by Kurtis Seaboldt
If you took a poll asking for the most memorable moment from the Royals’ 2013 season, this would almost certainly be the winner.
It was September 22nd, a beautifully sunny Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals were facing the Texas Rangers. It was the bottom of the tenth of a scoreless game. There were two outs and the bases were loaded. Jason Maxwell stepped into the right-handed batter’s box to face former Royals closer Joakim Soria. The shadows, as they do in late afternoons in late September, shaded both pitcher and hitter.
Then it happened.
Like a bolt of lighting, Maxwell swung and launched the ball into the sunlight and into the left field seats. The Royals had won, 4-0. It was their 82nd win of the season, clinching their first winning season in ten years and their second in 19 years. The fact that a home run – a grand slam, at that – was the signature moment of Kansas City’s season could not be more ironic.
Imagine the 2003 Chiefs winning a big game with a goal line stand and you have a rough equivalence of the oddity of Maxwell’s heroics. Power was not exactly the Royals’ calling card last year. The Royals finished last in the American League in home runs but even that doesn’t tell the entire story. They finished last by 32 homers. Kansas City hit 112 home runs in 2013; the Yankees had the next-lowest total at 144.
The last team to finish last in the AL by more home runs than the 2013 Royals was the 2000 Minnesota Twins who hit 116 home runs, 34 behind - of course - the Royals. Only four Twins hit 10 homers that year; none hit 20. But here’s where it’s interesting. The 2001 Twins did much better in the home run category, jumping from 116 to 164. They went from 14th in the American League to ninth. How did they do it? Did they go ink some big time free agent? Did they make a blockbuster trade?
Their younger players just got better. Torii Hunter went from five homers in 2000 to 27 in 2001, the year in which he turned 25. Corey Koskie went from nine homers to 26 in his 28-year old season. And their young DH went from 10 to 18 in his 25-year old season. His name: David Ortiz. Three players went from a combined 24 homers to 71. And it didn’t cost the Twins a red cent.
But who are the Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie and David Ortiz of the 2013-14 Royals? That seems pretty easy to identify. Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas. They hit 17, 15 and 12 home runs, respectively, last season. Can Hosmer hit 32? The second half of last season and his rookie season suggest that he can. Can Butler hit 29? Well, he has hit 29 before so I’d guess that he can again; he’s only 27. Here’s the tricky one: Can Moustakas hit 25?
He hit 20 in 2012 at the age of 23; he certainly can. But last year was a setback for Moose as every power number fell, some in a big way. As he struggled to maintain a .200 average in the first half, it seemed that his priority shifted from driving the ball to not striking out.
That needs to change in 2014 and, through a week of spring training, it seems that is has. He hit two homers Sunday and hit another one Wednesday. The only problem with that is that Moustakas was a masher last spring as well. He hit .394 with five home runs and 16 RBI’s in 26 games. It took him 73 games to reach both of those numbers in the regular season.
I’d rather have him crushing the ball than not but it’s no real indication of what he’ll do once the games count. But, make no mistake. He – and Hosmer and Butler, for that matter – needs to have a very big year for the Royals to make another move in the AL Central.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
A year ago at this time, the Kansas City Chiefs were one of the biggest stories of the NFL’s offseason. The team had a new general manager, a new and very famous head coach and they had the number one pick in the NFL Draft.
The lights are nearly as bright this year – there will likely be no “Chiefs War Room” on ESPN’s draft coverage – but that doesn’t mean that this year’s draft holds any less importance for the team.
Most observers expected the Chiefs to get better in 2013 – it would have been nearly impossible to get worse – but no one foresaw what happened as the team vaulted the growth curve to finish 11-5, a nine-game jump from the previous season. They sent ten players – TEN! – to the Pro Bowl. Andy Reid won several Coach of the Year Awards.
When your first show is that good, what do you do for an encore?
Well, what most teams do is slide. Over the last twelve years, teams that go from a ten-loss season to a ten-win season in one year, regress in the third year by an average of four games. How do the Chiefs avoid that? Getting better on both sides of the ball would go a long way but that won’t be quite as easy as it was a year ago.
They are a team that clearly has some holes to fill. They don’t have the top overall pick. They don’t have a second round pick. Their only pick in the first 86 selections is at number 23.
So, what do they do?
The theory that most people subscribe to is that the Chiefs will use free agency to address their needs on the defensive line and in the secondary, leaving them taking a wide receiver with their first round pick. But that has been a hit-and-miss proposition in the past, especially for this team.
The last time they went wideout in the first round was in 2011 when they drafted Jon Baldwin, a player known more for catching Thomas Jones’ fist than catching anyone’s pass.
In 2007, the result was Dwaye Bowe. While Bowe has produced three 1,000-yard seasons, he’s only made one Pro Bowl. He hasn’t been a consistent impact player.
Before that, their last foray into first-round wide receiverdom – I made that word up – produced Sylvester Morris, who had the same number of TD catches in his career that Mike Vrabel had in 2005. So the Chiefs’ history of first-round receivers is spotty at best. How does the rest of the NFL do? The answer: kind of hit-and-miss.
Since 2000, there have been 55 wide receivers drafted in the first round. Seventeen (31%) became Pro Bowlers, totaling 44 Pro Bowl selections. However, nearly half of those (21) came from the trio of Larry Fitzgerald (8), Andre Johnson (7) and Reggie Wayne (6). Conversely, while 17 became Pro Bowlers, 26 are out of the NFL. Three of them – R.Jay Soward, Rashaun Woods and the aforementioned Sylvester Morris – played just one NFL season.
Wide receiver riches can definitely be found in Round One. But there are plenty of rags as well.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
I said this was going to happen.
It was seven years ago. Randall McDaniel, the great Minnesota Vikings guard whose resume includes 12 Pro Bowls and nine All-Pro nods, had failed to be a finalist in his first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
At the time Will Shields had just played what would be his final NFL season and the prevailing notion on that February Saturday morning was that Shields, with his 12 Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro nods, would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
That Monday I said on “The Program” that anyone who thought Shields was going in on the first ballot was going to be in for a rude awakening. McDaniel’s career was as decorated as Shields’s was and he wasn’t even a finalist in his first year. No way was Shields going in quicker than McDaniel.
McDaniel moved up to finalist in his second year and then was elected in his third. I figured that was the timeframe for Shields as well but his exclusion from the Class of 2014 has ended that idea. The man who is arguably the greatest player to ever play his position will have to wait until, at least, his fourth year of eligibility.
Saturday’s announcement was supposed to come at 6:00 PM Central Time but, in the age of Twitter, the names always leak out early. Andre Reed was the first then Derrick Brooks. Michael Strahan and Walter Jones followed. Things looked bleak; only five modern day players can go in each year. When word came that Aeneas Williams had made the cut, it was official. Shields was out.
Twitter was then filled with disbelieving Chiefs fans, angry at the snub. I understand that anger. I felt it when Derrick Thomas had to wait until his fifth year to get in. But that taught me to understand the selection process for what it is: well-intentioned but terribly-flawed. You simply cannot apply logic to a situation that sees four-time Pro Bowl guard Russ Grimm as worthy but Shields as unworthy. That is, until you see that Grimm was elected in his 14th year of eligibility.
But, here’s the thing. In the end, it’s not going to matter how long Shields waits. Do you know how many years Buck Buchanan missed the cut? Nine. Len Dawson fell short seven times. Willie Lanier was denied three times, as was Bobby Bell. Does history view them any differently than first ballot guys like Gale Sayers and Bart Starr? Of course, is doesn’t. And it won’t view Shields any differently, either.
Will Shields will be inducted in the Hall of Fame. He’ll wear that yellow blazer. And, no matter when he gets to put it on, it will fit just fine.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
Don’t ask me when it happened but, at some point this past fall, it became obvious that the two best teams in the NFL were the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.
It’s not often that the two best teams make it to the Super Bowl. This will be just the second time in the last 20 seasons that the two top seeds have played for the Lombardi Trophy so it should be a great game. It’s also one of the more intriguing matchups in the Super Bowl’s 48 years.
The Broncos are the NFL’s number one offense; the Seahawks its number one defense. The last time the Super Bowl pitted the team that scored the most points in the NFL against the team that allowed the fewest points was Super Bowl XXV. The New York Giants used a powerful rushing attack and a stingy defense to thwart the high-octane Buffalo Bills, 20-19.
Could that happen again in New Jersey? In the stadium where those Giants currently play? The matchups say it can – and I think will – for the reasons that follow:
1. Seattle’s secondary. Teams have tried all season to knock Peyton Manning off his timing. Virtually everyone failed as Manning had the greatest statistical year in NFL history. The one problem defenses had is that Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly, it’s almost impossible to get any heat on him. The only way to do it is to knock his receivers off their routes and, failing that, cover them with a blanket. Can you think of any other team that can do that as well as the Seahawks?
2. Marshawn Lynch. The 49ers have allowed just six 100-yard rushing games since 2010; four of them are by Lynch, who is a post-season stud. His four touchdown runs of 25 yards or more are twice the number of any other player in post-season history. The Broncos did a great job shutting down the rushing attacks of both San Diego (65 yards) and New England (64 yards) but there’s a measurable difference between Lynch and LeGarrette Blount or Ryan Matthews.
3. The Weather. It’s too far ahead to accurately predict what the weather will be like but the average high temperature for New York on February 2nd is 34 degrees. If any kind of wind accompanies that, it will be a day for the runners and that favors Seattle, who can get ground yards from quarterback Russell Wilson as well.
The Broncos set a new NFL record for points scored this season with 606. That’s 38 a game. However, in two playoff games on their home field, they’ve scored 24 and 26 against defenses not nearly as salty as the Seahawks. I don’t think Matt Prater will miss wide right from 47 in the final seconds but all of the other factors are there for a repeat of the Silver Anniversary Super Bowl.
Defense will win the day. Seattle 20, Denver 19
by Kurtis Seaboldt
For long-suffering fans, it seemed like it was a dream.
The Chiefs were already in possession of a 21-point halftime lead in their AFC Wild Card Game against the Colts in Indianapolis, when defensive back Hussein Abdullah picked off Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on the first play of the third quarter. Three plays later, quarterback Alex Smith hit running back Knile Davis for his fourth touchdown pass of the game.
The Chiefs led, 38-10. The third-longest stretch without a post-season win and the longest post-season losing streak in NFL history was about to end with a dominating performance. Twenty years (and seven games) worth of ghosts were about to be exorcised. Adding to the amazing story, the Chiefs were doing all of this without All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles, out of the game since the first drive when he suffered a concussion. But KC didn’t need JC; this was a red and gold freight train.
The Colts scored a touchdown but it was still 38-17. No sweat. Then the Colts scored again. They had chopped the lead in half. But the Chiefs still had a two-touchdown lead midway through the third quarter. No reason to panic, right? Especially after the Chiefs picked off Luck for a third time and turned it into a 17-point lead with just 19 minutes left.
But then something became very evident to those of us watching on television. The Chiefs simply could not stop the Colts pass offense. Indy went 80 yards – 67 of it through the air – in 1:41 and it was a ten-point lead. The game was still in the third quarter, the clock appearing to have stopped altogether.
On their first possession of the fourth quarter, Luck took his team on a 90-yard TD drive in which he faced just one third down play. The final play of the drive should have told the Chiefs it was not going to be their day. Eric Berry stripped the ball from Donald Brown but the ball bounced directly to Luck, who scooped it up and dove over the top for the score.
Chiefs 41, Colts 38. 10:38 left.
Smith drove his team to a field goal that gave the Chiefs a six-point lead with 5:36 left but anyone with eyes and basic math ability knew the lead would not last. It took Luck just four plays to go 80 yards, the fourth play being a 64-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice. I’m sorry, that’s T.Y. Hilton. Somehow the Chiefs deep secondary allowed a receiver who had, to that point, caught 11 passes for 160 yards to get behind them when a touchdown was the only thing that could beat them.
The Chiefs drove to the Colts’ 43-yard line in the final minutes but Dwayne Bowe’s right foot landed out of bounds on a fourth-down pass play that would have set up a potential game-winning field goal.
Colts 45, Chiefs 44.
The second-greatest post-season collapse in NFL history stretched the Chiefs’ playoff win drought to 20 seasons. The Chiefs have now dropped eight straight post-season games, the longest streak in NFL history. Even worse, they also have a new entry in their logbook of gut-wrenching post-season defeats. Stenerud wide right in ‘71. The hold against Dave Szott in ’90. Lin Elliott wide everywhere in ‘95. Tony Gonzalez out of bounds in ‘97. No punts in ’03. And now “The Collapse”.
The players on this current Chiefs team have no ownership of those past playoff disasters but they have the deed to this one, especially those on the defensive side. A defense that will send five players to the Pro Bowl – one, Eric Berry, was voted first team All-Pro – allowed second-half touchdowns drives of 80, 80, 90 and 80 yards. The total time of possession for those four drives was 8:50. That’s 330 yards. In less than nine minutes.
Andy Reid, in his Sunday press conference, said there would be no staff changes so it appears that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will return. If that’s the case, one of two things must happen. Either Sutton needs to do a page one re-write of his core defensive philosophy or the Chiefs have to put significant effort in shoring up their secondary.
I’d vote for both. Sutton’s scheme puts far too great an emphasis on getting sacks and puts far too great a burden on mediocre defensive backs when those sacks don’t come. The emphasis on edge pressure seems to have left the team vulnerable to the run as well. However you want to slice it, the Chiefs allowed 438 yards a game on offense – 305 passing, 133 rushing – in their last eight games. Something or someone has to change.
The bright light from Sunday is clear. Alex Smith appears to be the man at quarterback. Denied the usage of his best weapon (Charles) he became just the second QB to throw for at least 375 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in a playoff game (Kurt Warner in 2009 was the other).
Knile Davis is very good. For the second straight game, his combination of speed, agility and power was on display. Unfortunately, his day ended with a knee injury, a development that did not help the Chiefs’ chances late.
Dwayne Bowe showed up in a big game. People justifiably scoffed at his mid-week statement that he always showed up in big games but he was great Saturday. Seven of his eight catches were for first downs. If only he could have gotten that last right foot in bounds, the Chiefs might be getting ready for New England instead of getting ready for the off-season. Still, eight for 150 and a score requires no apology.
It has been said that people learn more from failure than success. As a lifelong fan of the Chiefs, I hope that’s true but those lessons didn’t seem to do much for the franchise in the past. However, I think this team benefitted greatly just from having played in that game. It taught those who didn’t already know, just how important it is to take advantage of chances when you get them. But for the fans of this team, it is, for now, just another chapter in a long and very sad book.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
It was halftime at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday. The Chiefs were trailing the Indianapolis Colts, 13-7. A friend sipped his beverage, set it down, turned to me and said the words.
“They’re just playing possum.”
He was referring, of course, to the Chiefs’ rather bland offensive effort to that point. After taking the ball on their first drive and pushing it right down the Colts’ throats and into the end zone, Kansas City had done nothing. What’s worse, it looked as if they had tried to do nothing. No big plays, no dazzling formations, not even the suggestion of a downfield passing game.
It made sense – or it seemed to make sense to my friend and many others in our group. The Chiefs have had a hold on the AFC’s fifth seed ever since they lost to Denver at Arrowhead Stadium on the first day of December. The Colts are the AFC’s current fourth seed and are an odds-on favorite to stay there. The two teams are likely going to meet in an AFC Wild Card Game two weeks from now in Indianapolis.
Andy Reid said his team wouldn’t hold anything back in this game. His team had plenty of plays. They’d prepare for the Colts and then, if they played again, they’d prepare for them again. But we all know that’s just coach speak, right? He has to say that. He can’t come out and say that his team was going to go vanilla. But, they clearly did in the first half, right? They weren’t really having this much trouble moving the ball, right?
They’re just playing possum, riiiiight?
The first two minutes of the second half suggested otherwise. On the Chiefs’ third play of the half, Robert Mathis caught Alex Smith’s throwing hand, resulting in an interception. Three plays later the Colts were in the end zone. Colts 20, Chiefs 7. The game, for all intents and purposes, was over. Also “over” was any notion that the Chiefs’ lackluster play was some kind of brilliant strategy. This team got its butt kicked for the better part of sixty minutes.
They made numerous mistakes, usually at the most inopportune time. (Three of their seven penalties resulted in third-down conversions for the Colts.) They turned it over four times, two interceptions and two lost fumbles. They had three other fumbles that they recovered themselves or it could have been even worse. On defense, they missed a boatload of tackles. On offense, they could not get the ball downfield and, when they did, more often than not, the results were not good.
This was the kind of game that would have fit quite nicely into the rich tapestry of 2012. But those games were supposed to be behind these Chiefs. Now, just as this team felt it was hitting its stride before the playoffs, they have fallen. Badly. With the Chiefs’ playoff slot now written in ink, Andy Reid will be faced with an interesting dilemma next Sunday in San Diego: Rest his players and get them healthy or test his players and get them sharp. It’s a tough call. But it’s a call he has to get right.