Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: The Chiefs’ Process™, Mahomes’ magic, Royals, KU’s win(!) and more

The Chiefs doubled the spread against a divisional rival on the road.

Patrick Mahomes, the unicorn quarterback, threw for 278 yards and four touchdowns in one quarter. He was supposed to regress, despite the logic, but at the moment is on pace to be even better statistically than his MVP season.

The defense was a mess a year ago, but so far this season allowed just 13 points through three quarters when the outcome was still undecided on the road in Jacksonville, and then 10 points on the road to the Raiders.

And a lot of you are complaining.

Look, I’m not here to tell you how to be a fan, or even that I don’t understand the perspective or agree with some of the points.

After all, the Chiefs didn’t manage a single point in the second half at Oakland. Frank Clark is making a lot of money and still has not sniffed a quarterback. Special teams are making too many mistakes, and not enough plays. The running game looks weak.

All of that is true!

But the NFL is changing in at least one important and relevant way. More and more, the regular season is mere prelude to the playoffs. It’s an intro. A setup. That’s particularly true for stronger teams.

It used to be that you needed to be as good as you could be right away, because 16 games isn’t much, and you never knew when one bad day could ruin your seeding or even place in the — *Carl Peterson voice* — tournament.

That is no longer the Chiefs’ reality. Their regular season is now prep work, and as such that’s how it should be judged.

Other than Patrick Mahomes’ health, which will always be the most important thing until he retires in the year of our Lord 2039, the important stuff is not whether the Chiefs are playing their best at the moment but whether they are establishing a foundation that will allow them to play their best in January.

And in that way, I’m not sure there’s a lot to complain about.

Mahomes is on a record pace while being healthy for two quarters, and missing his starting left tackle for most of four, and his best receiver for seven.

The defense is tackling better, and showing more toughness and aggression. They could use more of a pass rush, but they’ve faced two teams intent on getting the ball out quickly and actually have the same number of sacks that they did after two games last year.

The cornerback position is an unanswered question, but there is plenty of time for them to mold better within a new scheme. The safeties are playing well behind them, which is nice. They will certainly add another cornerback in two weeks, when Mo Claiborne is off suspension. They may add another one through trade.

Also, and this is important: they’re 2-0 against two AFC teams.

The Chiefs do not look perfect or even close to it. They will admit this readily and repeatedly. But if they did look perfect in the first two games, a different set of questions would exist about whether the Chiefs can maintain such precision for five more months.

I don’t know how this will end. This is not a prediction that the Chiefs will win or even reach the Super Bowl. This is merely the acknowledgment that the front office and coaches and players are viewing this as a work in progress, as the path to build something better by October and better than that by November and even better in December before peaking in January and (they hope) early February.

We’re watching the evolution, then, not the finished product.

This week’s eating recommendation is the breakfast burrito at Happy Gillis and the reading recommendation is Aishwarya Kumar on the grandmaster diet.

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

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This is the greatest separator between Chiefs fans and those who watch this magic show from the outside.

Rocket ships happen, and they’re always fun. The Greatest Show on Turf. When Drew Brees got going, especially as the Super Bowl run happened after Katrina. Aaron Rodgers’ ascension.

Those were all appointment viewing, and examples of that glorious intersection between football brilliance and beautiful ballet and the feeling that the league is changing a little bit.

But when you see those shows from the outside, you miss the backstory of the people who live it most intimately. And I’m not sure how often in professional sports a franchise has gone so drastically from one side of the fence to the other as the Chiefs from a long line of game managers to the ultimate game wrecker.

In 2011, the Chiefs gave seven starts to Tyler Palko and Kyle Orton. The next year they split between Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn. Two years after that they went an entire season without throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.

Alex Smith (and Andy Reid) brought credibility to the position, and Smith probably won’t ever be fully appreciated here but in the span of six years the Chiefs went from embarrassing incompetence to capable professionalism to next-level dominance at the single most important position in major American sports.

In each of Mahomes’ first two games, he’s had a different receiver achieve the biggest statistical game in the league — and neither receiver is the All-Pro who runs a 4.25 or the possible Hall of Fame tight end.

There is no joy without pain, and in Kansas City there is no full appreciation for Mahomes without the memories of fans arguing about whether Palko or Cassel gave the Chiefs a better chance.

Elvis Grbac took the Chiefs as far as he could. Trent Green played admirably, and pushed a ridiculously talented offense to new heights. Matt Cassel was a backup asked to punch above his weight, and Alex Smith had some really nice moments including the team’s first playoff win in more than two decades.

But while old heads will talk about the Chiefs taking Todd Blackledge over Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, but the quarterback position hasn’t been a letdown as much as a limitation.

Mahomes appears limitless, particularly in this system, with this head coach, and these skill position players.

If you’ve eaten nothing but hamburger your whole life, a perfectly seared ribeye might change your life. If you’ve driven nothing but Honda Accords your whole life, the first time you drive a Ferrari you might be afraid you’re about to crash.

So, yeah. I get it.

He seems a little too good to be true. Every day he’s healthy is a blessing for the Chiefs and — I’m not self-centered, I’m just looking out for *me* — our #content.

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Well, I was actually encouraged by the opener in Jacksonville, too. My judgment in these first four or so games isn’t the result as much as the process and there’s enough happening to think this thing can grow.

The tackling is much improved, which players are saying is a combination of increased coaching emphasis and a new scheme. They had three sacks and five hits against Derek Carr, which is more than I expected considering how quickly he usually gets the ball out.

They also made two turnovers against the Raiders, and if the second had an element of luck to it— Tyrann Mathieu ran flat into the intended receiver — it’s also a byproduct of aggression and physicality.

Bashaud Breeland was fantastic against the Raiders. He played that (horribly audibled) end zone fade route to Tyrel Williams perfectly, and was consistently active and hard-hitting through all four quarters. Chris Jones is as good as ever, Tanoh Kpassagnon is disruptive, the speed is clearly improved with the linebackers, and Juan Thornhill is living up to a strong preseason.

They gave up 13 points before it got silly at the end of a decided outcome last week in Jacksonville, and they gave up 10 on the road to a team that scored 24 the week before.

Now, it is not perfect. They’re giving up 6.0 yards per rush. Clark has not yet pressured a quarterback. Mathieu has not yet made a big play, unless you count a 48-yard pass interference that set up the Raiders’ touchdown. There are still some miscommunications, particularly on the back end.

But my judgments on this group have always been with two things at the front of mind: where they came from, and where they need to be.

The Chiefs could use a cornerback, even with Claiborne set to play after two more games. And they have some work to do against the run, and against big shots down the field.

But they look improved to me already, with a foundation that sure makes it appear likely more improvement is on the way.

Now, I know not everyone agrees. Let’s talk about that, too ...

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It’s never one thing. The Chiefs caught a break when Josh Jacobs missed a stretch of the second quarter after cramping up. He’s going to be a star, and the Chiefs didn’t have an answer for him, but by the time he returned the Raiders were throwing more in an attempt to catch up.

Now, apologies, but we must pause to make this point: teams should not get away from the run against the Chiefs. Even when they’re down. I don’t understand this. If you’re running, you are exploiting the Chiefs’ biggest weakness (run defense) and limiting their greatest strength (Mahomes).

Seems to me that the optimal balance in a Chiefs game is something like eight passes for every run for the Chiefs, and three runs for every pass for the opposition. That’s particularly true if the opposition has a good run game, as is the case with last week’s opponent, this most recent opponent, and the next one (more on that in a second).

But I digress.

The point is, yes, the defense was better, and yes, the Raiders did Raider. They stalled their first drive after the Chiefs’ first touchdown with a false start when a rookie receiver bit on his own quarterback’s hard count — as pure an unforced error as football allows.

The Raiders’ drive after the Chiefs’ second touchdown stalled on a false start by the right tackle. They also biff’d their last possession of the first half by completing a short pass over the middle of the field with no timeouts left.

Their first drive of the second half went inside the Chiefs’ 5, but that’s when Carr made a terrible decision to audible into an end zone fade route against the Chiefs’ most physical corner. The ball never had a chance, and the call got what it deserved.

So, you can look at all of this one of two ways. The Raiders didn’t execute, and they didn’t make things as difficult on the Chiefs as they could.

But the Chiefs still had to make those plays. They still had to pressure Carr to end drives, and Breeland still had to muscle up against Tyrel Williams and make the interception.

No NFL team goes three quarters with no points unless they screwed something up along the way, but the Chiefs did more than collect lottery tickets.

Now, this next game will be a bigger challenge than either of the first two which brings us to ...

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Significant.

Before the season, I had the Chiefs at 13-3 and I had this as one of the three. Since we all know such predictions are important and should definitely be taken seriously I will stick with that.

The Chiefs and Patriots appear to be on their own tier in the AFC, but the Ravens appear to be the best of the rest.

What’s more, a lot of what they do well — run the ball on offense, and a highly physical defense — is a bad matchup for the Chiefs’ vulnerabilities.

It’s easy to forget now, but the Chiefs needed more than the fourth-and-9 conversion to win that game last year. They were down seven in the final minutes. Eric Fisher jumped on the fumble, the defense came up with an overtime stop, and the Ravens were just beginning the transition away from Joe Flacco and figuring out what they had in Lamar Jackson.

Now, I don’t know what beating the Dolphins and Cardinals really means. Could be nothing. Those are two bad teams.

But the Ravens have a lot of speed, a lot of toughness, they run the ball well, and they have one of the game’s best coaches.

Week 3 is a long way from the playoffs — last year, the Patriots started 1-2 with a blowout loss to the Lions — but I do think this game is a better indicator of what the Chiefs truly are than each of the first two games combined and any other game we’ll see until at least Oct. 13 against the Texans.

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The Ravens look like the biggest threat, at least to me.

But, yeah.

Put your money on the coach and quarterback who always win, and also the MVP with the perfect coaching and skill position support in a league that is so drastically tilted toward quarterbacks and coaches.

That seems like the bet to me.

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That’s what I’m saying. The Chiefs are built for speed, and they are built for timing. It can be a tired cliche, but they are a Ferrari. When all the parts are moving like they should, nobody can catch up.

But those parts can also be delicate, and particularly with teams that can’t match up with the speed — and I’m not sure who can — it makes sense to try to beat them up.

We talked about this last week, after the Jacksonville game, and it will remain true until a better way to defend this freak show emerges.

The offensive line is going to have to answer that challenge, and Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy are going to have to find the right balance between aggressive shots downfield and protecting the health of their savior quarterback.

A million subplots exist with this team, but that’s one of the more interesting to watch.

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This question came in before Fitzpatrick was traded to the Steelers, but the premise is still valid — the Chiefs are going to try to improve the position through a trade.

My preference would be to wait a few weeks and see what other defensive backs might be available, but I’d be willing to give up next year’s first-round pick for the right guy and I’ll tell you why.

First, it should be toward the end of the round. The best corners are long gone by then, and the Chiefs will also have San Francisco’s second round pick from the Dee Ford trade. The 49ers are 2-0 at the moment, but that pick figures to be somewhere in the middle of the round.

I know draft picks are the currency of the sport, but to me teams often overvalue them. One of the many advantages the Patriots have found is being willing to trade down for extra picks. That gives them capital to move up for the right player or, more often and effectively, more shots in the draft to find the right player.

Trading picks for guys already in the league could be another way to find an edge. Jalen Ramsey may require more than a first round pick. He would also require a long-term contract that would make him the highest paid cornerback in league history. He’s worth both, but at some point the Chiefs are going to have some problems with the cap.

Again, my preference would be to wait to see who else might be available. Maybe the Cardinals change their minds about Patrick Peterson, for instance.

But corner is the team’s biggest need, unless you count a guarantee from God himself that Patrick Mahomes will remain healthy. I would be hyper-aggressive to make either happen. Finding a corner appears more realistic.

Corners are the defense’s version of quarterbacks, in that they are extremely difficult to find. The Chiefs aren’t likely to find a corner of Ramsey’s or Peterson’s talent where they expect to be drafting, and those guys are expensive on the open market.

This is the path. There is no reason not to be aggressive.

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I have called it Clark’s finest moment, and I know it wasn’t as easy a decision as a lot of us thought it should have been. Romeo Crennel was fired immediately after the 2012 season, but Pioli went on the trip to Philadelphia to interview Reid.

No matter how they got to the decision, Hunt nailed it, and not just by acting so quickly and aggressively in landing Reid but by rewriting the power structure to guard against the infighting that grew in the previous four years.

Owners become caricatures, and it strikes me that the owners of all three Kansas City teams are often misrepresented.

David Glass is still seen as a cheapskate curmudgeon by many, when the truth is something much different.

Cliff Illig and the Cerner guys are often seen as big spending miracle makers, but Sporting watches every dollar spent and continually operates on one of the smaller payrolls in MLS.

Hunt is often portrayed as an absentee owner more focused on league issues than his team, but he’s in Kansas City regularly and generally sees his role as hiring the best people he can and then letting them work while serving as a resource.

You say Hunt’s movement with Pioli and Reid is the greatest ever by a local owner, and we agree it’s a boss move, but I’m not sure how to quantify something like that.

Lamar Hunt bossed the Chiefs into the NFL, for instance. Ewing Kauffman landed a major league baseball team when many thought Kansas City didn’t deserve another one, and then pushed it to the top with innovation that in some ways was decades ahead of its time. Neal Patterson and Illig quite literally saved Sporting from relocation or extinction.

Glass will forever be the bad guy in many fans’ minds, but he did what his friend Kauffman asked, then bought the team and — after too many years lost in the wilderness — supported it in a push that ended up with a parade*.

*Drink.

You know, I’ve never thought of it this way, but there are similarities between Glass’ 2006 turnabout and Hunt moving from Pioli to Reid/Dorsey/Veach.

The problems were (in different ways) largely of the owners’ doing, but the solution came with force and required humility and a willingness to change. Credit to both.

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This is actually one of the best parts of Mahomes’ existence in Kansas City, because he is almost certainly not going anywhere.

Star quarterbacks just don’t leave their teams. A million reasons exist, but part of it is the economics of the NFL mean that no matter the market a team is not at a financial disadvantage when bidding for talent.

The Giants and Jets and Chargers play in much bigger markets, but the Chiefs have just as much money to work with.

Unless I’m forgetting someone, the last star quarterback to leave his original team as a free agent was Drew Brees, and that’s dripping with qualifiers: Brees really wasn’t a star, and the Chargers invested in Philip Rivers.

Mahomes will likely sign a contract extension that will be made official after this season. I have no idea what that deal will look like. It will, basically, be whatever Mahomes wants it to be.

Could be a Bryce Harper-ish long-term deal that locks him in, could be a more LeBron-y short-term deal that maintains some influence, or it could be an innovative deal that pushes players forward a bit in the ongoing power struggle with owners — whether it’s a full guarantee, or a salary tied to a percentage of the cap, or some other clause I’m not smart enough to think of right now.

But there is virtually no chance he leaves. Both sides are committed. The Chiefs are building their scheme and organization around Mahomes. More money will not be available somewhere else. Quarterbacks stay.

The economic models are the biggest differences between the Royals running uphill and the Chiefs having a fair shot.

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The only one I’m sure of is Dayton Moore. He will be back as general manager. I am not shocked by much. I would be shocked if Moore is not back. He will be back — 100%.

The only other one I’d bet on with any degree of certainty is Hudler. The owner decides everything, but Hudler’s hire came largely by the call of Kevin Uhlich, the vice president of business.

By now, Hudler has become part of the Royals. You may like that or you may not — I like it! — but it’s true. The totally scientific percentage he will return: 95.

Physioc came with Hudler, so the same argument could be made, but there are enough complaints there that nothing would be a shock. Let’s say 65%.

Ned. I’ve thought Ned was on his last season each of the last two years, and never underestimate the lure of a man making more money than he’s ever made in his life, but this is again an offseason that might make sense for retirement.

The Royals’ rebuild has (hopefully) bottomed out, a new owner will change things, and Ned is another year older with a good life waiting for him back home in Georgia. The next manager should be pot committed for the long haul, and with the Great Pitching Class Of 2018 set to begin its transition to the big leagues next summer it makes sense to have the next manager in place.

There have been moments of conflict inside the organization, but my sense is that this will again be Ned’s choice. I have no idea what that choice will be. But I’ll say 40% he’s back.

Eldred’s future is likely tied directly to Yost’s. There are times a manager changes out coaches, and times a new manager retains old coaches. But those are tight relationships built largely on trust, and my guess is a new manager would want a new pitching coach and there’s always a chance of turnover either way so I’ll say 32%.

I’ve been delaying my Gordon answer because it really is nothing but a blind guess. He recently told Flanny that he’s still uncertain, and changes his mind day-to-day. He’s made more than $100 million in his career — I know, right? — so he doesn’t need the money but as much as any athlete I’ve been around Gordon has never been motivated by money.

I could see him coming back because he loves baseball and the constant challenge and all of that. I could see him retiring because he has a wife and young kids he’d like to spend more time with, and he’s already had a terrific career with the ultimate team accomplishment.

I guess I’d expect him to retire, but I cannot stress enough how much of a guess this is: 49.9%.

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Do you mean like this tweet?

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This is something like a perfect sports fact. It is perfect because nobody can tell you what it means and, not just that, nobody can tell you if it means anything.

It might!

It might not!

Either way, no answer will be available for years, so in the meantime we can fill that blank canvas with whatever we want. Sports!

In the beginning stages of The Process 1.0, when the Royals were building the best farm system in the history of upright man, another fact made the rounds: every organization of the last two decades picked by Baseball America to have the sport’s top farm system made the playoffs within four years.

There was one exception, if I remember correctly. The Pirates, I think, though I’m not going to double check that because by now it really doesn’t matter.

The Royals did not make the 2014 playoffs because they were chosen Baseball America’s top farm system four years earlier. They made it because a group of talented and focused ballplayers got better together, believed together, played well when it mattered most and also found a bit of luck.

That’s the story of every baseball playoff team.

There can be no equivalent with the Royals’ winning four minor league championships because there is no precedent. We just don’t know.

It might mean the Royals are consistently and thoroughly superior to their peer groups in the minor leagues, and that those peer groups will continue to rise until the Royals are again superior in the big leagues.

It also might mean they have a bunch of good minor leaguers who won’t be able to hit big league fastballs or get big league hitters out with their own fastballs.

The Royals’ farm system is generally ranked in the bottom third. The front office has always been higher on their guys than that industry consensus, and that was before they drafted and signed Bobby Witt Jr., who just might be the highest ceiling-ed prospect the organization has ever had.

I’ve tended to believe club officials about their own guys. They earned the benefit of the doubt on this by getting the last rebuild right.

But the worry I’d have is that the system’s success is largely built on pitching prospects, and pitching prospects will break your heart. Many of their best hitters have struggled, and even if you’re willing to note the difficulties of hitting at Class A Wilmington there are many questions left to be answered.

So, in short: there is plenty to have hope in, but the system lacks the star power of the first rebuild.

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Kansas and I’m not sure it’s close, though I do want to pause to acknowledge the excellence of the line about the controller and pizza rolls.

Well done, sir.

Kansas was a 21-point underdog and, if we’re honest, that number seemed a bit low. The Jayhawks were literally pinata’d by Coastal Carolina the week before. Les Miles’ team set offense back a half century, maybe more.

Then ... that.

The Jayhawks spread Boston College, which seemed utterly unprepared and confused. Pooka Williams had wide running lanes, and Carter Stanley found receivers alone downfield.

KU had not beaten a Power Five school on the road since 2008, but more than that, looked inherently incapable of even competing before Friday.

I’m not ready to make any grand declarations either way about Miles, and I don’t trust anyone who is. Turner Gill beat a ranked Georgia Tech team early in his career, too, after losing the week before to a lower level opponent at home.

You might remember that Gill’s time at KU did not end well.

I’m going to stay consistent on Miles. I thought he was the right hire, all things considered at the time, and took over a rotten situation after David Beaty went desperate and ruined the roster with too many reaches on too many juco kids.

I’ve expected basically just two things in Miles’ first year: better recruiting, and better professionalism from the staff.

The recruiting does look better, but his first signing date is still three months away. I’m hearing good things about the structure and organization of the coaching and support staff, but I still think a coach with Miles’ experience should be beyond burning his last two timeouts to run a predictable and hopeless fourth down run into the mouth of the opposing defense.

If nothing else, the win at BC gives Kansas a confidence boost, and a potential talking point as it tries to sell the future.

My expectations are pretty low for that program. So that’s enough, for now.

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I don’t know that they should change drastically. I can’t swear to what I predicted before the season, but it was either six or seven wins, if I remember right, and that still feels like a realistic target.

They’re a game ahead of where I thought they’d be at this point, and West Virginia is even worse than I expected. K-State should finish higher than their predicted ninth, and while obviously possible I’m not sure I’d put any money on the Wildcats getting five or more wins in the Big 12.

The biggest takeaway for me from Saturday was K-State’s toughness — physically and mentally.

Mississippi State beat down the Cats a year ago. That was a mismatch in strength. A year later, with a new coaching staff and now on the road, K-State showed itself to be the stronger team.

I was also impressed by K-State’s ability to play through some special teams mistakes — the kickoff return for a touchdown was obviously a huge play — and lock it down at the end when it mattered most.

There was a lot to like about the Chris Klieman hire at the time, despite the initial reaction from many, but it looks a little better every week.

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I’m going with Sporting, but it’s a bit of a copout answer because MLS has made it so dang easy to get to the playoffs.

It does seem like this offseason is one where Peter Vermes and his staff are going to have to make a lot of hard decisions, so in that way Sporting will be a few years behind the Royals in the process.

But the rules are just so different in the two sports. Sporting plays at a financial disadvantage to many of its competitors, same as the Royals, but the turnarounds can happen faster in MLS.

One problem is that I’m not sure Sporting has the wave of young talent on the way, like the Royals do with Brady Singer and the boys. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and the younger players just haven’t had the opportunities.

But they’re going to have to show it, and Vermes is going to have to lean one more time on his scouting chops and resource allocation and a system that’s consistently pulled results.

But, either way, one more time: that was ugly the other night and as clear a sign as I can imagine that something drastic needs to change.

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I will use my pulpit here to advocate for the bullpen car, photo days, GA seats, family discounts, and rivalries so heated the players genuinely did not like each other.

I’m sure more will come to me later, but at the moment I’m struck by how much better sports are at the moment than ever before. There has never been a better time to be a fan.

The amount of information and broadcasts and analysis that is readily available right now or any particular moment you choose is astounding. You can know more about your favorite athletes than ever before, and more about how the games are played and why certain plays worked and others didn’t.

There are downsides to this, I suppose. There is no mystery anymore, and the more money that funnels in the more corporate and detached the experience can feel at times.

But nothing’s perfect, and if you make the argument that the innocence of yesterday was the superior sports experience I would make the counterargument that the innocence of yesterday was always a lie but that even if it wasn’t you wouldn’t trade it for 4K broadcasts and the Red Zone Channel and instant information available whenever you want.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for one last game at the Oakland Coliseum. I know I’m in the minority here, but I vastly prefer Oakland to Las Vegas, and not just because I have family there. Oakland has better weather, better food, and better stuff to do.

You can probably tell I’m not much of a gambler, but I’m also thinking about how part of what made the NFL will be lost when the Black Hole is replaced by suites full of bros in hair product, $300 jeans, and those overstarched, untucked, collared party shirts with the sleeves rolled up to show the different pattern on the inside.

Those games will be 20% Raiders fans (maybe more, depending on how many make the drive from LA), 20% opposing team’s fans, and 60% VPs of sales and bachelor parties. I get why the NFL wants this. The stadium will be beautiful, and they’ll make a lot of money from brand values to partnerships and everything else.

But something real will be lost, too. I’m glad I got to watch 10 games in that old dump.

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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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