Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Luck fallout, Chiefs’ schedule and defense, Royals, and much more

If you are already tired of takes about the stunningly bizarre scene of Andrew Luck being booed off the Colts’ home field after news of his retirement broke, I want you to know I empathize and encourage you to skip ahead.

There are literally thousands of words below that have nothing to do with Andrew Luck.

But I have to get something off my chest or, I suppose more accurately because I’m typing, my fingers.

Several things, really. They include:

  • Stuff that happens inside an NFL stadium should not be taken as a reflection of everyday reality.
  • The actions of a few dozen or hundred fans should not be taken to represent an entire fan base or society.
  • It is entirely understandable why those people booed, if you think about it from their perspective. They are obviously hardcore fans (they sat through a preseason game, for crying out loud) and just found out their favorite team’s season is effectively sunk two weeks before it begins. That’s a giant bummer. Nobody threw any bottles. Let’s not act like the innocence of children was sacrificed last weekend.
  • The timing really does stink. This isn’t Luck’s fault, necessarily, but the circumstances put the Colts in a terrible bind.
  • No matter how many fluffy profiles are written and sepia-toned TV segments are aired, professional athletes are often viewed as objects. They are largely interchangeable humans wearing the laundry we follow and root for. When those interchangeable humans succeed and please us, we cheer. When they fail and disappoint us, we boo. Them’s the rules, and have been longer than any of us have been alive. It’s more than a little disingenuous to go all SHOCKED I SAY at this point.
  • We often talk about athlete entitlement, but there is a certain level of fan entitlement, too. Fans spend a lot of money and time and emotion on their teams, enough investment that it would be unnatural not to expect a payoff. As much as anything else, that’s what we saw from a relatively small portion of a large group of people who acted spontaneously and probably would handle it differently if given more time and perspective.

Everything doesn’t have to be a grand declaration about a person or persons as The Best or The Worst, is what I’m saying.

And, yes, I agree that this type of thinking has no place in today’s journalism.

This week’s eating recommendation is the ceviche at Gram & Dun, and the reading recommendation is Steve Politi on that time he was a kid and double-birded the Little League umpire.

Please give me a follow on Facebook and Twitter and as always thanks for the time and thanks for reading.

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Michael Jordan’s first retirement is the Michael Jordan of shocking retirements and I don’t know how that will ever be topped.

This was the greatest basketball player and athlete on the planet at the absolute peak of his power and not just retiring, and not just retiring at 29, but retiring at 29 so he could TRY TO PLAY BASEBALL.

The closest comparison I can think of is if Beyonce retired from music to be a professional swimmer or something.

Old heads would make a case for Jim Brown, and it’s compelling enough that I’ll put it second, but Brown was a noted free thinker with established outside interests.

After that comes Magic Johnson, and we can’t mention this without including society’s perception and limited understanding of HIV at the time.

Those are the top three, followed closely by Barry Sanders and then a lot of names you could probably replace with each other: Chris Borland, Pat Tillman, and obviously I wasn’t around but the circumstances of Sandy Koufax’s retirement are pretty wild. Kirby Puckett could be on here, too.

But for me, Luck is right behind Magic Johnson on this list.

He is in what should be the prime of his career, playing a position in which guys are playing longer than ever, and on what is probably the most talented team he’s had as a pro.

I get his reasoning, and share the sentiments of this excellent Gregg Doyel column of hoping for the best for him.

I also wonder if he’ll come back in a year or two. Luck sounds like he’s thought a lot about this, and is certain in his decision. But it’s not hard to imagine him getting away from the rehab cycle and the daily pressure and feeling physically, emotionally and mentally refreshed in a year.

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Well, look. I don’t know what “our” position is. I’m a proud and vocal member of Team Get Your Money. If your question is more about whether Luck’s retirement — and more specifically his explanation — will change minds on the grind that players go through my answer is ... probably not.

We’ve known about the brutal demands for a while. CTE has been covered and discussed and investigated at length. We’ve seen retired players in walkers by their 40s, and heard the stories of depression and suicide.

If anything, there seems to be some backlash against Luck mixed in with support and empathy.

The structure of football works against players being willing to take Luck’s path. Careers are short, so guys are motivated to make as much money as they can. The salary cap means those earnings are limited, and that fans will tend to side with the team based on holdouts disrupting locker rooms and higher salaries diminishing roster flexibility.

You use the word “unfair,” and there will be some who will roll their eyes. That’s understandable. The minimum salary for a rookie draft pick is $480,000 which is more than 99 percent of the population. So if you think all athletes are overpaid, fine, to a point.

The flaws in that come when you think of athlete earnings as a chunk of revenue. And in that view, NFL players have the most unfair financial reality in major sports.

The league is foolproof as a business model. Owners have an important part, but they are assuming absolutely zero risk. All of the risk is on the players, and most of them don’t even get guaranteed contracts out of the deal.

Again, it’s hard for most fans to have sympathy for professional athletes.

But the genius of owners is that they keep the books private, which means the easier comparison for the rest of us to make is an athlete’s salary to ours instead of the owners’ income.

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Patrick Mahomes stays winning.

It’s pretty remarkable, really. We talk a lot about “the Madden curse,” where a player gets on the video game franchise’s cover and then suffers a major injury or otherwise disappoints.

Well, Mahomes is on the cover of this year’s game and ...

  • Rob Gronkowski (who the Patriots probably don’t beat the Chiefs either time last year without) retires.
  • Antonio Brown freaks out over his helmet (this Raiders reboot was doomed from the beginning, but still).
  • Andrew Luck retires (the Colts were the biggest threat to the Patriots and Chiefs and dropped from 8:1 to 25:1 to win the AFC).
  • Lamar Miller tore his ACL.
  • Tyreek Hill was not suspended.
  • The Chargers’ Derwin James is out for the year and Melvin Gordon is holding out.

I’m sure I’m forgetting about something else. The Chiefs were sort of the 1b AFC favorite with the Patriots anyway, and I think Jacoby Brissett is probably better than the common perception, but there’s no question this changes the conference. A path that already looked a bit clearer has opened even more.

You asked about a change in mindset and pressure on the front office. Pressure is simply perception, and if this season goes the wrong way for the Chiefs part of the fallout will include the disappointment of not taking advantage of the circumstance.

But wasn’t it already true that anything less than the AFC Championship would be a disappointment?

The window was already fully open, is what I’m saying. The path is clearer now, but I’m not sure how the team can be more than 100 percent committed.

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Before we begin let me say that preseason schedule analysis is almost always pointless because no league has year-to-year volatility like the NFL.

But, like I always say, what’s the point of even liking sports if you can’t waste time on pointless stuff?

The takeaway I seem to hear more than anything else is that three of the Chiefs’ first four games are on the road.

I’ve always thought that sort of thing is overblown. Three road games in September means three home games in October and, actually, a stretch of four of five at home.

So, my biggest takeaway is probably similar to many others:

Really? Another trip to Foxborough?

After that, though, the schedule takes a different shade. Using these roster rankings by Pro Football Focus the Chiefs have six games against the league’s 10 best teams and four are at home.

Now, that includes the Colts, who were ranked 10th before Andrew Luck’s retirement, but still. The annual and forever trip to Foxborough aside, most of the Chiefs’ toughest games are at home.

Depending on what you think of the Chargers, the Chiefs’ two best opponents are the Patriots and Bears. Both of those are on the road. But after that: home against the Vikings, home against the Colts, home against the Packers, home against the Texans, and home against the Ravens.

The non-division road games include the Titans, Jaguars, and Lions.

One more time: it would be nice if the Patriots played here. If the Chiefs are involved in a tiebreaker at the end of the season, the Patriots are the most likely partner. If both teams finish with the same record, but the Patriots beat the Chiefs at home, they’ll get the Chiefs at home in the playoffs.

But after that, the schedule sets up well for the Chiefs to win another 12 or even more games.

That’s just the schedule, though. What matters more is the football, so ...

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Well, look, last year in the third preseason game the Chiefs’ starters managed just 10 points in the first half against a Khalil Mack-less Bears defense, so I don’t think we want to making grand conclusions about anything here.

That said, I continue to believe the defense will be better. The positives:

  • The players are simply better. They are. They’re better up front, and they’re better in the back. They’re just better.
  • Most specifically, the safeties. Maybe I’m a party of one on this but I thought the biggest problem last year was an almost total lack of support from the safeties. Much of that was personnel, because Eric Berry was injured and Ron Parker should not have been starting for anyone last year. But at least some of it was game plan, too, because those guys looked slow and hesitant at times about where they were supposed to be.
  • The scheme will be better. This is a leap of faith, because we haven’t seen exactly what Steve Spagnuolo has in mind yet, but it’s more than a simple Anybody But Sutton. The personnel is a better fit for the 4-3, and the expected creativity and stunts should help the defensive line.
  • The cohesion is better. Some of this is the natural consequence of struggling, but there were some cracks last year. Some of the cornerbacks, particularly Steven Nelson, felt unfairly blamed for the problems. Faith in Sutton eroded, and it was going bad. A fresh start there can’t hurt.

Some negatives exist, too. They include:

  • We’re putting a lot of faith into improvement from the safeties, but Tyrann Mathieu has been injured (more on that in a minute) and Juan Thornhill is a rookie who did not inspire confidence on Saturday.
  • The cornerback group remains unproven.
  • Frank Clark is significantly better than Justin Houston or Dee Ford right now, but the old Chiefs did have success rushing from all directions. Ford was better because Houston was coming from the other side, and both were better because Chris Jones demanded extra attention. You couldn’t double all three; each was capable of beating one man.

But, I’m getting away from the question a bit. I didn’t see anything Saturday to make me feel anything with certainty.

It’s the preseason.

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The level of concern should be real, but mild.

You’re right about his history. He’s played all 16 in each of the last two seasons, but before that he had a season-ending injury in three of four. He’s injured his shoulder and suffered two major knee injuries.

The Chiefs have said that if these were regular-season games he would’ve played, and I’m not saying that’s a lie. But there still has to be some level of concern that a minor thing one week kept him out of a game seven days later.

I’ve touched on this before, but it’s at least a small problem even if Mathieu is 100 percent healthy against Jacksonville.

Because this defense was always going to be slow developing. That’s what happens with this much roster and coaching upheaval. Clark and Mathieu have both missed time this preseason and the lack of snaps together puts them behind schedule.

Again, this isn’t a season-changer, but think about it like this: if Clark and Mathieu were fully healthy you know the Chiefs would be talking about the value of that time in getting everyone together and moving forward.

Mathieu is a monster. He’s smart, aggressive, respected and one of the best playmaking defensive backs in the sport.

He is exactly what the Chiefs needed, and at full strength he will be a healthy Eric Berry-ish presence.

But he has to be healthy. There is no reason to freak out right now. But he needs to play.

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You’re right about Starling. He’s struck out 42 times in 126 plate appearances. One-third of the times he’s faced big-league pitching he has struck out. That’s too much, but it’s also something you might have to get used to.

Starling shortened his two-strike approach and was able to cut his strikeouts a bit the last few years in Omaha, but he’s always profiled as a guy who would take his share.

I’m not saying a 33 percent strikeout rate is good. I’m saying that Starling, like all baseball players except for Mike Trout, is imperfect and the strikeouts might just be the cost of some power and made less of a problem because of his elite defense.

You say the team is striking out a lot and, well, that depends on your perspective. They’re up a tick from last year, and up some 40 percent from the Keep The Line Moving group of 2015 but would you believe they’re ninth out of 15 American League teams in strikeout rate?

The standards are different now. More than a quarter of the league is striking out in more than a quarter of their total plate appearances.

There are, of course, a million reasons for this: pitchers are throwing harder, with nastier stuff, and the shift and analytics are telling hitters to let it fly.

The Royals aren’t anyone’s example of a go-for-broke hitting approach. They are next-to-last in the league in homers, ahead of only the horror show Tigers.

But they are part of the same ecosystem.

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The most obvious answer is a change in ownership.

Dayton Moore is the first general manager to turn David Glass into a winner. The two are close, with a strong mutual respect. As long as Glass is in charge it’s hard to see what would have to happen for Moore to be fired.

Now, obviously there is a limit. Building a World Series champion from a sub-expansion-level beginning is worth a lot of trust, but not a lifetime scholarship.

If the current push wrecks and the team has to do another full rehab project then it might be best for all sides to have a fresh start.

But we’re at least a few years away from knowing about that.

One thing to keep in mind. The big-league team stinks, and the farm system isn’t graded well by most in the industry. But the big-league team does have some pieces of a potential winner already in place, the farm system is full of individual successes (most notably the top of last year’s draft class) and the team in Wilmington (where most of the best prospects are) is 78-53. Most of the Royals’ minor-league teams will or already have qualified for their postseasons.

Baseball rebuilds take forever, right up to the point where they happen quickly.

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No, and I’m not sure when I will. Two reasons.

First, I’ve actually been trying to eat better. Trying to cut down on fried stuff, and sugary stuff, and generally unhealthy food that I don’t legitimately love. Some of that is age, some is health and some is being sick of lying to myself about starting to get healthier next week.

It’s always next week.

But, also, the hype around the sandwich just took off to levels that actually made me less curious. I mean, I’m sure it’s delicious. I’m even willing to believe it’s equal to or better than Chick-fil-A. It is, after all, a restaurant that serves delicious fried chicken. I’d assume they can make a good fried chicken sandwich.

But I do this thing anyway, and sometimes I’m even a little annoyed by it. I get turned off by unrealistic hype* and assume it’s a gimmick or an Internet fad and tell myself not to get caught up in it.

* You can make a pretty good Patrick Mahomes joke here if you want.

I do this with movies, and especially with TV shows. It’s why I started watching the Wire around 2012 or so. It’s why I watched the first season of Billions in real time, but then took a break and only last week started the second season.

I don’t know what any of this says about me. It’s probably nothing positive. But I am what I am, and at this point you and I are both stuck with it.


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It’s an interesting question, and I know this doesn’t directly answer it but whoever decided to do the announcement on Sunday instead of Friday set this whole thing up for failure.

If I understand it right, Luck told the organization of his decision a week earlier. The idea that news like that would stay secret that long was some combination of unnecessary risk and pure delusion.

That was Luck’s news to share, and he should have been able to share it.

Adam Schefter did the only thing he could. His livelihood is literally to break news like this. There are dozens of other smart and driven people with the same job description. I just can’t imagine being that confident that you can delay an announcement like this for a full week.

Now, obviously I don’t know who told Schefter. But someone broke the confidence of either Luck or someone close to him. Perhaps both.

Depending on who, it was some combination of unethical, dishonest or simply a crappy thing to do.

But, more than anything, I just don’t understand the belief that this would stay quiet for so long.

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Like most things this depends on perspective. There would be people — including some Mizzou fans — who would say a great season the year they couldn’t play in a bowl would be (say it with me) the most Mizzou thing ever.

You get the point.

But for me, I’m not sure how a 10-win season can be anything other than a win. It would be Barry Odom taking firm hold of the program with just the fifth 10-win regular season in school history. He would join Dan Devine and Gary Pinkel as the only Mizzou coaches to win 10 in a season.

More importantly, it would increase and firm the momentum the school always hoped to coincide with the renovated facilities.

You make a good point, too. A standout season like that would put some spotlight on the NCAA’s ridiculousness. I would argue that we don’t need Mizzou to win 10 games to know the NCAA is out of line on this one, but it sure would raise the stakes and increase the visibility of the whole twisted affair.

In some ways I’m glad the Mississippi State decision went the way it did. Because by letting MSU off without a bowl ban, the NCAA sort of put itself on the spot here.

The NCAA can follow the literal letter of the law and stick to this point about the “negotiated resolution agreement” not being in place in time for Mizzou’s process, or it can use some common sense and recognize that the cases are awfully similar and the right thing should be done here.

The NCAA likes to talk about supporting student-athletes and promoting their experiences. This is such an easy chance to allow some deserving (and innocent!) kids to have a good experience.

It’s such an easy decision you’re almost sure they’ll screw it up.

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Those TV contracts are important in the pros, too, but I take your point.

I think about this issue a lot, actually. If my kids grow up to be sports fans their experience will be so much different than mine. They will probably never pay a cable bill, for one.

This is informed by a lot of conversations with a lot of people over the years, but the next step seems to be a sort of simultaneous distribution. You have traditional cable and network deals, but also online distribution in which customers pay by the game or with a season pass.

We’re seeing some of that already, of course, with networks like Fox offering stream as part of a subscription, ESPN+ filling some of the holes of the cable channels, and NBC Gold offering the English Premier League among other events.

But with people increasingly going away from cable, it seems logical that leagues and teams would then increasingly go direct to fans. If you’re a Royals fan and don’t want cable, what would you pay to still watch games on your device or smart TV? Twenty bucks a month?

The risk there is that sports would go from mainstream to niche, but maybe that’s happening anyway, and maybe this is the way to extract more money from a relatively smaller group of people.

Or, maybe the mechanics of online distribution can offer a solution — one Royals game per month would be $5, three would be $10, and unlimited games would be $20.

That would seem to serve a lot of different people — from the hardcore fan to the casual to the person who doesn’t care but is having some friends over on Saturday night.

The business is being — jargon alert! — disrupted. It is quite possible that we are nearing the peak of TV revenue. If that happens, it doesn’t mean sports will be dying or even that they are less popular. It just means that they will be more difficult to monetize.

Leagues and teams and (you’re right about this) universities will have to adjust. Maybe college football programs will have to go without lockers designed to mimic first class sleeping pods. Maybe they’ll be able to afford just two layers of redundant six-figure administrators, instead of three.

Maybe owners of professional teams won’t be able to count on franchise values increasing 20 percent annually forever. Maybe NFL teams won’t be able to cover all their expenses before the first ticket is sold.

People who’ve long benefitted from the status quo will have to adjust.

But I bet it’ll be better for fans.

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Yes, and that’s what he should be doing.

I have no idea if this will work. Nobody does. But I don’t believe Les Miles when he says there’s more talent at KU than he inherited at Oklahoma State.

I believe KU’s football program has suffered through awful administrative decision after terrible hire after awful decision and the cycle has fed on itself.

I believe that David Beaty took the job four years ago knowing that Charlie Weis set the program back with a recruiting strategy heavy on jucos, and then made the exact same mistake in recent years.

So I don’t think there will be a lot of on-field success this year, and that KU should be presenting this as a marathon and not a sprint, so creating a show called “Miles to go” and putting the focus on the coach who’s here to change everything makes a lot of sense.

Basically: If ESPN gives you power of content and agrees to distribute what amounts to a series on why kids should go to your school, you make that deal.

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Holy jeez you guys this was a really bad take:

But it gets worse! For some reason I went down the rabbit hole to see how he was defending himself and came across this:

ALEX SMITH IS A MILLENNIAL! I thought we’d all agreed that mindlessly blaming millennials for everything was tired and full of lies. I thought we agreed to this sometime in 2015 or so. But if not, can we agree on not slamming a millennial for being soft by noting the toughness of another millennial?

But, sure. Nobody’s perfect. There was a time I thought Matt Cassel could quarterback a winning NFL team if surrounded by the right talent. There was a time I thought Todd Haley could be an effective offensive coordinator. There was a time I thought Mike Moustakas was cooked, and that Bill Snyder was too old to come back from his first retirement, and that Subway made an edible sandwich.

I once mindlessly — ON OUR HONEYMOON — told my wife that this woman at the other end of the restaurant is what my wife would look like in 30 years. When she immediately asked which one, my heart sank, and the fact that she was happy with who I picked out is simply no excuse for such an unnecessary and no-upside risk.

I once thought text messages were cumbersome and an ineffective way to communicate. I once thought Marcus Cooper would be an effective cornerback.

I have regrets, is what I’m telling you.

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Pizza is the GOAT, and has been ruining all challengers since I was in preschool.

My wife makes a one-pan pasta that I think is actually better the second time. Wings have staying power. I’ll hit up sushi for lunch the next day, though I understand if you just dry-heaved. Thai and Chinese food is great leftovers.

Chili deserves a new paragraph. I’ll usually heat it up the second time on the stove, too, though I’m not sure if doing that instead of the microwave is just a placebo effect. Either way, the best chili is usually three days or so after the original cook.

This might be a me-thing, but I’ve always thought mostly anything with chicken is awful leftover, unless it’s grilled over charcoal. If we do something with chicken in a skillet I’m throwing away whatever we don’t eat. But if we grill it outside, I’ll eat it for days. Steak is usually good, too — put it in wraps, a sandwich or on a salad.

You guys, I feel like this is an authoritative list. Tell me what I’m missing.

This week I’m particularly grateful for some rain coming through our roof. That sounds crazy! I know! But we’ve had this thing “fixed” like five times since moving in, and it’s never fixed, and then a contractor put a hole in the ceiling to have a better look at exactly where it was happening ... and it was dry. For months. Through significant rain. But this weekend, we finally got some drops, and I’m hopeful this is the breakthrough we needed to finally get this thing licked. Please. Maybe. I’m begging.

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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.