Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: The good of the 2018 Chiefs, the bad of their playoff loss, & more

The 2018 Chiefs are done, earlier than they should’ve been, another loss at home in the postseason and we can all focus on that. We will focus on that, actually, for much of the rest of this weekly gimmick.

But before we do all that it’s worth pointing out here, right at the top, that this was the most entertaining Chiefs season in ... forever? The Super Bowl team was before I was born, and even if you’re old enough to remember the game, that was a different time without the kind of coverage and intimacy and ubiquitousness that we have with teams today.

This is not a controversial statement, then: this Chiefs team gave more joy to more people than any before it.

Their first-year starting quarterback turned into the presumptive MVP, a cartoonish run of highlights that all but promise another decade or more of a talent Kansas City had been taught would never be here.

I think about this: my kids are 4 and 2, and it’s likelier than not that Patrick Mahomes will still be the Chiefs quarterback when they’re in high school. That’s incredible, and if nothing else comes from 2018 it will still be the season that changed the Chiefs for a generation.

This is the team that blitzed the league early, with Mahomes throwing 10 touchdowns in the first two weeks, then the Tarkenton 9 seconds of chaos touchdown in Week 3, then the comeback with the left-handed pass on Monday night in Denver in Week 4.

Even their losses were wildly entertaining: 31 points in the second half against the Patriots (twice), perhaps the greatest regular-season game in league history against the Rams, a two-point conversion at the end against the Chargers, and the Sunday night game in Seattle.

This group has personalities that defy the NFL’s culture of anonymity. They play a style that can turn football agnostics into believers, with enough actual chops to be more than a collection of bar tricks.

A shred of offense in the first half, an offsides penalty, a winning coin toss, or one more stop and they would be playing in their first Super Bowl in nearly 50 years.

The moment stinks. The Chiefs lost a game they should have won, with football’s grandest stage on the line, and you never know how many of these opportunities will come.

But even just looking at this season on its own, without the promise of anything else in the future, well, it was a hell of a lot of fun, wasn’t it?

This week’s eating recommendation is the ranchero omelette at Eggtc, and the reading recommendation is Emily Esfahani Smith on why your flaws are probably more attractive than you think they are.

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

You guys, I get it. I feel you. I hear you.

The problem with so many Chiefs playoff losses in the past was that they were embarrassing. They were shameful. How do you not force even one punt at home? How do you not hold a 38-10 lead? Or a 21-3 lead? How do you lose without giving up a touchdown?

But none of those teams were good enough to win the Super Bowl.

The problem with this latest playoff loss is that all they had to do to make the Super Bowl was win as the betting favorite at home. All they had to do was not be atrocious offensively in the first half, or atrocious defensively in the second half, or win a coin toss, or not get called for offsides, or stop a third down, or not be gashed up the middle on runs.

Do any of those things and the Chiefs could be in the Super Bowl, where they’d be playing a very good team that they lost to by three points on the road on a day their unicorn quarterback threw his worst interception of the season and lost two fumbles.

The Chiefs have a bright future. You would bet on them having more chances. This is only the beginning of a relationship with Patrick Mahomes that Kansas City has not had with any athlete since George Brett.

All of that is true. But so is this: even if Mahomes ends up winning 20 Super Bowls here, this was a specific chance that is not coming back.

Maybe it’s a necessary step. Maybe this is one of those one-step-back, two-steps-forward deals. You can look at it like that, and maybe the lessons learned here will benefit Mahomes and the Chiefs going forward.

But they should have won that game. They should be preparing for the Super Bowl.

Yep. Pretty much.

We talked a little about this on the Border Patrol, and I thought Steven made the right point: knowing the Chiefs blew a chance at the Super Bowl doesn’t mean you can’t recognize a bright future, and vice versa.

To me, the bummer about Sunday isn’t just that the Chiefs should have won. We’ve seen that. The bummer is that they should’ve won, and winning would’ve meant a chance at a Super Bowl championship.

There are a lot of us who have literally never seen that.

I have strong feelings about this and, actually, they generally align with what Patrick Mahomes said after the game: “You have to take in the hurt. You have to accept it. This hurts. It’s supposed to hurt.”

Football isn’t normally the place to seek advice on handling emotions, but what Mahomes said is what players and coaches around the league say in these situations. What they mean is that it hurts because you care, because you put so much into it, and to deny the natural emotions of falling short is to distance yourself from the commitment and work you put into it.

Denying the hurt is cheating the process. Functionally, you might be less willing to put in the work in the next cycle if you deny the pain of coming up short, so there’s some self-interest involved here too.

The whole thing rings so true to me. This is the best way to live, or maybe I should qualify that — it’s the best way I know to live.

Denying the pain is b.s. — it’s a lie. The pain is there, whether you deal with it or not. If you deal with it, let it in, let it do its work, it’ll leave soon enough and you’ll be better for it. If you deny it, it’ll just fester, and continue to mess with you emotionally and mentally until it takes a much larger piece than it originally came for.

I know we’re getting way too deep here, but your question hits on something important. I learned all this from my mom. She taught me a gajillion things, but that lesson might’ve been the most important. We all have different perspectives, and I’m not sure any of them are necessarily right or wrong, but I truly believe that a large chunk of of our grander happiness and success in life is determined by how we handle disappointment and difficulty.

The stuff I’m talking about is way more important than losing a football game, of course, but that’s one of the best parts of sports. There are real lessons and examples in there that matter, if you look.

A list?

A list!

1. Bob Sutton. This one is pretty self-explanatory, and I hope you read the column I wrote Monday calling for him to be fired. I promise I didn’t just re-post the column last year calling for him to be fired.

Sutton did have some bright moments this season, but in the end the Chiefs lost as the Patriots seemingly took whatever they wanted on offense. A generational quarterback stood on the sidelines in overtime, helpless, as the Chiefs offered zero resistance on a touchdown we all saw coming.

Over the season, there were times Sutton was being blamed for failures outside of his control, and a muscle memory developed where many fans blamed him even while the defense played well enough, but he should be here at the top of the list with Andy Reid as his accomplice for not making the decision a year ago.

2. The offense’s first half. Fair or not, the offense carries much more than half the responsibility on this team, and in the first half the defense was good enough that the Chiefs should have been tied or better. The Chiefs’ offensive line could not deal with the Patriots up front, particularly on stunts and blitzes, and Mahomes missed some throws that the MVP should hit.

3. Dee Ford’s offsides call. Ford had a breakout season, and earned every penny of the wealth that is coming his way this offseason. But that was a horrendously timed mistake, even if the official didn’t provide the customary warning before penalizing Ford. If Ford is insides, Charvarius Ward’s interception seals the game.

4. The coin toss. This is probably how the game will be remembered — The Coin Toss Game — and that’s fair enough. If the Chiefs won the toss, I think everyone involved believes there was a better than 50-50 chance they would have scored the winning touchdown. Instead, it’s the last time Mahomes was on the field.

5. Eric Berry’s non-healing heel. We have almost seen the last of Berry as a top-shelf safety, which is a shame, because a top-shelf safety may have been the difference in this game. The Chiefs were patient with him this season, even when it was confusing and difficult, with the belief that he would be there when it mattered.

Give him credit for playing, but he had three chances to make a significant impact and missed on all three — a near interception in the first half, giving up the fade down the left side to Rob Gronkowski that set up the Patriots’ last touchdown in regulation, and giving up the slant to Gronkowski on third-and-10 in overtime.

But let’s explore at least two of these a little deeper...

...Kristina knows, as we all do, that both teams get a chance to have the ball in overtime unless the first possession ends with a touchdown.

I’m probably the only one in Kansas City who feels this way, but I don’t have a problem with the rule. It’s not perfect, but perfect doesn’t exist. If you get to overtime, you had chances to win already, and if you lose the coin toss you can feel free to get a stop and win the game.

In the NFC Championship Game, the Rams lost the overtime coin toss, pressured Drew Brees into an interception, and won the game.

That’s allowed under the rules, despite what we saw from the Chiefs.

Blair Kerkhoff has a good idea. Sort of a modified college system, where each team gets the ball but instead of being installed at the 25 — already in field-goal range — you get it at midfield.

That’s fine, and probably an improvement from what college and the NFL have right now, but I also appreciate the pro game wanting to keep some semblance of normal football in overtime — where field position matters.

I suppose you could push for a rule where the team that loses the coin toss gets an opportunity to match a touchdown, but at that point, you’re really stretching yourself to give every opportunity to the team that just had the ball shoved down its throat with the game on the line.

Also, we all know this, but it’s worth saying out loud for the record: nobody in Kansas City would be complaining about the overtime rule if the Chiefs won the toss and scored the winning touchdown.

Just make a stop. That’s all you have to do. If you don’t, the complaints sound like whining.

I don’t think so.

I understand the point. I get why you might think that. And I’m not saying you’re wrong.

I just disagree.

The Chiefs were in a really tough spot there. Their safeties were awful all year, to the point that even when they believed Berry would play in the first half of the season, they were still aggressively pursuing a trade for Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

Had they known how long this would drag out, they would’ve put Berry on injured reserve. And had they known how it would end up, they probably would have shut him down and done surgery months ago.

But these are decisions made in real time, with the information available, and for most of the season — the entire season, really — they were basically waiting on Berry to tell them if he could play.

At some point, sure, maybe it would’ve been better to just shut it down and do a Gene Hackman — my team is on the floor. Maybe the certainty and extra practice reps would have made a difference.

I doubt it, but maybe.

The more relevant point, though, is that with the information that’s reasonably believed to be available to the Chiefs, they did what they should have done.

There is no bad guy in this. Berry wanted to play. He didn’t know it would go on this long. The Chiefs wanted the same thing. It didn’t happen. It affected the season, but I don’t think there’s a bad guy here.

There’s a mention in the Sutton column that any delay in doing the right thing here will be essentially doing exactly that.

So maybe soon?

Look, I do think we can reasonably find some perspective here. The Chiefs went 12-4, took the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and took the Patriots to overtime in the AFC Championship Game.

That’s not nothing.

They are in an interesting place here. They have certainty and the luxury of a long-term perspective with a quarterback they can reasonably expect to be theirs for the next decade or longer.

But urgency is also appropriate here, and not just because the next opportunity is never guaranteed in sports. Finding a quarterback like Mahomes is a special gift, but having him on his rookie contract is basically like having a head start in the race.

The Chiefs have some bad contracts — Justin Houston is set for a $21.1 million cap hit next year, and Eric Berry is at $16.5 million. There are ways to move money around. They can renegotiate Houston, and they can’t save any real money on Berry but if they decided on a post-June 1 cut they could spread the hit over two years.

There are no certainties here, but plenty of pressure. The Chiefs can’t end up as the team that couldn’t get to the Super Bowl with a talent like Mahomes. The Dolphins made the Super Bowl in Dan Marino’s first season, and haven’t been back since. In the 19 years since he retired, they’ve made just four postseasons.

I don’t want to emphasize that comparison. I believe the Chiefs will get better, and build around Mahomes for years. I believe he’s too good not to win at least one Super Bowl as long as he has competent coaches and executives, and I believe that Reid is a terrific coach and that Brett Veach is establishing himself as one of the league’s better general managers.

I do think they’ll get there. I don’t think the path includes Sutton as defensive coordinator.

I like this question, because it’s a recognition that there are no absolutes in sports, and that blame is typically given in an all-or-nothing way.

The real answer is that it’s on both. The secondary was thin, even at full strength. The inside linebackers were both acquired by Veach — and Hitchens was given a big free-agent contract — and vastly underperformed.

But it’s actually Hitchens’ struggles that convince me this is more about Sutton. Because he was a good player in Dallas. Not a star, but a reliable player with a diverse skill set who played the run and pass well enough.

Now, he did go from a base 4-3 system to a 3-4 with tons of sub packages. Maybe that was the scouting miss, that Veach and his assistants failed to see that Hitchens’ skills wouldn’t translate. You can make that case, I suppose.

But I didn’t see anything on Hitchens’ tape from Dallas to suggest the cliff was coming, and more convincingly, neither did people I trust who make their living on such things. He’s a good player, with enough versatility that any defense should find him useful.

That’s a pattern, by the way. Players at every level of the defense have underperformed under Sutton. Once Derrick Johnson’s ninja days were over, inside linebackers really haven’t done well here. The safeties were often out of position.

The roster was imperfect, and even as someone who believed Sutton should’ve been fired after last season, I’m afraid that he’s going to take more blame than he should.

But he was given every opportunity to field at least an average defense, a modest goal that if achieved would’ve put this specific team into the Super Bowl.

I do think they can get back to the AFC final, but I find the comparison irrelevant, a little lazy, and the entirely the product of geography.

The sports are just so different, for one. The history of the franchises are so different, for two. There’s not a lot of substance to the comparison. If I was a politician who loved catchy soundbites that were actually just tired cliches, I’d say: there’s no there there.

The 2014 Royals made it to the World Series. The 2018 Chiefs did not make it to the Super Bowl.

The 2014 Royals reversed 29 years of futility, a group of friends who won championships in the minor leagues together pushing through an epic AL Wild Card Game and bulldozing postseason run that put them one swing from a World Series championship.

The 2018 Chiefs won a home playoff game for the first time in 25 years, which is nice and all, but also a basic accomplishment for most franchises in a league built for parity. Draft classes are the closest thing to minor-leaguers who played together, but even then the comparison is light.

This comparison is made all the time now, that because the 2014 Royals almost won a championship and did the next year the same fate awaits the 2019 Chiefs.

I just don’t understand why one has anything to do with the other, except that the franchises share a parking lot and people want to feel good about something.

A quick glance at the 2015 Chiefs and here are the guys still around: Spencer Ware, Anthony Sherman, Travis Kelce, Chris Conley, Demetrius Harris, Dustin Colquitt, Eric Berry, Allen Bailey, Justin Houston, Dee Ford, Daniel Sorensen, Steven Nelson, Charcandrick West and Eric Fisher.

That’s 14, out of 53, a number that’s likely to be cut in half or so by training camp. I just don’t think a four-year-old accomplishment in baseball is something those guys will rally around. Mahomes was a sophomore at Texas Tech back then.

I don’t want this to come off like I’m stomping on your optimism. Go with it. I actually expect the Chiefs to be back in the AFC Championship Game next year.

But it has nothing to do with the 2014 Royals. There are no lessons from that team that apply to this one except as a manufactured and empty narrative that makes for a good way to kill time before next season.

I’ll get into this a little more as the week goes on, but they had plenty of pass rush this season. They led the league in sacks and hurries, and had the league’s top-rated pass rush according to Pro Football Focus.

Being that bad with a great pass rush is really hard to do.

I haven’t looked at any draft prospects. That will happen over the next few weeks and months, but the Chiefs have three picks in the first two rounds and I’d be stunned if they didn’t use them all on defense. At least one, maybe two, will be on defensive backs.

The secondary is the biggest problem. Jordan Lucas can probably be a starter. Kendall Fuller is above average. Charvarius Ward sure looks the part. Steven Nelson is better than Chiefs fans believe, but he’s also an unrestricted free agent.

The Chiefs believe that Armani Watts was starting to get it when he was injured, but those are valuable snaps he missed. He won’t be the same player in 2019 that he would’ve been with a full 2018. Dorian O’Daniel will again be part of the nickel packages, and maybe even an expanded role.

But that leaves a lot of spots. They need at least two corners, and at least two safeties. They don’t have to get all of that in the draft, but that’s the best place to start.

I know you’re making a point after the Patriots game, when the Chiefs were so inept pressuring Brady that the pass rush could be called polite. I don’t mean to dismiss that. They could use some depth there, particularly with the injury history of Houston and Ford. They need more from Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon, too.

But the Chiefs have a lot of concerns on defense. The pass rush is pretty far down the list.

I’m going to take a few days to write about the moves I’d like to see. I need to understand more about their cap situation, and what can be done there, as well as who is out there.

But I’ll give you some reasons why I believe this is the beginning of something, and not just the end.

Mahomes is the most obvious. You know this. We’ve all talked about this. But it’s worth emphasizing, because the most valuable thing a team can have is a star quarterback on a rookie contract and the Chiefs will presumably have the most valuable asset imaginable: a MVP quarterback on a rookie contract.

That makes up for a lot of sins, which we saw when he dragged that defense into overtime against the greatest defensive coach and postseason quarterback in football history.

The Chiefs are on their way up because of what surrounds Mahomes, too. The offensive line — despite what we saw on Sunday — was solid for most of the season. Mitchell Schwartz is one of the league’s best right tackles. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is both a good player and terrific fit for what the Chiefs like to do. Mitch Morse is a free agent, and the money probably isn’t going to work to bring him back. But, still. They have enough there to work.

If you were starting a team with Patrick Mahomes, and had your pick of every other player in the league to maximize his prodigious talents, your first selection might very well be Tyreek Hill. Travis Kelce wouldn’t come long after that.

Andy Reid is the rare coach who appears to improve as time goes on. That doesn’t always happen. Human nature is to believe we’ve learned the answers, rather than continue to explore for new answers. Reid’s intellectual curiosity and humility are among his best traits, and a gorgeous match for Mahomes.

This is also a pretty young team. Hill is 24, Kelce 29, Sammy Watkins 25, Damien Williams 26. Schwartz is the eldest starting offensive lineman. He is 29, and figures to be in his prime for another five years or so.

They have a lot to fix on defense, but their best player on that side is Chris Jones, who will be 25 this summer. Dee Ford is 27. Derrick Nnadi had some promising moments in his rookie year.

The Chiefs have won the AFC West three years in a row, and will again have the division’s best quarterback and head coach. Tom Brady is 41 and, despite all available evidence, is unlikely to be an actual witch who will play forever.

The Ravens, Texans, and Colts could be on the rise but if you switch perspectives you’d be more daunted by Mahomes than the Chiefs should be of them. The Chargers are a more complete team than the Chiefs, and will be a problem as long as Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are together. Derwin James will be an All-Pro for most of the next decade.

But they led the Chiefs for 4 seconds out of 7,200 this year, were blow’d out in the postseason by a team the Chiefs took to the wire twice, and Philip Rivers just turned 37. Quarterbacks last longer than ever before, but history says that when the end comes, it comes quickly.

I’m glad you asked this question, because it’s really easy to get caught up in the negatives. We all tend to see these results as absolute, and not the product of various probabilities and chance that they are in reality.

If the Chiefs and Patriots played that game 10 times, I’m convinced that each side would win five. Think about this. The offense had its most ineffective half of the season, and then came back against the Patriots despite a defense that was doing all but holding the door open for the Patriots.

One more time. There are no guarantees. But if you were indifferent, and looked around the AFC, you’d take the Chiefs’ chances going forward.

Mahomes is so good that he will sign the biggest contract in NFL history and when he does he’ll still be a bargain.

When we get closer to the point of that deal being negotiated, we’ll get into this a little more, but Mahomes will have a decision to make.

He can almost literally pick his own salary, but the NFL CBA is set up in a way that means every dollar he makes is a dollar that can’t be used on the rest of the roster.

Tom Brady is perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history for a lot of reasons, most of them his preparation and competitiveness, but he’s also consistently taken less on his contracts than he could fairly demand.

Nobody should be expected to leave money on the table, but if the priority is to win championships, it’s a heck of a way to start.

I’m not sure I’m actually answering your question with any of this. It’s all speculation about two years too soon.

But, yes. The Chiefs’ window is open as long as Mahomes is healthy and playing quarterback. Regardless of the contract.

Step one: Peanut wings with a Tank 7, side of fries optional.

Step two: bourbon.

Step three: repeat step two as necessary.

I don’t mean to be exclusionary here! I can lose myself with Garozzo’s menu. The Oliver makes the best old fashioned in town*. Town Topic. All the tacos on the Boulevard. When the weather is warmer, Betty Rae’s for the win.


But that’s how I live my best life.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for my wife, who does basically everything around the house, also runs her own business, and was at least pretending to be cool with the prospect of me being gone for eight nights, including her birthday, if the Chiefs made the Super Bowl.

Don't have a KC Star subscription? Help support our sports coverage

If you already subscribe to The Star, thanks for your support. If not, our digital sports-only subscription is just $30 per year. It's your ticket to everything sports in Kansas City ... and beyond, and helps us produce sports coverage like this.
Related stories from Kansas City Star

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.