Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: eliminating the preseason, fixing BBQ at the K, and so much Chiefs

Training camp has ended. Reid and Mahomes reflect on how training camp bonds the team

The final day of training camp at Missouri Western was military appreciation day. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes wrap up with how players bond and the pranks players did.
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The final day of training camp at Missouri Western was military appreciation day. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes wrap up with how players bond and the pranks players did.

Let us start here: this is not a call for alarm, or even serious concern. If we used the old color-coded threat system, we’d be at blue. Light yellow, at worst.

But, all the same, the stakes and expectations are high enough for the Chiefs that this is a thing (if not quite A Thing): the Chiefs defense is likely behind schedule.

I know! Who cares?!? It’s the middle of August! They have the least irrelevant preseason game and 19 more days to work!

I wouldn’t even bring this up, even in this proud timesuck, except that the Chiefs defense was always going to be behind this year. They stunk last year, and now the coaching staff is entirely new, many players new, and even the holdovers are new to the scheme.

But they’ve had injuries. Guys have missed practices. Frank Clark missed the first preseason game, and Tyrann Mathieu has played a total of five snaps and suffered what Andy Reid said is a shoulder injury so light “there’s a good chance” he would’ve played more in Pittsburgh if it was a regular season game.

They are the two biggest differences from last year, and the two biggest reasons to believe this defense can be better. Alex Okafor is among those who’ve also missed time.

One more time: this isn’t a major thing.

The Chiefs defense can be on virtual scholarship the first eight games or so. The offense is good enough to drag the defense kicking and screaming back to the playoffs.

But at some point, the effectiveness of that defense will determine whether the Chiefs again have — in reverse order or importance — homefield advantage, an AFC Championship game at Arrowhead, and a Super Bowl.

Those guys are going to have to learn each other. They will have to learn a new scheme. They will have to learn from mistakes, and from successes, and the best scenario is that they do it all in time to have confidence going into the playoffs.

That process takes time, and even at this early stage the Chiefs expected to have more snaps and practice with the core together.

ONE MORE TIME: this is not a freakout. Not even a big concern, really. More like the feeling when you’re waiting for a friend at a restaurant and he’s like 1 minute late. Especially if that friend has a recent history of being VERY late, but has made real steps in recent months to be more responsible and you think you believe him but still want to see progress in real life.

That’s where we’re at.

If nothing else, it puts a little more intrigue into Saturday’s game against the 49ers at Arrowhead.

I stress: a little more intrigue.

This week’s eating recommendation is the steak taco at Tortilleria San Antonio and the reading recommendation is Jayson Jenks on Mike Leach’s quarterbacks meetings.

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

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No, but I’m closer to the Sean McVay model than Andy Reid and before we go on I have to point out perhaps my favorite story about this preseason other than Antonio Brown:

The Rams “played” a preseason “game” in Hawaii and left Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and many others at home. Didn’t even make the trip. Marcus Peters made the trip even though he knew he wouldn’t play and that’s a power move.

Free trip to paradise, no work pressure, and the chance to do the traffic with what he might describe as hella long hoodie strings (his report starts at 2:35):

But, your question. I might be writing more about this later in the week, so this will be relatively quick, but here are two initial thoughts.

1. If it’s up to me, Patrick Mahomes would stay the heck away from anyone paid by another team to hit quarterbacks. I’m a big Athletes Can Get Hurt Anytime guy, so I understand it’s true that if Mahomes were to get hurt in a preseason game there’s a good chance the same thing might’ve happened in the regular season.

But, like everything else from pickup basketball to the upcoming contract extension, the rules are just different with him.

All that said, I do see some value in the defense playing together. I know we talked about this at the jump but the coaching staff is entirely new, the scheme is new to all the players, many of those players are new to the team.

The Chiefs have been slow with Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu, and that stuff makes sense to me because of minor injuries. But you can sell me on the defense benefiting from a full half and maybe even one series more on Saturday.

2. Many of you probably agree with me about Mahomes playing in the preseason, but I’d just point out that a disconnect we have is that we are looking pretty much only at the potential downsides.

The coaches — and Reid in particular — are looking at the benefits.

It’s easy for us to assume these paid professionals who work year-round not just physically but with the playbook and film don’t need the game-ish reps of the preseason.

But Reid and the coaches see more details, and know exactly what it looks like. They may see some of the stalls from Saturday as a product of broken timing, for instance.

Reid’s philosophy on the preseason is different than where most teams are going now, but it also works: he’s had starts of 9-0, 5-0, and 5-0 here with the Chiefs. The guy knows what he’s doing.

So it’s not as simple as some of us — me included! — make it out to be when we talk about locking Mahomes in a Cryo chamber (with proper footwear) for the entire preseason.

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This comes down to two players on each side: Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill on offense, and Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu on defense.

There’s a convincing case for each, but I’m going with Kelce and Clark and I’ll tell you why.

Hill might be more valuable than Kelce in objective terms — he’d make more on the open market, and his numbers are likely to again be better.

But the drop-off from Kelce to the rest of the tight end group is bigger than that of Hill to the rest of the receivers. This is not minimizing Hill. A season-ending injury would be devastating and change how the Chiefs play.

But they’d still have speed. Kelce is, if I can awkwardly steal a term from the art world, one of one in attacking the middle of the field with physical mismatches. Without Kelce, the outside and downfield passes become a little easier to defend.

The same can be said in reverse, of course, but without Hill the Chiefs can still stretch with Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins and even Byron Pringle. Not the same as Hill, we all get that. But, still. Stretch.

That same logic would point to Mathieu being more valuable than Clark. Mathieu is the playmaking defensive back this defense has painfully missed without Marcus Peters and Eric Berry.

I’m going with Clark in part because of positional importance, but also because of what he does for Chris Jones. The Chiefs are already down one stud pass rusher when compared to a year ago — in terms of quantity, if not quality — so if Clark were to be injured it would allow offenses to double Jones on every snap.

Do that, and the defense that led the league in sacks last year would be severed.

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The cornerbacks, followed by linebackers, which would’ve been my answer before the preseason too.

Kendall Fuller hasn’t been as good here as he was in Washington. It’s tempting to sweep that under the Sutton rug, and maybe that’s part of it, but he hasn’t looked markedly better this preseason.

Bashaud Breeland is basically a replacement level cornerback at this point, and I can tell you honestly that I believe in Charvarius Ward’s future but we’re all aware of the inherent volatility in young corners.

Mo Claiborne will help starting in Week 5, and the Chiefs have some interesting developmental-type guys further down the depth chart, but there are more questions than answers here.

The linebackers were bad enough last year that concern is appropriate no matter what, but the hopeful fix is that the scheme change will benefit Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland and that Damien Wilson and Darron Lee will prove to be productive fits.

That logic makes sense to me, but I want to see it first.

And, really, that’s the list. The safeties are vastly improved, the defensive line is dangerous at the top and deep.

And the offense is a spaceship.

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I like how this question is presented, because the view on Mahomes has to be so uniquely and intrinsically different based on where you’re looking from.

Outside of Kansas City, he’s a fun player, supremely talented and the trigger man on the NFL’s best offense. He’s a bit of a curiosity, with the hair and the voice and no-looks and the rest, but you’re right to point out that there could be an over saturation point on national media coverage.

The same way many have long been annoyed with another LeBron James story, the eyes will start rolling at one more film breakdown of a throw Mahomes made. That feeling will intensify as this season goes on, particularly if the Chiefs don’t get to the Super Bowl.

But the people outside of Kansas City can have no real appreciation for what the people inside Kansas City have been through to get to this point. The Chiefs quarterback room has been so consistently filled with some other team’s backup that it’s become cliche to point that out here.

The profile has been largely unchanged: older player, sort of had success in his last stop, but was made available because of fundamental limitations. The Chiefs have then tried to work around those limitations with creativity, violent defense, or delusional hope.

Having Mahomes here is sort of like spending a year in the desert and then washing down a ribeye with a Tank 7.

That feeling will be projected, and if they’re not already, fans of other teams will start to make jokes about Chiefs fans trading their babies’ limbs for Mahomes’ happiness.

Fair warning: some of the jokes will be funny, and it’s OK to laugh.

Because some of those jokes will be dead accurate.

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The first honest answer: I don’t know.

The other honest answer: the contract will be exactly as long as Mahomes wants, and not a day longer or shorter.

The more interesting answer: the contract has the chance to tangibly change future negotiations.

The most obvious element of this is in the dollar figures, and that’s true as long as the NFL is in this sort of lazy thinking that every contract should start with the most recent relevant precedent and add or subtract 10 percent.

But I mean this in other ways, too. Mahomes and his agent Chris Cabott have an incredible amount of leverage. Leigh Steinberg, the founder of the agency, has a long background of establishing new norms, too. It’s a formidable team.

I do not know what form that will take. Maybe the contract is fully guaranteed. Maybe they want to go 10 years. Maybe they want to keep the salary fixed at a particular percentage of the salary cap. Maybe they want to max leverage and go year-to-year. Maybe they’ll take less cash in exchange for something else, such as a promise spend a certain amount on the rest of the roster or some other consideration.

More likely, there are possibilities they’ll explore that I haven’t even imagined.

The point here is that no matter what the contract will affect a lot more than just Mahomes and the Chiefs.

It’s not Mahomes’ job to think about that kind of stuff, but I would bet my arm and your leg that Cabott has thought about it a lot.

The deal won’t just be the biggest in league history, is what I’m saying. It could also be the most important, and most interesting.

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The answer is somewhere between not very and not at all.

The best thing the NFL could do is simply rip the preseason in half, and keep the regular season at 16 games. The NFL is the only major league in the country where the season isn’t already too long, but nobody gets to the end of week 17 and thinks, man I wish we had two more regular season games.

This is hard to quantify but the league already benefits from not being oversaturated, and owners should be wide-eyed about that at a time when it’s increasingly difficult for teams without Patrick Mahomes to sell tickets.

But the truth is that preseason games still make the owners money, and owners do not enjoy stopping things that make them money.

That means the next-best solution might be to effectively transition two preseason games into the regular season, but there are all sorts of potential dangers there:

- the season starts earlier or ends later, either way presenting new or increased problems with weather.

- how can you increase the regular season by 12.5 percent and still talk about player safety?

- the proposal of limiting individual players to 16 games is stupid and should die in a fire. The Chiefs play the Packers this season. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers! That’ll be fun! People will spend lots of money on tickets and have already made plans in advance. So, theoretically, what if each was a healthy scratch? The NBA is dealing with this problem already. The NFL shouldn’t voluntarily do the same.

I’ve written some about this before, but if the owners are serious about going to 18 games the players will have something precious and rare for them: leverage.

Maybe the solution is an extra bye week, paired with the players receiving an increased percentage of the revenue earned on the 17th and 18th games. The players would be the ones taking on the extra risk, so it would make sense for them to get a bigger chunk of the rewards.

Hard to say how realistic any of this is, honestly. My guess is the players will be more focused on revenue and safety, desiring to gain some ground they lost in the last round by asking for more life comforts like decreased hits in practice.

This is also true: as much as a lot of us are annoyed by the length of the preseason, we still watch, and we still talk about it right up to the point that the regular season starts.

And, at that point, nobody cares how many preseason games happened.

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It’s a good question, and you could probably flip a coin and be as accurate as I’ll be here.

Singer and Kowar have so far — and it would be hard to overemphasize how early we are in this Process™ — followed the expected path. Pitching prospects basically never follow the expected path.

Singer is generally believed to be the surer thing, while Kowar is thought by some to have a higher ceiling. Both have performed well.

Singer was the first to be promoted, and after struggling at Double A Northwest Arkansas initially* he has since found a rhythm**.

* 20 strikeouts, 10 walks, a 6.28 ERA and a .333/.400/.517 slash line against in his first six starts and 28 2/3 innings.

** 48 strikeouts, 10 walks, a 2.34 ERA and a .192/.249/.308 slash line against in his last seven starts and 42 1/3 innings.

Kowar has been slightly behind, being promoted three weeks after Singer. His career at Double A is 11 starts old and highlighted by eight shutout, no-walks, four-hit innings at the beginning of the month.

The reports on him out of Florida were that if he refined his secondary pitches he had the chance to be special, and without going through the video he appears on his way.

My guess at this point is that Singer will be promoted first, just because he seems to have steadied and has a (slightly) more substantial pedigree. But, barring injury, if Kowar jumps the line it’s probably more because of something he’s done rather than something Singer didn’t.

Either way, I think we’re probably talking about a difference of a few weeks here. The vague plan is to transition each to the big leagues sometime next summer. Predicting an exact date is ignoring a million factors in and out of each pitcher’s control, but it could be a June-July sort of thing.

Wrote here the other day that the Royals’ Sign Him Or Trade Him decision with Jorge Soler this offseason is their next major step in refining the next potential winner, but the promotions of Singer and Kowar will be Process 2.0’s version of Sal Perez and then Eric Hosmer.

I’d expect them to work through some stuff that next summer, but we’ll get a better idea for how much juice this push has then.

Which brings us to a logical question ...

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... and no.

There’s an old baseball line about a prospect having “enough to dream on.” I’m not sure this group and the expected budget for next year is enough to dream on.

I hear people sometimes talk about how the offense is ready, and we’re only waiting on the pitching, but the Royals have scored more runs than just two American League teams.

There should be a bump at production from the catcher with Sal Perez’s return next year, but it’s also true that Perez will be 30 and hasn’t had an on-base percentage higher than .297 since 2013. I’m also expecting him to play first base a lot, for a few reasons that I’m sure we’ll get into as time goes on.

This team has something like the spare parts of a Contender Starter Kit but they need a lot.

First base has been an offensive wasteland, which is a bad place for an American League team. Alex Gordon has been the team’s fourth most productive hitter, and even if he returns next year he’ll be 36. Bubba Starling needs to hit. A season that began with Adalberto Mondesi looking like a star is now more than three-quarters over and he’s on the injured list with a .266/.294/.433 slash line.

And there are no guarantees that Hunter Dozier or Soler will match their current production next year.

Plus all the pitching.

I say all this as someone who is probably more optimistic about the Royals’ future than most, but they’re on pace for 104 losses and without major outside pieces (which aren’t coming) that type of turnaround just doesn’t happen very often.

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Mike Matheny is the apparent successor, and that’ll be a conversation if and when the time comes, but you asked my ideal choice and this may surprise you but here goes:

Pedro Grifol.

Usually guys already on major league staffs need to be bench coaches or hitting coaches or pitching coaches for managerial looks. Grifol is officially the Royals’ catching and quality control coach, and his is the seventh name listed on the Royals’ website under manager and coaches.

But he has the goods.

He’s loved by players and respected by coaches and the front office. He’s bright, committed, bilingual, and has a background that includes time as an area scout, minor league coordinator, minor league manager, big league hitting coach, and special assignment coach.

The Royals have essentially assigned Mondesi’s development to Grifol, which is a telling indicator of what they think of him.

To be clear, I don’t expect Grifol to get the job. I don’t even know if he wants the job. He may decide he’d rather do front office work, or get back into scouting in some way. He can do whatever he wants.

My educated guess is that the Royals will want the next manager to vaguely mimic the profile of Ned Yost when he was hired. They want someone with an ability to handle a young clubhouse, with a strong preference for previous managerial experience.

Matheny was brought on in an eerily similar way to how Yost joined the Royals. That’s the heavy favorite for the job, but at the moment the Royals don’t have an opening.

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I know Cliff a little and I respect him a lot and I hope he’s right. He is likely the single most influential Kansas Citian, but here it doesn’t matter what he thinks.

Sly James’ opinion is also irrelevant and that’s not just because he’s now the former mayor because Quinton Lucas’ take on this is also unsubstantial.

What matters most is what David Glass wants.

After that, what matters most is what he thinks can happen with tax incentives and what voters might pass.

I will say this (Eric Bienemy voice): there is significantly more internal momentum for a downtown ballpark now when compared to the mid-2000s when this issue was last A Thing.

Back then, the downtown talk was mostly a talk radio trick. It never stood a chance because Glass didn’t want it. That’s the thing that many people didn’t consider, but at the time it was the only thing that mattered.

I don’t know how Glass feels now. But I do know that the general opinion within the organization now is much more open to a downtown ballpark. Some think it’s the best way forward. If those voices can influence the boss, then we’re cooking with grease.

But we’re not there yet. Or, at least, there’s no way to know if we’re there yet.

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Yeah, K-State can get there.

The game in Starkvegas could be bloodbath, but assuming K-State has two wins going into the bye week that buffers their conference schedule I’d think they have enough for four Big 12 wins.

I’m basing a lot of my K-State optimism on Skylar Thompson, because I do think he’s better than he’s shown and is a particularly good fit for Chris Klieman. If I’m wrong about Thompson, I’m almost certainly wrong about K-State.

But if I’m right, they have a chance to surprise some people*.

* I say surprise because they’re generally picked eighth or so in most rankings I’ve seen.

They would need to beat West Virginia and Kansas. That’s pretty obvious. Baylor is probably their next easiest home game, though TCU and the season finale against Iowa State are also interesting. Texas Tech could be winnable on the road, and a surprise is always possible.

I’m not sure I’d bet on any of this, and even if I would you might want to take the opposite.

But I’m just telling you that I think K-State can find six wins.

I am not mentioning Kansas here, but let’s also give the real answer to your question: Mizzou’s bowl ban is absurd and should be reversed two weeks ago.

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I don’t speak for the Star, and, now that I think about it in my personal life I often don’t even speak for myself.

But I do here! And, well, answering this question is probably not worth the risk but here goes anyway:

Of course we should all be against Nazis. That’s pretty clear, same as it’s clear that any league should never allow itself to be talking about both sides of that issue.

But here’s where the issue complicates, and where I have some sympathy for MLS, and where I’m probably going to get some angry responses.

The terms Nazi and fascist and probably others have been used so often they’ve lost their meanings, and in some spots been hijacked as political talking points. Those words are in the news constantly, sort of (jargon alert) weaponized and then ping-pinged back into the mainstream of (often ugly and tired) arguments between those who disagree politically.

That, I assume, is what MLS is trying to avoid.

The league has been pretty active with Pride Nights, for instance, and the sport has (admirably) taken on the issue of bullying. So I don’t think it’s fair or right to use this as a point that MLS doesn’t believe in human rights or is somehow pro-Nazi.

MLS does not prohibit general signs of anti-fascism, anti-racism, or pro-immigrant signage or messages. The ban, if I’m understanding this correctly, has been zeroed in on a particular symbol the league is concerned has been adopted in protests that have turned violent.

I can understand that.

This controversy is a (somewhat meaningless, but still) byproduct of a political discourse that’s long been off the rails. Words don’t mean what they used to, or what they should. Terms have been twisted and branded in certain ways, intent be damned.

That’s perhaps inevitable as people try to win points, but one of the consequences is that businesses then might not want to be associated with certain terms that in a vacuum are fine and even admirable but in our current context have come to mean different things to different people.

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Rob has triggered me.

It is among our world’s great injustices that the baseball team in the greatest barbecue city in the world has partnered with a stale chain based in Chicago. The barbecue, unless things have changed, is done by Aramark.

It is the equivalent of Tigres UANL being sponsored by Taco Bell.

May I please offer a humble suggestion: the move is to put some stakes in the American Royal. Create a special division with requirements that would allow only established restaurants and others who could scale their business to the needs of 81 home games.

I’m thinking here mostly of the heavy hitters: Joe’s, Gates (which used to be in the stadium), Bryant’s, LC’s, Q39, Slap’s, you know the names.

Give, say, the top three finishers a season-long lease for a spot at Kauffman Stadium. I’d put them all in one spot — right-center field seems like the place — but I’m open to spreading them out for easier access.

And, since you’ve made it this far, a twist.

We count receipts and whichever business has sold the least amount of barbecue by the end of business on Aug. 31 must re-enter the competition to earn next year’s spot.

Sort of the barbecue version of English Premier League relegation.

Sell it as a reality show. Tell me this isn’t a massive upgrade.

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Look. A substantial part of my childhood was spent on Super Mario Bros., Tecmo Bowl, Madden, Tetris, NBA Jam, and others. But you can probably guess how I feel about this.

I mean, actual stadiums are being built for actual humans to pay actual money to watch other humans play video games. This is madness.

But I also have to tell you something. I was once ranting about this to my sister, and either her or one of her kids (who plays a LOT of Fortnite) said: “You spend all this time watching people play games, what’s the difference?”

I have to tell you I was out of words. These games are only going to get more addictive and likely more popular. This might be the future, or at least part of it.

This week I’m particularly grateful for my dear friend Vahe. We traveled to and from Pittsburgh on the same flights, with the same layovers, and it was just a nice reminder that I know no better human.

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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.