Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: dumb media debates, a Chiefs freakout and a (still) bright future

This might be too far into the weeds, too far off point, or simply too random to make interesting, and how about that for an attention grabber?

But I’m typing these words in front of a television screen where people dressed very nicely are debating whether this is the end of the Patriots’ dynasty and it’s all I can think about.

Not the answer to the question, necessarily.

But the muddying of the debate.

For what it’s worth, I happen to believe the Patriots will never again be what they were. I believe this because the roster isn’t as good, Tom Brady is 41 years old, their current backup is Brian Hoyer and (most importantly) my friend Seth Wickersham basically predicted all of this with a typically well-reported story almost a year ago.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about at the moment. The problem with the debate is that we’ve had it so many times before. We’ve had it after Spygate, and after Deflategate. We’ve had it when they lost their first playoff game in both 2009 and 2010.

We had it in 2014, when there was a debate about whether Tom Brady should be benched, and then he won two of the next three Super Bowls.

The problem, in other words, is us. Reporters. News outlets. There’s too many of us, producing too much, for stuff like this to land. Far too often, the result is debate for debate’s sake, or content for content’s sake, and the consumer is left to decide what’s real.

That’s too bad.

We should be training our consumers to believe our hearts are in everything we do. That they might disagree with a premise, but would never question the sincerity.

This is not righteousness. I’ve written things because they needed to be written. It happens. It’s part of the world.

The solution is for people like me to stay vigilant about it, and people like you to call us out when you see it.

Otherwise, we’re never going to escape Is Joe Flacco Elite or Are The Patriots Dead or (this one will happen if the Chiefs lose Sunday and don’t win a playoff game) Did Patrick Mahomes Have Too Much Success Too Quickly.

This week’s eating recommendation is the french onion soup at Le Fou Frog, and the reading recommendation is Shirley Wang on My Dad’s Friendship With Charles Barkley.

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

Come on in for the real thing.

We can do this. You and me. Let’s just keep perspective and ...

... OK, this is going to be harder than I expected. You guys, the Chiefs are still pretty good, they have this quarterback and this tight end and this ...

... jeez, OK, fine. But let’s at least take a quick tour around the AFC?

The Patriots have lost three of five and Tom Brady is throwing brain locked interceptions and the way it looks right now they’re going to play in the wild card round for the first time in years against a team capable of beating them.

The Chargers have led the Chiefs for 4 seconds out of 120 minutes this season, and we all get it: they’re hot, they have the AFC’s second best defense, fronted by a ridiculous pair of pass rushers. But they’re also two miracle comebacks away from being 9-5 and surrounded by the annual label of Exactly Good Enough To Lose.

The Texans are 10-4 but they’re also 3-3 against teams with winning records and have the lowest ranked offense among the AFC’s best teams.

The Steelers just had a nice win against the Patriots, but are still the same team that just lost three in a row (including one against the Raiders!) and have scored more than 21 points exactly once since Nov. 8.

The Ravens are a terrible matchup for the Chiefs, but also lost to the Chiefs on a day when the Chiefs missed two field goals and could not even pretend to protect their quarterback.

The Chiefs have an important game this weekend in Seattle. You have already and will continue to hear many words about how the Seahawks are a horrible matchup and will be particularly keyed to win this game coming off a loss, with so much at stake, at home, and that’s all true.

So is this:

  • The Chiefs have beaten other teams that are objectively bad matchups, including the Chargers and Ravens.

  • The Chiefs will also be keyed coming off a loss, and are led by a coach with a standout track record with extra time to prepare.

  • The Chiefs also have a lot at stake.

  • The Seahawks just lost to Nick Mullens and the 49ers, and have lost twice at home.

  • The Chiefs are a 2 1/2 point betting favorite.

Perspective, you know?

I want us all to pause to appreciate the beauty of this question. Jimmy is imagining a world in which the Chiefs WIN THE SUPER BOWL.

That means Jimmy is imagining a world in which Kansas City has its biggest party ever — bigger than the Royals, yes — and wins its first championship in 49 years.

That means Jimmy is imagining a world in which the defense — at the VERY least — stays out of the way enough to not screw it up and, in all likelihood, makes plays that help push the whole thing along.

That means that Jimmy is imagining a world in which the confetti comes down, the parade goes down Grand, and before the hangovers go away the defensive coordinator’s head needs to be on a platter.

I love everything about this.

Jimmy is a Chiefs fan.

I have no idea. I would guess mostly yes for a few reasons. The nature of football — sports and life in general, really — is that the more familiar you become with something the more you tend to focus on the flaws.

You can become fixated on every 50-50 moment that went your team’s way, and the places your guys were overmatched, forgetting the spots where the same was true in reverse and that most NFL games are won and lost on those margins.

I would put the Chiefs’ specific brand of postseason failure against virtually anyone’s, but they all have issues.

You might see Ben Roethlisberger as a Hall of Famer, and a proven winner who is impossible to sack and routinely makes plays from nothing. A Steelers fan might see a guy who’s tied with Sam Darnold for the league lead in interceptions.

This is how it goes.

Also, this is not in any way an assurance that the Chiefs won’t Chiefs.

I am not the one to defend Bob Sutton, and I understand your question comes from frustration.

This is a weird thing. With Sutton leading the defense, the Chiefs were fifth, second, third and seventh in scoring defense his first four years.

As much as I believe that a large part of the struggles last year and this year are due to Eric Berry’s absence, I also believe that the defensive coordinator needs to be schematically agile enough to adjust. Also, Sutton’s best season statistically was 2014, when Berry missed most of the season with a high ankle sprain and then a cancer diagnosis.

In the game column after the collapse last week, I made the point that the offense needs to wear its share here, too. Get one first down on that last drive, and the Chargers have a much more difficult time on their final drive. Get two first downs, and the game is probably over.

If you have the best offense in the league, you should be able to do that.

There is also an inherent embarrassment here, that so little is expected from the defense. On the Border Patrol, I used the line that you can’t be mad at your dog for not cooking you dinner.

That’s as clear as I can be about where we stand, but this defense has Chris Jones, Dee Ford, Justin Houston, Allen Bailey, Kendall Fuller, and Steve Nelson. Even without Eric Berry, you should be able to make a good meal out of that.

This is probably something we’ll get into more as the week goes on, but in week 15 you can’t still have players lined up in the wrong spots, and failing to cover a receiver on the winning two-point conversion. Reggie Ragland showed some tools last year. Anthony Hitchens is a good player. Both of those guys look lost now, so the question is whether you believe they forgot how to play or whether the coordinator isn’t doing his job.

The answer to your question is probably one more. Andy Reid’s loyalty is rare in the NFL, and provided Sutton one more season than most coordinators would’ve had. If your worst fears are realized, it’s hard to imagine Reid risking another year of Mahomes’ rookie contract.

They’d frame it as Sutton’s choice, though, obviously.

My 8-8 prediction has gotten what it deserved, and was based on the assumption that Patrick Mahomes was supremely talented but also a normal human. I thought he’d be a bit Matt Stafford-ish this season, particularly early, and with a front-loaded schedule I just thought that would be a problem.

As it turns out, I overthought some things* and underthought some others** which made my prediction predictably stupid.

* Stuff your schedule predictions in a sack, mister!

** Believe in the tape, not preconceived notions, and also understand that the NFL is easier to quarterback than ever before.

Now. All that said, if your team has the best or one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, leading the best or one of the best offenses, you should expect the moon. If you redrafted the entire league, Mahomes would go first overall. That has to mean something.

So. That said, does it mean a playoff loss would be the end of the world? For a day or two, it would feel that way, but long-term how could it?

This kid is too good, and surrounded by teammates and coaches who are too good to make anything feel impossible.

This has been a common theme both here and in some columns: the nature of today’s NFL means the standards for offense are higher, and standards for defense are lower.

The Eagles won the Super Bowl last year while allowing 500 yards of passing, 600 yards of offense, and forcing zero punts.

There is a path here, is the point, even if the defense continues to be this soft.

You asked specifically about expectations. This group has already exceeded mine, mostly because Mahomes is as good at 23 as I thought he could be at 28, but in a fundamental way that changes the expectations for the whole group.

In the grander sense, the Chiefs have the rare luxury of time. A playoff loss does not mean the failure of a long-term plan the same way it did last year, or in previous seasons. They have three more years of Mahomes on a rookie contract, and probably a decade or more with him after that. Their best two playmakers are in their 20s.

They can build forward, is the point.

Let us be clear. This does not devalue 2018. Opportunities are too precious for that.

It just means that the Chiefs don’t have to follow a specific path. This was always going to be more than a one-year fix for the defense. The offense has soared to the point that even this flawed and occasionally lost group might be drug to the Super Bowl.

A huge part of that is that Mahomes and the offense put the Chiefs on the right side of the league’s dominating trend.

Finally.

Speaking of that ...

My man. Been writing this for a while, and could not agree more.

Andy Reid is one of the NFL’s great innovators. Play design, player usage, schemes. He’s consistently in front, or near the front on these things. Even without his much celebrated coaching tree, the NFL and by extension football would be different without his mind.

It might surprise you to know the Chiefs have attempted more fourth downs (26) than anyone else. The only three teams to convert a higher percentage (65.4) have attempted 15 (Giants), 11 (Falcons), and seven (Raiders). So it could be fairly argued that no team in football has taken advantage of fourth down more than the Chiefs.

I believe Reid should go further. The negative consequence of not converting is smaller for the Chiefs than anyone else, because the defense stinks. And the chances of converting are presumably as high or higher because of everything they have on offense, including Reid’s play calling.

The punt on 4th and 3 from the Chargers’ 42 in the second quarter was a good example. The play calling on the Chiefs’ last drive was another.

The Chiefs are at their best with the ball. They are at their worst without it. The goal for the coaches should be to amplify the best, while diminishing the worst.

The Chiefs averaged 5.5 yards per play against the Chargers. Travis Kelce is uniquely built and skilled to convert short passes. Reid has a million screens he can call. RPOs. It’s so much that if you’re defending the Chiefs, and they punt on 4th and short, you have to be relieved. That emotion counts for something*.

* It should be noted that the result of that decision backed Reid. The Chargers drove 84 yards but scored zero points because Kendall Fuller and his broken wrist made an interception in the end zone. Now, there’s a sound counter argument that the result would’ve been the same with a turnover on downs — the bend-don’t-break defense sags until the red zone, then comes up with the turnover, and if it happens like that it’s quicker and maybe the offense has more time to score before the end of the half. But, logically, Reid won the day there. It’s results over process, in my view, but still. Should be mentioned. This italics section really got out of control.

The bigger issue was the play calling on the last drive. The Chiefs are trying to bleed clock there, which is fine, but the extremes of their offense and defense mean that yards have to be prioritized above everything else.

They cannot be counting on their defense for anything. Also, the Chiefs’ line had been rocked for much of the game, so calling the everybody-knows-it’s-coming run on first down got what it deserved with a three yard loss. The second down call was also conservative — Mahomes threw to what appeared to be his first read for a five yard gain.

We all live in the real world. There are many factors, including penalties, that spread the blame.

But the point here is that the Chiefs know what’s likely when they have the ball, and what’s likely when they don’t. Harnessing the offense in any way only makes a defense’s job easier.

This is the part where I tell you nobody should tell you how to be a fan. And, hey, I get it.

If a cute dog bites you once, you might be tempted to forgive and forget. But when that same dog bites you every January, you’re going to want to protect yourself, no matter how much you love him the other 11 months.

Part of the reason I always say that about not letting people tell you how to be a fan is that I think a lot of us can’t control how we are as fans ourselves. If you’re a naturally cautious person, you’ve probably already pictured Eric Berry on the back of another cart.

If you’re an insatiable optimist, you believe that none of the Chiefs’ history means anything for this team because none of those past failures came with Patrick Mahomes.

Neither approach is wrong.

If it was me, and I’d spent a lifetime giving my time and heart and money to a team that was sometimes good and sometimes but always limited by the quarterback, I’d want to enjoy every moment of a quarterback who often made the limitations around him irrelevant.

I don’t know that the scheme is particularly complicated. It could be that the message just isn’t being absorbed. The result is the same, and I’m not sure one’s better than the other, but it does change where you go looking for a fix.

Here’s the play that I think you’re talking about:

It’s relevant because, well, you probably don’t want to watch the two-point conversion again but here goes:

That sure looks like Orlando Scandrick and Kendall Fuller communicating before the snap, and then failing after.

These are just two plays, but they’re hard to think about, particularly when Andy Reid said this in a press conference: “You have to make sure you get in and out of the huddle and give yourself an opportunity to execute. That will be a focus this week.”

That is, basically, Andy-speak for “I’m tired of guys not knowing what the hell they’re doing.”

The value of Berry isn’t just in helping eliminate those moments of self-produced collapse. He’s also one of the team’s best run defenders, with enough versatility to be a disruptive blitzer and force in defending receivers and tight ends.

The Hitchens contract looks bad, and the Watkins deal always felt like too much money. Hitchens has been mostly awful, and Sammy Watkins’ injury issues have not appeared from thin air.

I’d point out three counterarguments.

First, you can’t have it both ways on defense. You can believe that Hitchens was a terrible signing, or that Bob Sutton is doing a terrible job with him. At least one is true. Both are unlikely to be true. I would contend that Hitchens is widely respected for his mind and work ethic, and did not suddenly get lazy or forget how to play football.

Second, Watkins has made a difference, and difference-making free agent skill position players are expensive. The Chiefs are a better team and noticeable better offense with him. As Kent Swanson pointed out, the Chiefs have been 4.3 points per game better with Watkins than without. I would also point out that Watkins’ production is a 1,000-yard pace over 16 games, and that his presence helps create space for everyone else.

Third, his first draft class (without a first round pick) looks pretty good. Derrick Nnadi just played perhaps his best game, and has been a consistent problem for opposing lines. Armani Watts looked like a real player before his injury, and Dorian O’Daniel brings some interesting versatility. Breeland Speaks looks slow, but I also wonder if he’s been playing out of position.

So, I don’t know if Brett Veach is going to prove to be a great GM. I think he’s smart, confident, and respected, which is a pretty good place to start. I also want to see how he handles contract negotiations, and a draft that will include three picks in the top 64.

If they can get some combination of pass rush and corner help there, this starts to look a lot better.

Well, first, they don’t have to choose just one. The likeliest scenario has always been to franchise Ford, then do extensions with Jones and Hill.

I haven’t worked through all the scenarios, but they can keep Ford on a one-year deal for basically $6 million more. Justin Houston can be renegotiated or cut for a $14 million savings, and Eric Fisher can be renegotiated. The cap is projected to go up by about $10 million per team next year, too.

But, you asked a question. Pick just one. I choose Hill and here’s why:

Ford needs one more year before you’d invest a long-term deal in him, and even then, Jones is three years younger and a better pass rusher at this moment.

That means the decision comes down to Jones and Hill, and both are stars, but I’m using offense as the tiebreaker here. There’s something to be said for keeping your strengths your strengths, and I can’t think of a single player in the NFL who better fits Mahomes’ strengths than Tyreek Hill.

There is an obvious and mutual benefit for each man playing with the other, and they have a nice rapport in scramble situations. Hill is only 24, and has essentially maxed out reasonable expectations in each of his first three seasons. As long as the Chiefs trust that money won’t change his focus*, there is a sound case to be made that he will only get better.

* A worry of front offices in every sport, with every free agent contract.

This is just his second year of playing receiver, after all, and paired with one of the planet’s best quarterbacks is a terrific place to start.

You are unlikely to find someone more out of touch with pop culture than your boy.

But I’m relatively confident this is part of that obnoxious Dilly Dilly thing?

Look, I don’t like being That Guy, but this joke was once funny and has since become a dead horse beaten into the ground beyond recognition. I know what I’m talking about here, too, because I’ve often worn a good joke well into the point of annoyance.

What I’m trying to tell you here is that I don’t need to hear that this costume was worn by a presumably well-intentioned and aspiring actor at those two games to know it needs to be thrown into a lava pit.

I could give you a five-word answer, and I could probably give you a 5,000-word answer. I’ll shoot for somewhere in the middle.

Local reporters always sounds like bitter losers when they say anything but compliments toward national reporters, so I’m going against my better judgment here. For the record, there are dozens of national reporters I admire and envy and love, from Dan Wetzel to Sally Jenkins to many more.

I would also point out that everyone is entitled to a brain lock. Lord knows I’ve had them, often on live radio or TV where there is no delete button, and it sucks.

But the specific nature of what Smith said last week is a window into the lie that’s often fed to us on these shows.

Hunter Henry has been out all season with a torn knee. The Chargers’ starting tight end has 198 yards receiving and one touchdown this year, so it’s unlikely that Smith was just thinking of someone else when he mentioned that Henry had been so productive this year.

Derrick Johnson is no longer a professional football player, and even last year was so clearly diminished that nobody would’ve said they were looking forward to his matchup.

This was simply a man trying to b.s. his way through a segment, and getting caught.

Smith is a terrific entertainer. I mean that genuinely. Some of his reactions and rants are hilarious, regardless of subject. The man’s been spoofed on SNL, for crying out loud. That’s respect.

But you can’t be a clown all the time, and Smith is seemingly a constant pontificator, which means that stretches of knowledge or the presence of authority where none exists is not just a danger — it’s inevitable.

One more time, I don’t want this to be an attack on Smith. He’s smart, works hard, and back when he had the time he proved himself a badass reporter.

On a smaller scale, I know the feeling of being asked to make an opinion on something you really don’t follow. It sucks, and you’re basically left with a few choices: skip the question, keep what you say basic and on the surface, or risk making yourself look silly.

The first option is best, the second can get you by, and the third is not worth the trouble.

I am inherently biased here for obvious reasons, but intelligent media consumption is a must. Consider the source, and subject. There are topics I’m sure Smith is as good as anyone with. The more time someone spends on a subject, the more they’re likely to know about it. The easier path can be to consume a national show, but the problem is those are often easier to juke your way through.

If all you care about is a quick hit, then it doesn’t matter. But if you want something that will help you understand a game or team more, or win an argument with your friends, you’re better off going to the people who live what they’re doing.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for the Kauffman Center. As a kid, I went to the Nutcracker with my parents every year. This weekend was the first chance for my wife and I to be on the other side of that tradition, and it was a top 10 highlight of 2018. The Nutcracker would play somewhere in Kansas City with or without the Kauffman Center, but it’s so cool to have a world-class building for events like that. There aren’t many places that can still be structurally awe-inspiring after a few years. We’re lucky to have one here.





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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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