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Sam Mellinger: Mellinger Minutes: Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes and hoops, the Royals and the future

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 2/6/2019 By Sam Mellinger, The Kansas City Star

Feb. 05--The Chiefs could have won the Super Bowl. That is an undeniable truth.

The Chiefs should have won the Super Bowl? Maybe. I've gone back and forth on that in my mind a few times. But I've never been closer to believing that in my life.

The Chiefs -- THE CHIEFS -- are the betting favorites to win the next Super Bowl. More on that in a minute, but for now it shines a light on just how positioned the franchise is and how critical every decision will be.

Any move this offseason could be the difference between a Super Bowl and a letdown. The draft picks, the salary restructuring, the free agent signings, any of it.

Much of the 1990s were a thrill around here, particularly after the franchise had been so sleepy for so long, but there has never been a more fun time to be a Chiefs fan. This is it, everything fans have been wanting and believing would never come.

All of that is true, but you knew most of it, so let's start with the first thing that Andy Reid, Brett Veach and -- if necessary -- Clark Hunt should do this offseason.

Maybe you saw this video...

First of all, we should acknowledge Tyreek Hill's terrific response: "Meanwhile I'm standing wide in the corner."

Second of all, we should acknowledge that the Chiefs cannot let the franchise keep playing pickup games against a bunch of guys named Fred wearing sweatpants at Lifetime Fitness.

I mean, come on. This is not controversial. I'm all for guys living their lives and the argument that you can get hurt doing anything, but this is pretty simple. You can't have the NFL MVP, the central figure in a franchise trying to snap a 49-year Super Bowl drought, tear his ACL trying to crossover a guy who's due for his shift at QT.

Do that first.

Then we can talk about the draft and everything else.

This week's reading recommendation is Sam Farmer on how Walter Payton's Super Bowl ring ended up in a college kid's couch and the eating recommendation is the steak at Novel.

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

Why can't I say the actual answer?

This has happened a few other times, but it appears that Kansas picked an excellent year to be -- ahem -- "down." The Big 12 is deep, and solid, and currently ranked first in RPI and second in KenPom's rankings. That's pretty typical, throughout the streak, so if you hear someone say that KU's streak is a product of the Big 12 being garbage you will know that person doesn't know what they're talking about.

But, as with most things, there is nuance. And what's also been typical throughout the streak is that the Big 12 is much stronger in the middle and even bottom than at the top when compared to other leagues.

This year might be the best example.

KenPom's predictions currently have KU and Iowa State sharing the regular season title at 12-6. That would be the worst record of the streak, and the rest of the league could be fairly criticized -- if you're not going to end it if KU loses two starting quality big men and six league games, when are you ever going to end it?

So, yeah. I do think Kansas will win the league again. And I'd bet the under on six conference losses. I know it was at home, but the win over Tech on Saturday is the best they've looked and history tells us that Bill Self generally gets it figured out around this time.

The game tomorrow night at K-State is one of the most interesting of the season, and I'm looking forward to being there and writing off it. KU's schedule is generally softer going forward -- at K-State, at TCU, and at Tech are the most losable games.

It seems entirely plausible that KU will lose two or fewer, which would put them at 13-5, which would be a pretty high bar to clear from what we've seen of the rest of the league.

K-State is 6-2, but the rest of the schedule is brutal -- Kansas twice, Baylor twice, Iowa State at home, at Texas, at TCU. Baylor is in a similar situation. Texas Tech has lost four of its last five league games.

Iowa State's schedule is relatively clear the rest of the way, so they'd be the likeliest to be the streak killers so if you're forcing me to choose someone else that's the one.

But it really feels like they'll end up sharing it.

Also, I don't feel quite ready to dive into college basketball. Let's get to some football please and thank you.

OK, first let's post the odds because some of you probably haven't seen them:

This tweet was screenshotted to me from a friend with the message: Brady wins his sixth Super Bowl and Vegas immediately votes for Mahomes.

And, well, yeah.

The Patriots' "nobody believed in us" thing was a hilarious joke, one that at times everyone associated with the Patriots with the notable exception of Tom Brady seemed to be in on.

But it dang worked, didn't it?

The point here is that Vegas is projecting forward, not backward, seeing that any one of a dozen or so things could've happened in the AFC Championship Game to put the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

My hunch is that the Chiefs' odds are a little better because the AFC is generally weaker than the NFC, but most of it is because the Chiefs have a 23-year-old quarterback who just won the MVP in his first year as a starter.

That quarterback is surrounded by a trove of talent, both with playmakers and coaches. This has been said and been said wrongly before, but the defense should be better.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have won six Super Bowls together. The Chiefs have won a total of five playoff games in the last 49 years.

It seems stupid to bet on the latter against the former.

But the Chiefs have never been this well positioned in most of our lifetimes.

Nobody's ever had this good of a year and then dropped off. Let's make that clear distinction.

Peyton Manning is the only other quarterback to go over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season.

There are, basically, two precedents to point to if you want to be cynical. The one that's most often talked about is Dan Marino, who went for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in winning the 1984 MVP. The Dolphins played in the Super Bowl that year. Marino was 23 years old. You could've thought they'd be there a million more times. They played in a total of zero more Super Bowls.

So, that's a reminder that nothing is guaranteed. But Marino didn't drop off. He is an inner circle Hall of Famer who retired as the NFL's all-time passing leader.

The other one you might look at is Matthew Stafford. He threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in his first full year as a starter. He was 23 years old. He has one of the biggest arms in league history and was a trendy comp for Mahomes out of the draft. Stafford is something of a fantasy football star, but is 66-75 all-time as a starter.

So, that's a reminder that it takes more than a talented quarterback, and that an organization has to build a strong support system.

But I'm not sure that applies to Mahomes. He's in a better situation than Stafford has ever imagined.

Other than that, I'm not sure where the example is that says Mahomes won't keep this up. Here's the complete list of quarterbacks who've thrown 40 or more touchdown passes:

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck.

That's pretty good. We talked about Stafford. Luck just had a terrific season, and might be Mahomes' primary AFC rival over the next decade or so.

Nothing is guaranteed. Mahomes could get hurt. He could decide that with football conquered he wants to start his own rock band, or chain of grocery stores. Whatever.

But I'm not sure how to look at his talent, his focus, his teammates and his coaches and imagine anything other than continued success.

I don't know that he'll go over 5,000 and 50 again next year, but I wouldn't bet against it. And I'd be genuinely surprised at anything less than 4,000 and 40, which is an obscenely successful season that's only been accomplished 10 times in league history.

I hear you, Kami. I hear you.

We talked a little about this on the Border Patrol, and I'm hesitant to put much into it, for at least two reasons:

First, the Chiefs didn't play in that game, because they lost to the Patriots, so it doesn't matter.

Second, do I only think that because I live here? And follow the team so closely?

Vegas' odds would indicate that smart people agree, that the Chiefs might've been the better team, again -- doesn't matter.

There's a weird shift in urgency here. A year ago, it was a a hyper focus to give Mahomes every conceivable advantage as he begins his career. More than anything else, that's why they spent $48 million on Sammy Watkins.

But now, that focus has shifted to support him in other ways, to make sure that his rookie contract isn't washed away as a fantasy football freakshow and that in 20 years we're not still talking about a coin flip or Dee Ford lining up offsides.

That's why they fired Bob Sutton, and why they went with the relatively safe hire of Steve Spagnuolo.

Yes, absolutely.

You might have heard that I had the Chiefs going 8-8 this year, a hilarious mistake* that became apparent sometime between Patrick Mahomes' RPO throw to Tyreek Hill in the opener and his shredding Pittsburgh for six touchdowns the next week.

* You guys are laughing WITH me, not AT me, right? RIGHT??

Once it became apparent that Mahomes was immediately as good as some of us thought he could be in year four or five the calculus changed. The Chiefs had to get further than the division round or the season would be a failure.

Well, they did that, and came agonizingly close to getting to the Super Bowl, but if you believe what I believe that this is a franchise on the rise than it becomes hard to argue against the idea that progress is needed to consider next season a success.

They're really well positioned, too. One thing us media folk are good at is taking one game and blowing the importance way out of proportion, so there have been and will be many words said about how the Super Bowl after The Season Of Offense was won by the Patriots' defense.

But you're going to have score a lot of points to win next year, and nobody is better positioned to score more points than the Chiefs.

I do believe the idea that a lot of the guys on defense are better fits for Spagnuolo's 4-3 than Sutton's 3-4, and after years of having either no first round pick or using the first-round pick on a quarterback who'd redshirt the Chiefs now have a first and two seconds to use on defensive help.

All of these things matter. All of these things should, in theory, make the Chiefs better next year.

The Patriots will still present a formidable challenge. The Colts could be better, too. The Chargers shouldn't dip too far. Et cetera.

But the Chiefs have a lot of factors going for them. They need to take advantage.

Patrick Mahomes has changed us all, and as I type that I'm realizing the first time I went straight from a Chiefs loss to thinking more about the Chiefs draft than baseball or college basketball was two years ago -- when all signs were pointing toward the Chiefs being aggressive with a quarterback.

No offense to Mitchell Trubisky, but this is clearly the most interesting outcome.

It's a really interesting and important offseason for the Chiefs. They're going to have some tough salary cap decisions, most notably what might come down to choosing between Justin Houston and Dee Ford.

I'd go with Ford, and am sure I'll write more about that soon, but reasonable minds can disagree.

If you're a fellow draft dork, look for defensive backs and defensive linemen who project late first round to late second round. That's where the Chiefs will be shopping. I haven't gotten into that too much yet, but I'm sure that will come.

But your question is interesting, because I know I'm in the minority, but I'm thinking more about the Royals right now than anything else.

Some of that is the local college scene is currently dominated by vast overreaches from the NCAA and basketball teams that aren't quite as good as you think they should be.

But some of it is about the Royals, too. Let's discuss...

Crazier things have happened than the 2019 Royals making the postseason and for a recent example I would present the 2017 Twins.

So, that's realistic. It's a long shot. But it's realistic.

The Vegas number is 69 1/2, which seems simultaneously fair and low. Fair, because they went 58-104 last year. Low, because depending on how you want to present it this same core finished 20-14 (after the season low point on Aug. 23) or 31-36 (after the All-Star break).

The post-break record is a 162-game pace of 75 wins, and if it was my Vegas number, I'd probably be somewhere between that and the 69 1/2.

But your question is more about what's possible, and the rules are different now. Baseball teams don't have to be perfect, and sometimes they don't even have to be all that good. There's a path for 10 of 30 to at least play in a Wild Card Game, which means top third is good enough for the postseason, which means anything around average is good enough to dream.

And if you take the optimistic view, and you think about a lineup built around a rising star like Adalberto Mondesi, plus baseball's reigning hit and stolen base king in Whit Merrifield, plus an established star catcher, plus some interesting bats like Ryan O'Hearn and Jorge Soler, and a club that's getting back to plus defense ... you can imagine some things.

* Long as we're taking the optimistic view, that could be 60 home runs between them, if things go right.

Health is always a factor, but if Brad Keller is real -- I've been fooled before, but believe in him -- and Jakob Junis smooths the rough edges and Danny Duffy is the Danny Duffy a lot of us believe him to be and Ian Kennedy throws 200 innings ... you can start to imagine some things.

I'm a terrible gambler, so if you take any of this too seriously that's on you, but I'd be genuinely surprised if the Royals don't win at least 70. They have a puncher's chance of being .500 or so, and a dreamer's chance of more.

There was a time that Royals fans swore up and down that's all they wanted.

The rush to crush Tony Gonzalez is pretty silly. If you haven't heard the dumb thing he said, here it is:

"Made my career...nothing against Kansas City...but only three playoff games...when I got to Atlanta, now it's like all of a sudden you're part of this winning organization."

OK. Again. A dumb thing to say. He was a Hall of Famer when the Chiefs accepted his desire for a trade. He went 1-3 in the playoffs with the Falcons. So, yeah. Dumb thing to say.

But I think a lot of Chiefs fans took those words personally, like it was about them, and that's not what I heard. What I heard was a proud athlete who feels like he gave the best years of his career to an organization that didn't give enough back. He was never a Kansas City guy, and that was always a weird fit, so giving his prime years to an organization that made the playoffs just twice with him as a starter has to sting.

I've said and written this before, but no organization in the NFL lives with a bigger gap between what it thinks of itself historically and what it actually is.

To my ears, that's what Gonzalez was saying.

He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer for 11 years as a starter and the franchise still tripped over itself -- two playoff appearances in those years, and a 6-26 record his last two seasons.

The Falcons fell in the playoffs with him, same way the Chiefs have fallen in the playoffs with everyone since Dawson, but it was a winning culture. They had four straight winning seasons.

The Chiefs won one division title in 11 years with Gonzalez as a starter. They won two division titles and made another playoff appearance with winning records each of his first four seasons there while the Chiefs were stuck in the mud of the Scott Pioli years.

You don't have to like what Gonzalez said. If you're a Chiefs fan, that's particularly true. But the organization failed him. It failed the fans, too, and has for most of its existence.

That's what I heard Gonzalez say.

Probably 1/2, and I would take the under.

The difference could be that college basketball as a whole seems down. The Zion Williamson hype is covering some sins. The sport just isn't as attractive or fun as it should be. The teams aren't as good.

So in that context, sure, maybe Self can figure out a way to sneak into the last game before the Final Four. Maybe Iowa State can shoot its way there. Maybe Tech can do it with defense. Maybe K-State can get back, hopefully this time with Dean Wade actually playing.

Who knows.

But I wouldn't bet on it.

This is a great question, because there's no answer, and never can be, because Dee Ford did line up offsides, and the Chiefs did lose, so the move had to be made.

But I have thought about this, and I think no.

I believe this was an issue that had existed for a long time. I believe that Sutton was given another chance after the 2017 disaster because Andy Reid is loyal and wanted it to work and -- this is notable -- at least a little because the Chiefs didn't think Patrick Mahomes would be this good this quickly.

But, well, Mahomes was this good this quickly, and Super Bowl or not, the same fundamental problems with Sutton and the defense would have existed. For all we know, they'd have gone to Atlanta and lost 54-51 to the Rams again, and if that happened, Reid is making the same decision for the same reasons.

I guess what I'm saying here is that firing Sutton was not about one play, or one game. It was about people in the building believing that Sutton was being outcoached consistently, way too slow to adjust, way too passive, and didn't have enough accountability within the staff and roster.

That's why he was fired.

All of those would've been just as true no matter where Ford lined up.

Never forget that there was a time the knock on Mike Krzyzewski was that he couldn't win the big one. At one time, Michael Jordan was just a scorer who didn't have the toughness to win. Kobe Bryant was a spoiled kid looking for shortcuts. Bill Belichick was fired by the Browns, and lost 13 of his first 18 games with the Patriots.

Sports are the best.

Well, yeah, put like that it sounds like a distinction without a difference.

To fans, their favorite teams become family. The teams become part of their lives, part of their plans, the friends they meet at games invited to weddings and birthday parties. The best moments with their kids or parents often revolve around games. Conversations are started, relationships mended, all over games.

Those failures and successes can then become deeply emotional, because they can feel like the fans' own failure or success. Either way, it's a bond. That's what I was trying to express with this story before the AFC Championship Game.

The bond between fan and team can be unbreakable, because there are no contracts. The team is there, year after year after year*, and so are the fans. It can be a one-sided relationship, but it can also be an intimate one.

* Unless Stan Kroenke is the owner, boom-roasted.

With players, they often talk about a team being family, but there's at least an underlying understanding by all involved that this is strictly business. In football, that's particularly true, because the same coaches who preach family will cut players who are no longer worth the cap hit and the same players who preach family will hold out when their leverage exceeds the cap hit.

So with players, the failures and successes by nature are deeply personal, because they can be worth the ability to support a family. Those failures and successes come on the biggest stage, which means that's what they're remembered for, even if it's patently unfair*.

* Like, for instance, with the great and graceful Jan Stenerud.

With a fan, they often cannot imagine getting joy from another team. That's why Neil Smith's career remains so complicated here.

With a player, they often could not care less where the success comes from, just as long as it comes.

It's a personal business to them. With fans, it's just personal.

Weird Raiders stuff always reminds me of the amazing line from an NFL owner in Seth Wickersham's and Don Van Natta's story on the Raiders from 2017: "(Mark Davis) surprises people if he can roll out of bed and put on his pants."

You guys, it doesn't get better than that.

I'm all for the Raiders playing in San Francisco. Much of this is selfish, because my sister lives close to there, and San Francisco is a great city.

I'm also all for delaying the move to Las Vegas as long as possible because no offense to you people but the Southwest non-stops from Kansas City to Vegas on the weekend the Chiefs play there sounds like an actual version of hell.

There. I said it. I feel better.

But, yeah. The Raiders being in geographic limbo, playing in a baseball stadium in a city they don't fit while another stadium is being built in a city where they'll rarely play a true home game is very, very, very, very Raiders.

Oh, man. How much time you got, buddy?

Depending on how nerdy you are, the Bill James Handbook is always great. It's a staple of my life. The annual Baseball Prospectus book is also terrific.

But I think that's probably not exactly what you're talking about. I think you're asking for more narrative books. If that's true: -- Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life by Richard Ben Cramer is one of my favorite books of all-time. Just a remarkable story on so many different levels. -- K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner is delightfully nerdy. Lots of good nuggets. -- Power Ball by Rob Neyer is brilliant, and will make you think about the game in new ways. -- The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by my friend Joe Posnanski is a joyous book and perfect match of subject and author. -- The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn is an American Classic. -- Teammates by David Halberstam, same. -- Anything by Jane Leavy is going to be spectacular. I haven't read her Babe Ruth book, but this is me giving it the equivalent of a blind RT. -- The Process, by Sam Mellinger and Andy McCullough is a book that was never written but should have been.

This week I'm particularly grateful for the moment the other day when our older son got off his bike, took his helmet off, ran inside, grabbed his Chiefs helmet and started biking down the sidewalk again. Sometimes, he tries to get his hair to come out the bottom of the helmet and asks us if he looks like Patrick Mahomes. He's in preschool now, and Mahomes will probably still be the quarterback here when our boy is in high school.

___

(c)2019 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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