Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Fixing college football, Chiefs playoff planning, Matheny’s hire

Here is the AFC Playoff picture after Week 17

Here is a look at the AFC playoff picture after Week 17 of the 2018 NFL season. The Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans hold the top two seeds, followed by the Patriots, Ravens, Chargers and Colts.
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Here is a look at the AFC playoff picture after Week 17 of the 2018 NFL season. The Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans hold the top two seeds, followed by the Patriots, Ravens, Chargers and Colts.

Dan Wetzel is among the best sports columnists in the country, and the only reason “among” is included here is that Sally Jenkins exists. Dan is great with profiles, great in courts, great with thoughtful pieces, great when he’s angry, and great when he’s laughing.

But the best Wetzel is the Wetzel who writes about college sports, particularly the structure and money around the NCAA, and this is a lead in to say that if you haven’t read him on why conference championship football games need to die you should do so now.

Here’s the link, and here’s the gist:

Conference title games are already the de facto first round of the playoff, so why not drop the pretense, kill the often meaningless relics and expand the actual playoff?

Taking this simple step would eliminate the primary argument against playoff expansion: creating too many games for unpaid student-athletes.

Wetzel lays it out — and, again, I encourage you to read the whole thing — but this year it would mean eliminating a slate of games that have no realistic impact on the real playoff in favor of actual national quarterfinal games:

Alabama vs. Washington

Clemson vs. UCF

Notre Dame vs. Ohio State

Georgia vs. Oklahoma

That would replace conference championship games done more out of tradition (Wetzel’s point) and obligation (mine) with events that would truly hold national interest.

One of the points he makes is that this year, four teams can advance to the playoff by either not playing or simply not being blown out, while nine teams can win and not advance.

College football is great for a lot of reasons, among them tradition, so blowing up a tradition should never come without thought. But conference championship games are a bit of a manufactured tradition, one created with league expansion and inconvenient geography.

There is something endearing about them at times, with bragging rights, pride, that kind of thing. But conference champions can almost always be decided in other ways and, besides, it’s not like the sport hasn’t flourished through foggy titles before.

The best part of sports is the fun, and the point is always to win. Dropping the often boring and almost always meaningless conference title games for the natural matchups more fans would want to see accomplishes that and much more.

This is an idea that needs to take off, and soon.

This week’s reading recommendation is Greg Bishop’s outstanding profile of NFL MVP favorite Drew Brees, and the eating recommendation is the pho with clear noodles at Vietnam Cafe.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook, and as always, thanks for your help and thanks for reading.

There are two ways to answer this, and between here and the next question, we’ll do both.

You said — facetiously, I assume — that the demons have been exorcised and I know that’s facetious because a team that has lost playoff games while not punting, not giving up a touchdown, leading by 28 in the second half, leading by 18 in the second half at home, with a kicker missing twice, and with a Hall of Fame kicker missing three times* on a team with 10 Hall of Famers cannot say demons have been exorcised until and unless it wins something like 14 straight Super Bowls.

*Every time this is mentioned I have to point out that of everything Jan Stenerud did in his career, the grace with which he’s handled and owned the worst day of his professional career is among the most admirable. He was too good of a player to be remembered for one bad day, but it has shined a light on how good of a man he is.

OK. So, the first way we’ll answer this is with the real world in mind, the one in which the Chiefs are among the most tortured franchises in professional sports, the one that has underserved its fans the most and probably has the greatest gap between how it views itself and reality.

The list of who they don’t want:

1. Colts. We could talk here about how they’ve won five in a row, and how Andrew Luck is playing as well as ever, T.Y. Hilton is a problem, the defense has some nice pieces like Darius Leonard and old friend Mike Mitchell, and that’s all true. But, really. You know what this is about.

2. Steelers. That was a bad loss in Denver over the weekend, and the rest of the schedule is brutal — Chargers this weekend, Patriots in Week 15, and at the Saints in Week 16. But that’s still a Hall of Fame quarterback leading a top-five offense, and, umm, sometimes the Steelers don’t even have to score a touchdown to beat the Chiefs.

3. Patriots. You’d probably flip the Steelers and Patriots on this list, and I get it. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and I’d probably agree with you if the game is in Foxboro. That’s a real possibility, too. If I’m right that the Chiefs finish 13-3, the Patriots would have homefield if they win out with a fairly soft schedule — Vikings at home this weekend, at the Steelers in Week 15, and three layups. I happen to think the Chiefs (particularly if Justin Houston and Eric Berry are healthy, which we’ll get to) match up well with the Patriots, but so and even at home, that’s a lot of playoff success to be going against.

4. Broncos. This is going to happen: the Broncos will have won seven in a row going into the playoffs. Case Keenum will have confidence, and the All-Pros on defense will be playing with that Everybody Gave Up On Us After The Demaryius Thomas Trade chip. That is not a group you’ll want to see.

5. Texans. They’ve won eight in a row, with a top-eight defense, dynamic quarterback, and top-five receiver. That’s a load.

6. Ravens. We are now officially including more teams in the playoffs than can make the playoffs, but, I don’t know, Lamar Jackson as a wild card with that defense would have a puncher’s chance.

7. Chargers. If you think I included the Ravens at least in part so that I could put the 8-3 Chargers this low, well, you are 100 percent correct.

OK! Now, the other way to answer this question...

I don’t think I’ve thought of a Chiefs team this way in at least 20 years, but if the Chiefs play as well as they’re capable — and I’m not talking about an A+ performance, let’s just say B+ or A- — then I believe they will play in the Super Bowl.

There will be demons and PTSD and everything else, and as a local sports columnist, you beat your sweet tush I’m here for that.

But in pure football terms, this team can beat anyone and, if they are at home, will probably be favored against anyone.

Realistically, the best scenario for the Chiefs is they have the top seed and the Steelers and Patriots are second and third, in whichever order.

That would mean the hardest path to the Super Bowl would be the Texans (or Broncos) at home in the division round, then the Patriots or Steelers at home in the AFC Championship.

The Chiefs would be favored by a touchdown or so in the first game, and a field goal or so in the second. Their hardest game would be either a rematch against a team they already beat on the road, or one that beat them at home on a last-second field goal when their quarterback played the worst half of his life and two stars on defense were hurt.

Nobody has an easy path to the Super Bowl except for a few Patriots teams over the years. This would be as manageable as the Chiefs could reasonably expect.

The most important game for that to happen will be the Patriots-Steelers game in Pittsburgh in Week 15. Because the Chiefs would have the (unlikely) tiebreaker against the Steelers but ESPECIALLY because they would not have the (more likely) tiebreaker against the Patriots you should be rooting for the home team. That the Steelers have a much harder remaining schedule anyway just adds to the point.

The Chiefs can make all of this moot, of course, by winning out. But they are due for a bad performance, and the game at Seattle the night of Dec. 23 sure feels like a rough one.

We’ll know more about this tomorrow, but the expectation is that he’ll be back, and here are some words about that and how he might help.

Berry is not a cure-all. He is a month away from 30, and has not played a full game since the 2016 season*, which was so long ago that Patrick Mahomes had only declared for the draft a week or two earlier.

*The good news: the Chiefs didn’t give up even one touchdown in that game, and it was the playoffs!

His presence is worth more than zero, but we agree that it needs to be about more than presence.

Presence isn’t covering tight ends, for instance.

It’s important to remember that even if he does practice this week this is just a step in a longer process. I doubt he’d play against the Raiders, and even if he was physically strong enough to play against the Ravens would you do that considering they play the Chargers four days later on a Thursday night?

And even then, you wouldn’t expect him to be fully healthy right away. That means we might not start to sense how much Berry can help until the Week 16 game at Seattle.

It’s a complicated thing, but the good news for the Chiefs is that they don’t need him to be a first-team All-Pro*. They just need him to be an upgrade.

*Which he’s been, by the way, every full season since 2013.

In the short term, even if that’s as simple as covering tight ends, that’s a major help. According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs are giving up more yards to tight ends than all but two teams. Notably, the Patriots and Rams each threw heavily to tight ends late when they absolutely needed it.

If all Berry does is help shut that door — be an upgrade on Josh Shaw and Daniel Sorensen — then he’s helping them win.

Let’s wait to see if that happens. But the bar isn’t all that high.

Yes.

Let me be clear. I believe he’ll be back, and more importantly, I believe the Chiefs expect him back. But he’s had at least two concussions before, and he hasn’t played since Oct. 14.

Even if we assume he returns — and I do assume that for a lot of reasons, including his pending free agency — guys don’t typically become less vulnerable to concussions over time.

This is a difficult thing, for a lot of reasons. The most important have nothing to do with football. Morse has a special-needs brother, for one, and football is the main way to ensure he has the best care possible.

But viewed purely through the lens of football, Morse is a good player and important part of what the Chiefs do. Morse is great in space, which makes him particularly effective with Andy Reid’s screens.

Centers and quarterbacks work together on protections, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Chiefs have seemed to have been beaten more frequently since the injury.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is also injured, and the feeling I’ve had from the Chiefs is that they don’t have a good idea on whether he’ll be back. All teams have injuries, so this is just part of reality, but that would be a nice boost for the Chiefs if they got both those guys back.

Adam Schefter reported that teams are expecting the Jaguars to make star cornerback Jalen Ramsey available. The team took the somewhat unusual step of denying that publicly, but Schefter is as good as it gets with this stuff.

If the Jaguars are willing to trade him, they will have a number of interested teams, and guessing the compensation in that context is a fool’s errand. Luckily, I am just the fool required.

The Chiefs have a first and two second-round picks next spring. They’ve been expected to use those picks on some combination of cornerbacks and defensive linemen. GM Brett Veach has shown himself to be willing to trade picks, so it’s worth thinking about.

Ramsey is under club control through 2020, which makes him more than a pure mercenary rental. Among the complicating factors is that Ramsey will be among the game’s highest-paid corners on his second contract, and the Chiefs already have big contracts and/or decisions to make with Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, Kendall Fuller, Steven Nelson, and Dee Ford.

So you’re not just giving up draft picks. You’re also giving up a large chunk of your salary cap. Teams rely on those picks playing on cheaper rookie contracts to offset the heavier payments for second contracts.

All of that said, if it was me, I’d try to — cue the jargon — win the negotiation. Ramsey is set to make $7.4 million next year, which is a bargain, and he’s good enough at a position of future need to do everything you can.

The Chiefs took a second and a fourth for two years of Marcus Peters (plus a sixth-round pick). I’d do a first and a fourth for two years of Ramsey, and could probably be talked into a first and a third.

No idea if Veach would do that. I have no idea. But I would.

I have no idea what this refers to, and I cannot imagine a worse way to spend time than trying to find out, and I’m saying that sincerely as part of a 6,000-word weekly exercise that I consider the greatest timesuck in town.

You guys, it was one of the best weeks of my life.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. I fully expect to change my mind on that soon, maybe even this year, because our kids are getting into the prime Christmas years*. It’s just family, football, food, no pressure. It’s beautiful.

*Our four year old saw one of those motorized kid Jeeps at Costco the other day, and I could see him starting to lose his mind. I asked if that’s what he wanted for Christmas. “Yeah, but not this year. I want that next year.” Weird kid.

So, anyway. The week: Thanksgiving, get and decorate a Christmas tree, took the kids to their first movie together*, the younger one threw up four times one night**, saw Santa, watched football, went to the Bob Seger show***, made my favorite meal that my mom cooked****, played in the snow, and the older one rode his bike without training wheels for the first time*****.

*Grinch, and they LOVED it.

**Handled it like a boss.

***He killed.

****Beef stroganoff, and I can’t do it nearly as well as she did, but I’m trying.

*****I cried a little, and we celebrated with ice cream.

I think about this kind of thing more than I probably should, but I expect to remember this weekend the rest of my life.

So, yeah. I love my job, but I am beyond thankful that the Chiefs had the weekend off. Especially because I’m 90 percent sure they will play in Detroit next year on Thanksgiving.

This is a good question, one I haven’t directly thought about. Now that I have, my answer has shifted a few times already and I’m sure it would a few more with time.

Generally, I believe that teams don’t do enough for fans. I believe that the treatment of fans is merely a reflection of what teams feel is the minimum requirement to be financially successful.

That’s more cynical than I’d like, but it’s how I feel.

You’re asking in terms of information, and this is a bit muddy. Obviously, the sports columnist is going to tell you that teams should be more open. And even if I had a real job, I still think I’d tell you that.

The NFL is hilariously stingy with information, generally taking self-importance and paranoia to incredible heights.

But there are also times I understand where they’re coming from. Sometimes it’s for a competitive edge (player availability, for instance) and sometimes it’s CYA (they’ve been wrong on Berry already this season, so why go on the record with timetables?).

If we’re talking about NFL teams here, I think they’d be smart to let fans in more. The strategy is fascinating, the training intense. There are so many ways to be more open.

To be fair, the NFL has taken some steps. Game Pass is a terrific tool for the hardest of the hard core (and nerdy sports writers), and there are some things teams have done with in-stadium presentation that are fun, like video from the locker rooms. Red Zone is so good that the biggest problem might be that it takes away from traditional game broadcasts.

But I don’t think any of that is what you’re asking. In general, if more coaches were like Sean McVay with how they talked to fans through the media and less like Bill Belichick it would be a more inviting league (and business).

Far too often, the NFL’s default mode is to treat fans and media like they’re either stupid or (ahem) Enemies Of The State. That does no good for anyone.

If assistant coaches were made available more often, we’d get more perspectives from more places. If head coaches were more open about play design, we’d have more ways to be interested. If players were more open about what they go through, we’d have more appreciation for them as people. If front offices were more open about personnel decisions, we’d have more information about the thought processes and be more likely to understand.

Again, this is complicated, and I do understand where the league is coming from at times.

But in a 30,000-foot view, businesses become more successful and profitable the more they invite customers in. The NFL generates a ton of loyalty, but it’s mostly from the tribal nature of sports. I’m not sure they do enough to build on that.

Or, maybe a better way of saying it: there are so many ways they could do better.

Look, I see what all of you see. Matheny is 100 percent #OnBrand for the Royals, an old-school, player development man who sees baseball through the lens of fundamentals, subtlety, a scout-first philosophy, with questionable in-game strategic chops.

Dayton Moore has liked and respected Matheny for a while, and when the Cardinals fired him, the Royals were interested immediately. I understand that it makes for a fun thing to talk about, but I’m not convinced Matheny will be the next manager.

I want to be clear. It’s probably likelier than not, and whether it’s been said directly, this is sort of a trial run for Matheny and the Royals. But there are a lot of moving parts, including others who might be or become available, Matheny’s own ambitions, Ned Yost’s future, and other timing issues.

Matheny’s reputation in St. Louis fell hard, particularly toward the end. And again, I get the temptation to make jokes or go alarmist with this, but there are at least two factors that make that silly.

First, the last time the Royals hired someone who’d been fired and mocked by an NL Central team, they ended up with a parade.

Second, and more to the point, people can change. The best of us improve with experience, especially with negative experience. We make mistakes, and we learn. There are a lot of managers who’ve failed their first time through and made it big later. Joe Torre was fired three times before joining the Yankees. Bobby Cox was fired twice (including once by the Braves) before his run of success with the Braves.

So, even if you hate the idea of Matheny eventually being the manager, and even if that’s the way this ends up going, I’d caution against any particular fatalism on this.

He’s a smart guy, cares about baseball, and has ambition. If he can keep what worked and what he learned in St. Louis and lose what went against him, maybe he can be good.

Also, I’ve made it this far without mentioning that the impact managers have on major-league baseball teams is VASTLY overstated, so there it is.

K-State.

I know the temptation here is to think about Les Miles turning KU around, and the problems at K-State getting worse, so if you follow those trend lines to their conclusion, then KU is going to be a consistent winner and K-State is going back to the 1980s.

But, come on.

Les Miles, KU's new football coach, talks about the Big 12's style of play, hiring staff and the current crop of Jayhawks during his introduction on Nov. 18, 2018.

Let’s be real. K-State is light years ahead of Kansas right now in terms of financial support, fan support, facilities, recruiting infrastructure and other ways. K-State fans have a tendency to remember the Ron Prince years like they were Turner Gill or something, but the worst Prince ever did was 5-7.

K-State blew a fourth-quarter lead at Iowa State, lost by one at TCU, by three at Baylor, and five against Texas. Win one of those, and they’re a bowl team this year.

Kansas has some hope at the moment, and I love the Les Miles hire, but he’ll still be coaching the same kids and working with the same challenges in recruiting. Even in the most optimistic view, a bowl game probably isn’t realistic until 2021, at least.

Now, all that said, I hope this is as bad as it gets with Snyder and K-State. I hope that he does some self-scouting, talks with his family, and decides he’s done enough. K-State can hire a good coach, whether it’s Jim Leavitt or Kliff Kingsbury or maybe even Seth Littrell or someone else. This doesn’t have to go the way it went the last time.

Make the right hire, and K-State can be a bowl team in 2019.

If Snyder insists on staying, nobody has the juice to force him out, and then this becomes a more interesting question.

The obvious reason is that nothing is new. Without news, without developments, this is simply rehashing old stuff — that Silvio De Sousa is being unfairly punished for dumb rules being broken presumably without him even knowing about it.

Some have made the point that suspending De Sousa while Self continues to coach (and be paid) is unfair, and I agree. I’d only add that punishing anyone for this nonsense is a waste of time and violation of common sense.

But, none of that answers your question. There isn’t much discussion of any of this now because there’s nothing new. The next trial is scheduled for the spring, so this will become newly relevant then, if not sooner. But until then, what is the conversation?

What’s the news?

Whether it’s Billy Preston or Eric Berry or Kyle Zimmer, when the answer stays the same at some point you stop asking.

One of the frustrating parts of this story is that NCAA eligibility issues used to be about cheating, but more and more they’re about optics. De Sousa was ruled eligible last year by the NCAA, but now there’s a trial and his college career appears to be collateral damage for the bureaucrats to be able to say they’re doing something.

I haven’t watched every minute of every KU game, but I’ve seen at least a couple times where the story is quickly told out of a timeout or something.

It will always be glossed over in those situations, because of both time restraints and the natural tendencies of game broadcasts done by partners.

I think we’d all like a definitive answer. At this point, unfortunately, it appears the NCAA is either enforcing a de facto suspension or truly does not know what to do with an athlete it already ruled eligible at a national powerhouse program.

I do.

Bill Self has talked about recruiting being affected with past scandals that aren’t nearly as potentially troublesome as this*. So how could it not?

*There’s a difference between what I think should be troublesome and what the NCAA might decide to make troublesome.

Until the program gets some kind of closure to this, the questions will exist and be reasonable. Objectively, there really isn’t a lot of difference between Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Duke. They all have famous coaches, huge national followings, a long and consistent history of putting kids into the NBA, pro-grade facilities, and incredible off-court support in terms of nutrition, fitness, and living quarters.

Those programs all recruit the same kids, for the most part, so if there is a reason for a kid to eliminate someone the process is just simplified.

North Carolina is the extreme example here. UNC had an academic investigation — one of the few recent college sports scandals I thought should’ve actually been punished — that resulted in no official punishment but left the program under a cloud for years that basically took recruiting down to what you’d expect at a second-tier Power Five or strong mid-major.

Brandon Ingram said he probably would have gone to UNC if not for the scandal. He went to Duke instead, and if you look at the rankings before and after the investigation, there is an obvious correlation.

Again, that’s the worst-case scenario, and unlikely to happen with Kansas. The guardian of one recruit apparently taking money without the recruit’s knowledge is a lot different than a long pattern of fake classes.

But at least in the short term, this is something that Self and Kansas will have to manage. Everyone takes a turn.

To be clear, the ballot I shared last week was my ballot from last year. I received this year’s ballot in the mail a few days ago, and I’ll put more thought into that in the coming weeks. Obviously I want to reserve the right to change my mind on anything, including Sosa, but since you asked...

I’ve voted for Bonds and Clemens because they are arguably the best to ever do what they did — seven MVPs, seven Cy Youngs, with numbers that might not ever be matched.

I understand the argument against them, that they knowingly cheated and defaced the game so they’re unworthy of induction. I see this argument as hogwash, and reject it as such, for lots of reasons including the fact that steroids were not banned for years and that baseball essentially incentivized players to use them.

That’s logical enough, you might say! So what about Sosa? If you’re not offended by steroid use, how can leave off a man who hit 243 home runs in a four year span and finished with 609? The only men with more homers than Sosa are either Hall of Famers, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, or Albert Pujols!

This is harder than it otherwise would be for me, because for most of my high school and college years Sosa was my favorite baseball player. I loved his enthusiasm, his arm, the hop after homers and even the unapologetic strikeouts. He was fun, dammit, and I’ve always rooted for fun.

But I don’t think I’m voting on fun, and in terms of Hall of Fame, I just don’t think Sosa’s peak was long enough, his contributions diverse enough, and his numbers overwhelming enough in terms of his time.

He was a terrific home run hitter in his prime, but at the sacrifice of most everything else. His career high on-base percentage was .437 in 2001, and that was with a league-high 37 intentional walks. His career mark was .344. Jim Thome, who is a good comp in some ways, had a career .402 on-base percentage.

Sosa is one of the more difficult decisions for me on the ballot, and there may be a time that I vote for him. There’s a backlog of better candidates ahead of him, but that could change fairly quickly. Maybe even this year, though I haven’t really started studying this yet.

The main point I want to make here is that Sosa is often lumped in with Bonds and Clemens, and I find that enormously misleading. Like, if you vote for one PED user you’re expected to vote for all of them. But I don’t see Sosa’s case similarly to Bonds or Clemens. It’s much more similar to Mark McGwire, who had a longer peak (led the league in homers as a 23-year-old and 35-year-old), higher on-base and slugging percentages, and won the 1998 chemical home run derby.

But I’m looking forward to going through all of this again. That sounded sarcastic. I mean it sincerely.

We have a Mellinger family tradition of driving out to the Christmas tree farm the day after Thanksgiving, and if you don’t think we pump the Christmas music on the way you’ve got another thing coming, pal.

The one I usually land on is “Christmas Traditional Radio.” I’m an old soul, and with some exceptions the old-school Christmas songs are the ones I want in my ears. This is a good variety of different songs, different artists, different eras. I’m all in, but I’ll mix in some of the others: Christmas Radio, R&B, family stuff.

Don’t sleep on Spotify’s “Christmas Peaceful Piano,” if you’re into that kind of thing, which obviously I am.

This week I’m particularly grateful for four-wheel and all-wheel drive. This is self-explanatory.

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