Four months ago, the Royals were kind of, sort of, maybe wobbling in September. Some of you started freaking out.
Three months ago, the Chiefs were definitely, absolutely, without a doubt playing like hot garbage and a lot of you thought the season (and maybe more) was going down. Well, OK, I may have been leading that parade*. Instead, we’ve seen the best short stretch of Kansas City professional sports in, well, the history of Kansas City professional sports**.
* But, guys! Read this prediction! #TotallyNailedIt!
** If you want, you can make a case for 1969, when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl and the Royals played their first season, but that’s a weird debate, and also not the point.
The Royals are World Series champions, and the Chiefs won 10 straight regular-games, then their first playoff game in 22 years. That the Chiefs and Royals had never made the playoffs in the same calendar season is entirely bizarre, meaningless, and a fundamental part of the DNA of people who grew up watching sports in Kansas City.
That’s now a weird historical footnote, one more brick in the transforming sports experience here, and we haven’t mentioned Sporting Kansas City’s success, or the local soccer scene in general, or the standalone events like college basketball, figure skating, and NASCAR.
This has all been talked about, of course, and written about, including here. And here. And here. The most fun Chiefs season in years is done, and now we are in that awkward gap until baseball starts, when it’s watching the very best NFL teams and college basketball.
I don’t have much to add here, except that for those of us who spend too much time and energy watching adults play games, too much of that time and energy is spent waiting for times like these. If we’re going to go through all the trouble, it’s important to appreciate the good times, when it’s just about games, and fun.
Yeah, that was strange. I’ve rewatched it a few times.
The bad stuff, basically, started when Alex Smith found Albert Wilson near the 5-yard line. He caught the ball with 2:56 left, and was tackled at the 1 with 2:53 left. Maybe he should have gotten out of bounds, to stop the clock, but he had one man to beat for the touchdown that would’ve pulled the Chiefs within one score, with plenty of time and all their timeouts. I’m not going to fault an aggressive decision, made in a fraction of a second like that.
The problems come with what follows. The Chiefs did not snap their next play until 2:32, a space of 21 seconds, and for some reason called a run up the middle. Why not a bootleg, pass-throw option for Smith? The Chiefs have been very good with quick-hitting passes close to the goal line, very creative in those situations, but here with the game on the line they reverted to a dull and unnecessarily risky (because of the time) play.
The run was stuffed, and they could have called timeout, but instead huddled, letting the clock go all the way down to the 2-minute warning. So, in 53 seconds, the Chiefs accomplished the following: one snap, lost a yard, wasted precious time.
Out of the 2-minute warning, Eric Fisher was called for an inexcusable false start, then Smith threw it well short of the goal line, then the Chiefs AGAIN huddled (letting about 20 seconds waste away), then Smith (finally!) threw it into the end zone, then threw it out of the end zone on one of those fade routes that almost never work, even when you’re not throwing to a little-used rookie receiver against one of the league’s best cover corners, and then — FINALLY — got the touchdown on an option run to West.
The clock read 1:13, so it took the Chiefs an even 100 seconds (and the 2-minute warning) to get 1 yard. Terrible.
The Chiefs have to be better there, and it’s an easy thing to cling onto, but it is a bit strange that the Chiefs never led and lost a playoff game on the road to a better team but the takeaway for many seems to be that they blew it in the last two minutes. They should’ve been better, should’ve been down seven with three timeouts before the 2-minute warning, and that’s one of those things NFL teams have to answer for, but there are at least a dozen more important reasons they lost the game.
Then again, Reid did not help himself with what he said afterward.
Yeah, the Chiefs screwed that up, and it was a bizarre thing to hear Reid appear sincerely surprised that it was even brought up in the postgame news conference. I mean, if you watch it, that wasn’t a guy putting on an act. He was genuinely unsure what he was being criticized for. Even if he didn’t already carry the reputation for clock-management mistakes in the past, this is the kind of thing that would earn him that reputation. He doubled down on Sunday, too.
All of that said, it wasn’t quite as bad as it looked. There are football things happening here, such as the balance between hurrying and making sure you have the right play, and doing all of that with what was essentially the B-team receivers. But even those explanations — and I’m using that word intentionally, instead of excuses — don’t change the larger fact that the Chiefs screwed that up.
That’s about coaching, and preparation. Andy Reid is a very good coach, and he has very good assistants. They messed this part up, amid tough circumstances and on the biggest stage the Chiefs have had in more than a decade. The following two things are both true:
▪ That stinks.
▪ That’s not at all why they lost the game.
Sports are supposed to be fun, and weird things like that are fun to talk about, but if we’re wanting to talk about why the Chiefs lost ...
... this is much closer to the reason.
The Chiefs lost a playoff game, and so of course, the instinct is to find something to hang on, but this was not a 28-point lead or failing to force even one punt or missing field goals or choking in the final minutes. The Chiefs lost to a better team. They lost to a better quarterback and a better coach. They are in good company there.
The Patriots played better than the Chiefs. Knile Davis lost a key fumble, the Chiefs’ defense failed to convert some turnover opportunities, and the Patriots’ game plan and blocking kept Tom Brady remarkably clean. Even without the injuries — and, it should be noted, the Patriots had a bunch of injuries, too — the Chiefs would’ve had to play at least an A-minus game to win. Instead, they played like a C-minus, maybe D-plus.
The frustration is in the bigger picture. I mentioned this in the column, but this season was a great opportunity for teams like the Chiefs. There is no great contender in the AFC. The Broncos are working around a jagged quarterback situation, the Steelers’ defense is mediocre at best, and the Patriots have some obvious flaws.
If the Chiefs don’t blow the first Broncos game, they would’ve been hosting that band-aid Steelers team at Arrowhead, with a healthy Maclin, and a better rested Justin Houston. That’s the chance the Chiefs blew, not the clock management. Next year, even if the Chiefs are better, it may not be like this.
The other thing is the loss exposed the Chiefs’ awkward place between the mediocrity of their past and the strength of the teams at the top of the AFC. Alex Smith is not as good as Tom Brady, and that’s fine, not many guys are. But that also means the Chiefs have to be closer to perfect in other ways, and have better pass protection, more options on offense, and a defense that rises in the moment.
The Chiefs are going to have some changes this offseason. Even with a group that genuinely cares for each other, football is a business, and some of these guys won’t be back. Navigating this is John Dorsey’s job, and this offseason may be his most difficult yet in Kansas City.
The Chiefs have a real opportunity here in the next few years, but as their history shows, these things are delicate.
We all watch sports differently, but I’m not sure how that would be. Smith deserves at least a share of the blame for the clock-management stuff, but again, that’s not why they lost and I actually thought Smith’s play is part of why they had a chance at the end.
I know I’m absolutely part of this, but the constant dissection and shifting judgments about NFL quarterbacks can be annoying. Any of us can build a somewhat disingenuous construct to paint Smith as whatever we want him to be. I happen to think he’s a solid, above-average quarterback, who happens to have a pretty good individual playoff track record, and is part of the bulk of men who are not as good at their jobs as Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton.
Smith is capable of maddening failures, and I’m thinking specifically of the Packers game this season, and he is also capable of leading a good team, of keeping the trains moving on time with (mostly) good decisions, pocket awareness, and a very good and important ability to run.
One thing the Smith Sucks crowd tends to miss, at least in my estimation, is that the Chiefs would cut Smith immediately if it meant they could replace him with someone better. There’s are reasons the best quarterbacks get the attention and success, and “we live in a star-obsessed culture” is only one of them.
One thing the Smith apologists tend to miss — and, again, this is just my estimation — is that he is fundamentally unable to cover mistakes and deficiencies the way the best quarterbacks can. Against the teams you have to beat to be in the playoffs, that’s not a huge thing. But when your team has Alex Smith and the other team has Tom Brady, it means the rest of your team needs to be closer to perfect than the rest of the other team.
Sports-hating Alex Smith for not being Tom Brady is sort of like hating yourself for having a slower metabolism than your neighbor. It stinks that you have to eat better or exercise more to be in the same shape, but we all have limitations, and whining about them does no good without better alternatives, so just make sure you mix in some salads and jogging.
I’m saying 70 percent Patriots being that good, 30 percent Chiefs not bringing them down. Like, Rob Gronkowski’s first touchdown, there is simply no defense for that. That was just a physical freak of a human doing his thing. But his second touchdown, Eric Berry was burned like an And1 mix tape. I’m guessing Berry was trying to be aggressive, and thought he could make a big play in a key moment, and I’m always hesitant to be critical of aggressive play, but that’s a spot where the Chiefs didn’t make it hard enough on the Patriots.
Justin Houston being healthy would’ve made a difference, but it’s fools gold to think it’s that simple. The Patriots had a terrific plan of getting the ball out quickly to receivers on routes that didn’t require much time. The Chiefs — and Tamba Hali referenced this somewhat subtly in the postgame — either didn’t plan or execute their coverages well enough to counter.
The only way to defend a team doing what the Patriots were doing is by disrupting the timing of those quick hits, by jamming receivers at the line, or at least knocking them off their routes. The Chiefs are actually well-equipped to do this. Sean Smith and Marcus Peters are both talented corners whose strengths are largely in press coverage. Eric Berry is smart and strong with improving coverage skills.
The Chiefs should’ve been better at disrupting these quick timing plays by the Patriots. They weren’t. The Patriots are very good at football. The Chiefs need to close the gap.
Meh, we disagree here, except — and again, I’m probably taking this too literally — saying the Chiefs were not a “great” team.
I don’t know why 11 games at the end of the season are a lesser indication of what a team is than six games at the beginning of the season. Of course the schedule eased, but this oversimplification that the Chiefs were only winning because they were playing the NFL’s equivalent of the Sun Belt is wrong on a few different levels. Honestly, and I mean no offense here, it’s an indication that you’re not paying attention.
Because, let’s start with the obvious. The Chiefs have no control over who they play. They won a playoff game by 30 points on the road against a team that beat the Bengals with Andy Dalton, blew out the Broncos on the road, blew out the Ravens a week before the Ravens beat the Steelers, beat the Steelers*, and were one of two teams this year to win that many in a row.
* Yes, without Ben Roethlisberger.
Also, if you’re going to knock the Chiefs for beating bad teams, you need to acknowledge at least two things — regularly beating bad teams is an indication of being a good team, and you can poke holes in virtually any team’s list of wins and losses.
The Chiefs beat three playoff teams. Know who else beat three playoff teams? The Patriots. The Broncos beat four playoff teams, but if you’re quick to point out that the Steelers lost to the Chiefs without Roethlisberger, it’s only fair to point out the Broncos beat the Bengals without Andy Dalton. The Cardinals beat three playoff teams, but lost to two others (both numbers include a split with Seattle). The Panthers beat four playoff teams, and that includes Washington.
All good teams beat a lot of bad teams. It’s part of what makes them good teams.
Now, just to be clear, the Chiefs deserved to be the underdog in New England and deserved to lose the game. Not to bring up bad memories, but that was the kind of game Todd Haley would describe by saying, “We did too many of the things that get you beat.”
Again, the Chiefs have a gap between where they are and where they want to be. Closing that gap will be difficult, for many reasons. But to say they haven’t made progress is just objectively false.
First, I understand and appreciate the word trick many are using by saying the penalty was only 2 yards. That is technically true, of course, but it was a called a personal foul, the most serious penalty a player can receive shy of ejection. Unless you’re calling for a change to the half-the-distance-to-the-goal-line rule, you’re kind of using an administrative rule to exaggerate a point.
Second, it was both dirty and cheap, and the officials would’ve been completely justified kicking him out of the game. If the NFL is serious about player safety, which it absolutely isn’t beyond how perception affects their ad rates and profits, this is the kind of hit that needs to be eliminated.
If that hit was against an offensive player, I believe it probably would’ve been an ejection.
If that hit was against a quarterback, I believe it probably would’ve been an ejection and a suspension.
If that hit was against a star quarterback, I believe it would’ve been an ejection and a suspension and a rule change and one more thing for Roger Goodell to grandstand about in his annual and empty news conference at the Super Bowl.
I would need to study the numbers and the Chiefs’ existing contracts to have a better idea of how many of those guys they can realistically keep, but you asked a question so here is my order:
1. Derrick Johnson. Played perhaps the best season of his career, is an enormous key for the Chiefs against the run, and the team has no other viable alternative.
2. Eric Berry. Also played perhaps the best season of his career, is part of the soul of the team, and a versatile player who fits well in what the defense prioritizes.
3. Sean Smith. For the second season in a row, played better than most people probably think. He was terrific, and while Marcus Peters had a strong season, Smith was clearly the better corner. Also a good fit for the defense. Depending on what the Chiefs think of Philip Gaines’ ability and recovery, this is a crucial point.
4. Tamba Hali. Definitely not as effective as he used to be, but still a very productive player whose importance outweighs his play. This was supposed to be about the time Dee Ford took over, but it’s hard to see that he’s ready.
5. Jaye Howard. A crucial part of the Chiefs’ pressure at the point of attack. Would be higher if not for the presence of Bailey.
6. Jeff Allen. I do think he’s a good player, but if the Chiefs can find someone better they should, and they have a history of letting offensive linemen walk.
First of all, please understand that this is not a call to end the Tomahawk Chop. I am not grandstanding. I am expressing an opinion, in the way that people obsess over uniform colors.
I see the Tomahawk Chop as tired, unimaginative, and outdated — a fad from the 1990s that for whatever reason lives on in Kansas City, particularly when the Chiefs are good. The Tomahawk Chop is not unique to Kansas City, and actually, more of the opposite. It’s taken from Florida State football games, or Braves baseball games, and we can make jokes about sports fans in Atlanta, but even they left this behind around 1997 or so, like Beanie Babies, or fanny packs.
Basically, to me, the tomahawk chop is like floral wallpaper and disco music — it had its time, and that time has passed. If it was a Kansas City thing, I would feel completely differently. It’s why I’ve grown to love Minnie the Moocher, and stopped being bothered by the CHIEEEEFS thing at the end of the anthem. But it’s not.
In the interest of discussing something that was super popular in the 1990s, I will now turn to Jerry Seinfeld:
It is quite possible you are overthinking this, but, well, yeah. You’re probably right.
The prediction that I believe you’re referring to should be mostly ignored, and not just because all sports predictions should be mostly ignored. For whatever reason — and Andy wrote about this last year — statistical projections are as comfortable with the Royals as a sober vegetarian at a Chiefs tailgate.
The system is fundamentally flawed when looking at a team with the Royals’ specific strengths and weaknesses. Some will (and have) used this as a way to dismiss the whole thing, and even advanced metrics in general, but that misses the point. Any form of predicting — whether by computer, industry expert, good-looking local sports columnist, or your idiot neighbor — is by definition flawed and just a guess.
But, I’m probably getting too granular here, so let me try another way to answer your question — with, of course, my own flawed guessing!
I believe the Royals are the best team in the American League, and by a fairly significant margin the best team in the American League Central. They proved themselves to be both last year, their most important players are generally in the age range where you wouldn’t expect them to start fading.
Ben Zobrist will be missed, and injuries can screw up anyone’s season. In particular, the Royals are vulnerable if Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, or Salvador Perez are unavailable for extended periods. To be what they expect, they really need Yordano Ventura to grow up and pitch to his ability instead of being distracted by nonsense.
Nothing between 85 and 105 wins would be shocking, and nothing in the 90s would be at all surprising. A lot of this will depend on how they handle success, which is one of the most underrated parts of sports, but the same could have (and was) said last year.
The Royals are, in overly simple terms, awesome and awesome to watch. They are operating and spending like a team hellbent on maximizing its strong opportunity to win. When the Royals have to watch some of their best players leave, these are the seasons you’ll remember as so much fun. No silly prediction can change that.
Of course, you could say this is all based on my own silly prediction, and sports are weird, and time is a flat circle, so whatever.