzou. Donovan said a school last month gave him dates for 2030. When reached, Steve Waterfield, Nebraska senior AD and football supervisor, said the Huskers’ non-conference away opponents are set through 2031.

Right now, in daycares all across Kansas City and the country, are little boys in diapers who will be college football players in 2031.

So for the Chiefs, how are they supposed to know what ticket prices will be by then?

There is another path, of course, which is to “buy” a game that’s already set and move it to Arrowhead. Typically this would mean finding a major program playing a road game at a smaller school’s stadium. The Chiefs have actually done this at least once, and had what amounted to a legal agreement for a game, but the major program involved used its influence and money to move the game from Arrowhead to its own campus.

The Chiefs essentially got outbid by a school.

The landscape for neutral site games is precarious. Atlanta and Jacksonville are among the cities with long traditions of hosting games. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has a financial structure for his stadium that makes it smart business to outspend everyone. His stadium’s abundance of premium seating, as well as the market’s size and affluence, make higher ticket prices possible and difficult for other cities to match.

What you have, then, is an exciting but difficult proposition made even more difficult by the logistics of schedule limitations, financial concerns, and alumni pressure.

Booooooo.

This week’s reading recommendation is the Chicago Tribune on Aroldis Chapman’s life in Cuba, and the eating recommendation is the cowboy burger and tater tots at the Lunch Box.

One man’s list:

1. Cubs. Ben Zobrist may have been the Royals’ best player over the last two months and regular season in 2015, and for crying out loud, he named his daughter Royal. They also have Mike Montgomery, who was part of the Wil Myers trade, err, I mean, James Shields trade, err, I mean, Wade Davis trade.

The draw of a 108-year title drought possibly ending is irresistible, too, even as I have the perhaps unpopular view that it’s actually good for baseball. It’s the defining trait of one of the sport’s most popular teams, and one of the defining traits of the entire league. If that’s gone, baseball loses something. But if we’re only looking at this through the lens of Royals fans, people around here can feel good about someone else’s drought ending.

2. Indians. The AL Central winning consecutive World Series (and winning three straight AL pennants) would be vaguely good for the Royals in the way that SEC fans always take pride in each others’ bowl wins. Kansas Citians have this bizarre inferiority complex, and often spend too much time worrying about what’s thought of them nationally, but by a bit of osmosis an Indians championship would make the division and thus the Royals look a little better. Also, same thing as above with the drought thing.

3. Giants. This might be an unpopular pick, and I get it if you want the Giants to never win again, but similar to the logic above with the Indians it might make the Royals look a little better if the team that beat them in seven games two years ago won another title. At that point, you’ve lost to a pseudo-dynasty. Although, internally, there will be Royals employees actively rooting against Johnny Cueto.

4. Nationals. Maybe I’m missing someone, but I don’t see a shred of connection between the Nationals and Royals. Mizzou fans would like to see Max Scherzer win. Bryce Harper elicits opinions (I love watching him). But, overall, whatever.

5. Dodgers. Andy McCullough was a very good beat writer for us for two years. He would like the season to be over so he can sit in his chair and read books all day. This is what will make Andy happy. If you want Andy to be happy, root against the Dodgers.

6. Blue Jays. Anything that makes Jose Bautista sad will make Royals fans happy.

True story: last year, the Chiefs ranked sixth in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency, according to the smart and hard-working people at Football Outsiders. Only two teams (Seahawks and Cardinals) ranked higher in both categories, and only two others (Bengals and Panthers) also ranked in the top 10 in both.

Also, the Chiefs ranked ninth in points and third in scoring defense last year.

I don’t say this to argue that the Chiefs are a great team, or even a good team without significant problems. I say this as a reminder that all teams have flaws, and it is the nature of football and oftentimes fandom to focus more on the flaws than the strengths.

This is only the fifth game of the season, and nothing will be decided this weekend, but this is a disproportionately important game for the Chiefs in Oakland. Not just because of the division implications* but because of their own season and momentum and belief.

* With a win, the Chiefs would be 2-0 in the division, and tied with the Raiders and perhaps the Broncos. With a loss, they could be 2 1/2 games behind each.

The Raiders are better than we’ve become accustomed to over the last few years, but they’re not 4-1 good. They beat the crappy Saints by a point, and should’ve lost at least one of the last two games. The Chiefs will be the best team the Raiders have faced.

The point here is that the Chiefs almost certainly are not as bad as they looked against the Steelers last week, but they are too far in the program to continue underperforming much longer before that becomes their identity.

Alex Smith has been mostly terrible, except for the end of the Chargers game. Andy Reid has been less than impressive, Bob Sutton hasn’t helped, Jeremy Maclin hasn’t been good, and we could continue a list like this for a while.

But the Chiefs are still 2-2, with a talented roster that won a playoff game last year. I’d like to stick with them a little longer before believing this season will be a letdown, even as the point is fairly obvious that their two losses are more convincing than their two wins.

Kansas City Star sports columnist Sam Mellinger shares how to win your fantasy football league (kind of).

This comes a week after general manager Dayton Moore said the payroll could “regress a little bit” in 2017 from a franchise record $140 million in 2016.

I am not saying that’s impossible. I’m not saying Moore does not believe it’s possible. I’m not even saying the Royals are merely putting this out there for layered reasons that could include negotiating leverage, an office-wide reminder that every dollar is important, or simply because it’s the message ownership wants in the public.

What I’m saying is that I don’t believe it, in part because the Royals seem to do this every year. They lowball payroll projections, and then go over those projections.

Maybe this year’s different. Maybe this is different because the Royals’ win total regressed for the first time since 2009. Maybe this is different because the Royals honestly, truly, 100 percent sincerely were depending on another deep postseason run, even as I have to point out that would go against their conservative nature, respect for the difficulty of making the postseason, and the history of teams being able to do three times in a row what the Royals did twice.

As Rustin wrote, the Royals could owe close to $125 million for 16 players, including contractual obligations and projected team options and arbitration raises. That doesn’t include Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez, just to mention two.

I am mostly speculating here, but my suspicion is that ownership is serious about containing payroll as much as possible. But I also think that, as has happened in recent years, reality will set in and they will understand they’ve done well financially with this investment and that this is likely their last season with this homegrown core.

I’d be very surprised if the payroll actually regresses, and surprised if it doesn’t increase. My over-under would be $153 million.

The payroll will go down soon, when the championship core starts to naturally break up. Revenues will also continue to increase, particularly when the team can renegotiate an absolutely wretched local TV contract. Now’s not the time to clip coupons.

Well, like most things, the best answer is that it depends. But in general, yeah, methinks the same.

An example of distractions that don’t matter: a player speaking out, or even an arrest during the week. It’s hard to climb to the top of any profession without the ability to compartmentalize, and football teams are particularly good at this, in part because the running backs are in a different room than the wide receivers who are in a different room than the linebackers and so on — not to mention the difference between offense and defense.

An example of distractions that can matter: trade rumors, questions about commitment from management or ownership, and anything else that might break what should be a holy bond to have each others’ backs.

This is probably more nuanced than your question intends, and is undoubtedly more nuanced than is appropriate for this weekly timesuck, but not everything that falls into the category of “can matter” end up actually mattering. Coaches, management, and leaders can build an infrastructure to absorb many of these potential problems.

And, speaking of coaches, they will always be overly sensitive about potential problems. They will overreact, over-worry, and over-warn about all this stuff because it’s easier for them to be ahead of these things than behind.

Also: we in the media are often complicit in the Distraction storyline because it makes for easy #content, accessible to both hardcore and casual fans.

I have had many wardrobe malfunctions in my life, starting with the time in high school basketball practice where Ethan pantsed me and everything came down. I have left my suitcase in the trunk of my car at the airport, packed my wife’s pants instead of my own, forgotten boxers, forgotten shoes, and discovered an unfortunately placed hole or stain on an article of clothing without enough time to fix.

Some of this is because I’ve been traveling for work for a long time, but most of it is because I’m a scatterbrained idiot who, well, who sometimes leaves his suitcase in the trunk of the car at the airport*.

* I googled on the plane, and saw that my flight landed about 30 minutes before the nearest Target or Old Navy closed. I sprinted off the plane — you can go so much faster without a suitcase! — and made it in just before close. I told the people working there what happened, and they took enough pity on me to give me a few minutes while they closed up. I actually felt pretty good about my purchases, until a few nights later, meeting a co-worker for dinner who told me, “that shirt looks like a picnic blanket.”

I have no doubt that Beaty is ripped inside over losing that game. Kansas should have won. They blew it. Four turnovers, a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, three missed field goals, including one at the buzzer. C’mon. You should win that game.

But: that’s the most encouraging Kansas football game in at least a few years.

I will pause a few seconds for the jokes about low standards.

(OK, maybe more than a few seconds...)

...

We ready to talk again? Cool. Kansas was in position to beat a good program. They were in position to beat a good program despite being severely outmanned at nearly every position, in particular the offensive line.

The quarterback — and, if you’re into criticizing Beaty, you should mention that Willis should’ve been playing over Cozart the entire time — made some regrettable mistakes, the defense has so many injuries it’s starting a kid who was at Baker two years ago, and, STILL, they were in position to win at the end.

The easy thing is to say, screw that, I’ve seen this movie before, fluke, the program is trash, the coach is trash, they’ll be starting over soon. And maybe that’s true. But this felt different to me. The defense is holding its own. The offense needs help, especially up front, but the team speed is improving and they’re playing so many young guys that even a skeptic has to see that better days could be ahead.

This is not Turner Gill, hired to fix a culture who instead created bigger problems and let the roster deteriorate. This is not Charlie Weis, a bad hire from the beginning who thought he could fix things with failed quarterbacks and name recognition.

Beaty — and he may fail — is at least putting in the work. My criticism of him is he’s spending too much time on minutiae, on organizing the furniture as the house is on fire, but he is turning around the culture and improving the roster and those are — by far — the two most important things he has to do.

Again, look, that’s a brutal loss. KU’s players and coaches should be heartbroken. But for those of us on the outside, who aren’t putting in all that work, we can have the colder perspective to see progress. They have a long, long way to go.

And it’s entirely possible that Beaty is a good coach who will still be fired in a few years because the challenge he took on was so great. It’s entirely possible that Beaty will move the chains enough for the next coach to be successful. Obviously, it’s also entirely possible he will be fired after three or four years having never beaten an FBS opponent.

But right now, this is progress. You might have to look closer than you’d like, or ignore more problems than should be ignored, but considering what Beaty took over, this is progress.

So, yeah. He should be very sad about the outcome. But the rest of us on the outside can see the improvement.

Mostly, I agree with Terez: De’Anthony Thomas is insurance for Tyreek Hill, either in case of injury, or motivation, or something else. A lot of what the Chiefs do offensively depends on having a guy like Hill or Thomas in some of the run-pass option plays, so you’d hate to lose that part of the playbook if Hill was unavailable or ineffective.

The Chiefs know a lot more about these guys than we do, obviously, but if for no other reason you can understand their conservative approach with Hill because of his lack of experience and high-level competition.

Now, all that said, this is not how I’d handle the roster. I think they need more help on defense, and I see DAT as mostly redundant with Hill and to a lesser extend Knile Davis on the roster.

But, either way, I don’t see this as a major issue.

There is virtually no chance the Big 12 is represented in the playoff*. I am not as sure of this as I was the last time I said virtually no chance, but almost.

* Why did we all agree to call it The Playoff? Why not playoffs? It’s playoffs in every other sport. Whatever.

The Big 12 is so weak that the only way is an undefeated team, and even then they’d probably need a break. Baylor and West Virginia are the league’s only undefeateds, and neither has a premier non-conference win, and with the way the league is and is perceived, they won’t have a premier win in the conference.

It’s rather easy to imagine a scenario where an undefeated Big 12 team is passed over for a one-loss team from another power conference, which I’m sure would send David Boren into another counterproductive ego trip.

For the ACC to get two spots, you’re basically saying Clemson and Louisville, right? Clemson is headed there, assuming they don’t slip up. Louisville’s path is a little murkier, in part because they’re in the same ACC division as Clemson. They could win out — at that point, they’d have wins over Houston and Florida State, and a close loss at Clemson — but their case would not be as strong without another shot at Clemson in the ACC championship.

So, at that point, you’d be pushing for a team that did not win its own division of its own conference to be in a four-team playoff(s). That can be a difficult case to make, though not as difficult as the argument that Baylor or West Virginia are better than a Louisville team that would have a Heisman candidate, two very good wins, and no losses that didn’t happen in primetime on the road against a top-five team.

So, ACC.

And, speaking of the playoff(s)...

Give me Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Washington.

Washington takes advantage of Houston’s loss to Navy, and Texas A&M and Michigan are among the teams that control their fate.

And I’m already annoyed at how dominant Alabama will probably be in those two playoff games.

Far enough that we’re probably wasting each others’ time here.

The Sprint Center turned 9 years old this week, which means it’s asking for an X Box, a lacrosse stick, lots of brightly colored mesh shorts, but no anchor tenants.

Sprint Center management has done a commendable job keeping the building busy and profitable, but I hope the number of people who believe the ridiculous spin about being better off without an anchor tenant is decreasing.

According to the building’s website, it is booked a total of six nights between now and Nov. 14. Seven of the 10 weekend nights between now and then are open. From now until the end of the year, the building is booked 20 days. Fifteen of 24 weekend nights remain open.

But that’s my own personal pet peeve, and does nothing to answer your question. Nobody from Kansas City submitted a bid for the last round of NHL expansion, and there is little indication that the NBA is interested in an aging building in the nation’s No. 33 market.

I might be missing someone, but of the seven markets smaller than Kansas City with an NBA or NHL team, none have three franchises in the four biggest leagues, which is what Kansas City would have. The market is even more leveraged when you count Sporting Kansas City’s popularity, the Speedway, and the area’s interest in college sports.

All of this and we haven’t mentioned the most important factor: there is no owner or ownership group with the right combination of local ties, wealth, and interest.

If that ever changes, we can start to better filter through all the other reasons Kansas City won’t be getting an NBA or NHL team.

I do hope that whenever the current push breaks up, the Chiefs do everything they can to begin the next push with a legitimate franchise quarterback. They are in a good version of what is sometimes called “quarterback purgatory,” where Alex Smith is good enough to win with but not good enough to make up for weaknesses around the roster.

They’ve come this far with Smith, and the Alex Smith Stinks And Should Be Fired crowd likes to gloss over how difficult it is to find a top tier quarterback*, so they should see how far they can get with this. Two of the last four Super Bowl champions did it without an #elite quarterback.

* Not to mention that doing so now would almost certainly require breaking up a roster that just won the franchise’s first playoff game in a generation.

But, after this is over, hopefully they do everything possible to begin the build with the best quarterback they can find. Even after you have to pay them a huge chunk of the salary cap, it just makes everything else a little easier.

Also, I don’t know that I agree with the premise that you can necessarily develop a franchise quarterback. I do believe that environment matters, and that there are some quarterbacks who succeed and others who fail based at least in large part because of coaching and organizational support.

But, if the plan is to find a guy in the sixth round and develop him into Tom Brady because that’s what Bill Belichick did, well, then I would like to tell you that my retirement plan is to win the lottery.

I don’t know if this is where you’re coming from, but Carson Wentz’s strong play early — 103.5 passer rating, 67.4 completions, seven touchdowns and one interception — with head coach Doug Pederson in Philadelphia has some Chiefs fans perturbed.

My suspicion is that Wentz would be doing just as well in Kansas City with Reid, and perhaps better since the Chiefs have better players around Smith than Philly has around Wentz.

My other suspicion is that Wentz is a better quarterback than Smith.

Well, the Patriots for sure. They won their first Super Bowl finishing 19th in offense. Brady’s passer rating that year was 86.5 which, for a point of reference, is lower than each of Alex Smith’s last five seasons*.

* Worse than Smith’s 2016, too, which has mostly stunk.

And if you wanna say YEAH BUT CLUTCHINESS, well, Brady threw for a total of 260 yards in the last two games of that postseason while the offense never scored more than 16 points* and the defense never allowed more than 17.

* The Patriots won the AFC championship against Pittsburgh 24-17, and the Super Bowl 20-17 against the Rams. But they got a touchdown each from defense and special teams against Pittsburgh and one from defense against the Rams. The 16 points came against the Raiders in the divisional game, otherwise known as the Tuck Rule game.

Since Brady’s first start for the Patriots, they are 13-6 in games he does not start. That’s a .684 win percentage, which means that in a league we all like to say is about quarterbacks Bill Belichick is going 11-5 in a full season with Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett.

Actually, 11-5 is exactly the record the year Cassel played all but the first quarter of the first game.

Now, I don’t believe the Patriots would have won four Super Bowls with Matt Cassel but I do believe they’d be a regular playoff team and won at least one with an average or mediocre quarterback. Well, actually, Brady was average in 2001, so that point is more fact than opinion.

The Patriots needed Brady to be the franchise of the 21st century, but I also wonder if Brady would be Brady had he gone somewhere else. Also, Brady deserves credit for being willing to take far less salary than his market value so the Patriots can strengthen the rest of the roster. That’s not a small point, even as I could argue he wouldn’t be willing to do that for a lesser coach than Belichick.

Either way, I’m dividing that pie 60 percent Belichick, and 40 percent Brady*.

* Yes, I understand there are others who deserve credit. This is the Mellinger Minutes, not a definitive study on the Patriots.

After that, well, I don’t know that I can think of one in American sports. The NBA is about the players, and specifically the stars. I understand your example of the Spurs, and that might be the closest one, but the best thing Popovich has accomplished is creating a culture and there is no possible way that culture exists without Tim Duncan’s talents and personality.

In baseball, I’m not sure there’s been a dynasty in the last 30 years other than the Yankees, and I don’t need to remind you that Joe Torre managed 18 seasons for clubs other than the Yankees and made the same number of postseasons that you have in your career*.

* Maybe fewer! Hi, Ned!

Players succeed or fail, in other words. Football coaches can have a bigger impact than most other sports, but you still need players. There’s a reason salaries for stars dwarf salaries for coaches, even as there’s no spending limit on coaches.

So, the real answer is they need all those guys, and the more nuanced version is that you are unlikely to acquire an affordable and productive starting pitcher by trading anyone the Royals are willing to trade. The other teams have scouts, too.

Eric Hosmer is the Royals’ most talented hitter, and I know a lot of the focus in other places has been on pitching but the Royals finished 13th among 15 American League clubs in runs. They need to acquire hitting, not trade it away.

With Moustakas, I draw a direct correlation between his injury and the Royals going flat. The 2016 Royals were always going to have a lot working against them, and maybe they don’t make the playoffs anyway, but Moustakas’ presence (not to mention his production) was sorely missed on a team that just appeared tired for stretches.

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