Remembering former Chiefs defensive coordinator, head coach Gunther Cunningham
If someone asked me to help prepare a younger and more talented version of myself to take my job, I know what I hope I’d say.
I also know what I probably would say. It would be this:
“I’m trying to go out there and (write) good (columns),” I’d say. “I’m trying to go out there and (write) the best (columns) of my life. As far as a time constraint, and all that stuff, I’m not worried about developing guys or any of that. That is what it is. And like I said, I hope he does develop. But I don’t look at that as my job. My job is to go (write good columns) for this (multi-platform media company).”
OK. That’s silly. But you get the point. With some goofy parenthetical editing those are the words new Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco said yesterday when asked about mentoring second-round pick, Lee’s Summit native and Mizzou grad Drew Lock.
I’m not even going to make the joke about Lock being better off without Flacco’s influence. I’m just here to tell you that what Flacco said is natural, honest and human. Where else but sports are you expected to facilitate your own unemployment?
But the whole thing brings into stronger focus the strength of Alex Smith.
Because he did exactly what Flacco is (again, naturally) resisting. Did it twice, actually, each time in extraordinary circumstances.
First, in San Francisco, Smith was having the season of his life. He was leading the league in completion percentage, and his passer rating over 100. Then he suffered a concussion. Smith had bad luck with injuries before, including at least one concussion and an entire season that was missed because the surgeon left a wire in his shoulder.
Yes, those were dysfunctional times. Smith may have been the least prepared No. 1 overall pick in league history. He was a low-level high school recruit, and played only one game — the bowl game his last year in college — believing he’d be an NFL player.
Smith was just 20 years old when the 49ers took him first overall, and the club was an abject disaster. He had a different offensive coordinator every season until Jim Harbaugh was hired. Finally, Smith had someone who knew what they were doing. The 49ers went to the NFC Championship Game that first season but lost on a fluke special teams turnover.
The next year, the concussion. Smith did not complain about the rotten luck. When he was healthy enough to play and Harbaugh chose to stick with Colin Kaepernick, well, Smith privately seethed. But he did not complain.
He answered questions for Kaepernick, offered advice on how to attack defenses, and generally served as an aid in the transition from unknown backup to league star.
The 49ers made it all the way to the Super Bowl that year, losing at the very end, by five yards. To this day Smith is convinced they’d have won with him playing. Maybe he’s right. We’ll never know.
The 49ers did Smith a solid, trading him to the Chiefs. Smith had known a trade was coming and he told friends he hoped it was to the Chiefs, especially after they hired Andy Reid as coach.
Smith played the best football of his career in Kansas City. The Chiefs had winning records in each of his five seasons, and made the playoffs four times. In 2017, he led the league in passer rating and — eat it, haters — was the NFL’s best statistical deep passer.
A crumbling defense wrecked that season, the Chiefs unable to keep a 21-3 playoff lead at home. By then, Smith knew he’d change teams again. He’d seen the future everyday in the quarterback room.
The season after the Chiefs traded up to take Patrick Mahomes, Smith’s first priority was always his own play. Let’s keep this honest. He didn’t martyr his own career. But he did swallow the disappointment of a team close to a Super Bowl using two first-round picks to choose someone who not only wouldn’t help that first year but would soon be the reason Smith needed to sell his house.
Mahomes has said he thought he took the game seriously when the Chiefs selected him. Thought he worked hard. Thought he knew what that life was. Then he saw Smith, and knew he had to set his alarm earlier in the morning.
Smith was not Mahomes’ tutor in 2017. More like a role model. He’d answer questions, sure, but the more important help was modeling how a QB1 lives. It’s funny. Smith would say the same about being a father. It’s not what you say, but what you model.
Anyway, Smith would text Mahomes late at night or early in the morning with his own schedule. If Mahomes wanted to do the same, cool.
Let’s be as clear as possible: this isn’t normal.
Flacco’s response, that’s normal.
Smith’s actions are the ideal, what we’d all be in our best and strongest moments. Reid said Mahomes should buy Smith a house for all the help. Pat Mahomes, Patrick’s father, spent 11 years in the big leagues. He’s seen plenty of young players called up to take plenty of veterans’ jobs.
He knows how this usually goes, which is why he made a point after the regular season finale — Patrick started in Denver with the playoff seeding already set — to stop Smith and thank him for all he did for Patrick.
“He’s a great kid,” Smith said in Pat’s retelling. “He’s going to be special.”
Smith took a lot of criticism in Kansas City. Some of it was justified, most of it part of the job, and at least a little patently absurd. Through it all, he helped save a franchise from dark times, stabilized a position that had long been in flux, won the franchise’s first playoff game in more than 20 years, and in the end helped bolster the future in ways that few of us would.
None of this is meant as criticism toward Flacco. He’s doing what humans do. What’s natural.
But those words shine light on Smith’s grace, unselfishness, and higher principles.
I think we’d all like to say we’d do the same. I think we all know the vast majority wouldn’t.
This week’s eating recommendation is the fried chicken at Rye and the reading recommendation is the great Bruce Arthur on Kawhi Leonard’s incredible series winner and buzzer beater.
No. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether the vocal is the majority or the minority, but whatever it is the vocal is going to be disappointed if it’s expecting Javier Baez.
Nicky Lopez is a good player. Nicky Lopez is an upgrade over Chris Owings. Nicky Lopez will be hard to strike out, he won’t make many mistakes, he’ll be dependable and sure-handed at second base. Nicky Lopez is part of the Royals’ best future.
Nicky Lopez is also 24 years old with a career .412 slugging percentage in the minor leagues.
This sort of thing happens all the time in sports. Backup quarterbacks and minor league prospects are the most popular people in losing organizations. I’m old enough to remember when a lot of you were stoked to see Tyler Palko.
Fans can’t be blamed for this phenomenon, either. Feed a man horse meat and all of a sudden a Subway sandwich sounds pretty good.
Steamer projects Lopez to hit .273/.339/.378 which, wow, is startlingly close to what I told a neighbor yesterday: .280/.340/.360*.
* The Mellinger Projections are proprietary but rely on a mix of advanced metrics, scouting judgments, pure guesses and how much sleep I got the night before.
You can win with that if he’s hitting second between, say, Adalberto Mondesi and Whit Merrifield next year. Or lower in the order, even ninth as a sort of backup leadoff man. His profile is, basically, what the Royals thought they were getting with Omar Infante.
Again, you can win with that.
But he better be only a part of what you’re hoping to win with.
Yeah, that was a bad look, and it’s worth mentioning that general manager Dayton Moore apologized on a conference call with beat reporters.
“It wasn’t intentional,” he said.
It was an unintentional window into how these things work, is what it was.
When Dayton told those reporters that they wanted to protect Whit Merrifield’s legs, and that without second base regularly open it didn’t make sense to call up Nicky Lopez, he was telling the truth.
It’s a truth I didn’t necessarily agree with, but one from which you can see the logic.
Because every decision the Royals make right now should consider the long-term interests of Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, and Whit Merrifield. That’s the core. That’s it. Protect them.
After that, you try to bolster the rest. Especially the pitching.
But if they have an alternative plan with Merrifield (maybe that includes DH against righties when Jorge Soler can be on the bench) and (more importantly) buy-in from him that he can handle the added wear and tear through the hot months of the summer then it’s good for the Royals in the short- and long-term.
But what I mean by the unintentional window is that teams — and they should do this — try to present decisions as collective and absolute. A unified front. Everybody is on board. We’re all together and believe in this completely.
That’s absurd, of course, and you wouldn’t want that to be true. No two humans should agree on everything, and if you have a leadership core of executives, scouts and coaches who agree on everything you have a bunch of limp minds who won’t stand for anything.
The way this situation reads to me is that Ned Yost talked Dayton Moore into the move. I don’t know that, and will try to find out, but that’s the way it reads to me.
Which is not a bad thing, at all. If you’re inclined you could call it a positive sign.
But for the moment, this is a significant move. The Royals have gone one step closer to finding out how close they can be to their best future. Eventually, I believe, they’d like it to look something like this:
Whit Merrifield, LF
Nicky Lopez, 2B
Adalberto Mondesi, SS
Hunter Dozier, RF
Ryan O’Hearn, 1B
Jorge Soler, DH
Sal Perez, C
Khalil Lee, CF
Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
There are a million ways that could and (let’s be honest) will blow up. History says at least some of these guys won’t be productive big-leaguers in a few years. Baseball is hard.
Also, the Royals are high on Erick Mejia. Bubba Starling will get a chance. The Royals have a promising group of young catchers. Seuly Matias is struggling at Class A but remains young for the league and full of power potential.
But, generally, the Royals have at least the outline for what the future might look like. That outline is starting to be filled in a bit.
For sure. Have a feeling this isn’t the last time I’ll link the Royals At 40 column, but seasons like this can serve as a separator of fans.
Some are so obsessed with baseball or the Royals or both that they will watch no matter what. Some are so invested that the interest becomes watching Adalberto Mondesi blossom, or appreciate the daily work of Whit Merrifield, or the Alex Gordon renaissance, or the Hunter Dozier arrival*, or whatever.
* I think?
This is the part where some will talk about being “true fans,” and project whatever definition they want on that term, but hopefully we can all agree that’s pure b.s.
Because some fans will (and have been) following the team from afar. They still have their t-shirts and hats but they don’t watch the games because Chris Owings is always at the plate or Wily Peralta is always on the mound and they have bills and kids and chores and work.
Some fans still love the Royals but will tune out for a while because they losing makes them sad, and there’s other stuff on TV, or a book they’ve been putting off, or any other fine use of time.
Wherever you sit on the spectrum, someone will judge you, and their judgments can go play in traffic.
Because it’s your life, and when you decide to be a fan it doesn’t mean handing that life over to a private business.
I’ve said this a million times and it’s still not enough: it’s not up to fans to spend their time and money on a team; it’s up to the team to be worthy of their fans’ time and money.
Even if I had a real job, I would be toward the “no matter what” end of the spectrum. But even then I’d probably be watching a little more Netflix than baseball on weeknights, and be spending fewer weeknights at the ballpark with my family.
So I get it.
But I also get this: building good baseball teams is hard, particularly without a big payroll, and particularly with spending limits on amateur talent.
What the Royals did in 2014 and 2015 is close to a miracle, and a repeat will require a lot of good decisions and hard work and luck. They’re behind where they could be already, most notably because they failed to make a bold decision after the 2016 season — either to go all in on winning in 2017 by signing some free agents or go all-in on a rebuild by trading stars.
Watching a last-place baseball team can feel like the worst monotony, and until the Royals fill in the bottom of their lineup and especially the pitching staff there will be a lot of monotony in the box scores.
The truth is that they will probably lose more than 90 games this year, and the optimistic view is that next year could be sort of like 2013 the first time around. Maybe. It also might end up like 2012. Or 2004.
Either way, a lot of patience is being asked of you, and if your response is to binge watch Ray Donovan* or finally read that book then only a fool would hold it against you.
* Wife and I are all-in. What a show.
Especially if you’re keeping up with all the essential developments through the Minutes.
Well, you’re not going to like this answer. But 2021? Maybe the end of next year?
Right now, in Omaha, Josh Staumont and his fastball are finding success. Foster Griffin has long been better liked internally than by Baseball America. He’s getting closer, but still just 23 and not forcing a promotion.
Northwest Arkansas has some interesting arms, including Arnaldo Hernandez, but nobody you need to be keeping up with quite yet.
The trove is in Class A Wilmington — Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic and others. But that’s Class A, which means two things.
First, all those guys aren’t going to make it. Second, the ones that will aren’t making it this year or probably next.
I don’t know the timeline the front office has for each of those guys. But the most aggressive plan possible would be to get some of them to Class AA this year, start in Omaha next year, and be ready for a call-up sometime toward the end of 2020.
Again: that’s the most aggressive plan possible, and guys aren’t going to come up throwing flames.
It’s going to take some time.
Won’t be long before the Dayton Moore hate comes out again.
I don’t think you can start getting so cute with the No. 2 pick in the draft that you pass on a guy you think is the best available player because he projects as a middle infielder and you have middle infielders.
That’s a good way to screw up your franchise.
We can go pragmatic here if you’d like. Witt — and, yes, that’s who I expect it to be assuming Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman goes first — is a high school player. It will take him a little longer to get to the big leagues. The chances of Mondesi, Merrifield, and Lopez all being championship-caliber middle infielders in, say, 2023 is less than you might think.
We can go strategic if you’d like. If you’re a good enough athlete to play shortstop in the big leagues you are a good enough athlete to play anywhere with the exception of catcher.
The Royals have always loved their athletes. So — optimistic here — what if Witt plays centerfield? Surely he could play third. Or either corner outfield spot.
Think of going the other way. Think of taking, say, Cal’s Andrew Vaughn No. 2 overall because you like his bat and think you’re covered in the middle infield.
Vaughn is generally regarded as the best hitter in the draft class. But there are a few problems with this strategy. First, you may not actually be getting a better hitter. But even if you are, he’s undersized, and history tells you first basemen that size have a limited ceiling and the indications are that he’s limited to first base.
So you’re sacrificing positional versatility and, if you’re the type to draft for need, that positional versatility is a good thing for the Royals to protect if they’re worried about Merrifield’s legs in the outfield or where to fit the puzzle pieces.
I’ve always thought you can draft for need a little bit in the NFL. Those picks have to be on your roster immediately, after all. But when even the best prospects take a few years to get to the big leagues, you have to take the guys you think will end up as the best players.
Figure out the rest later. Worst case scenario you make a trade from a position of strength.
I’ve thought way too much about this question, and I resent you a little bit for only giving me five spots. The way I’m reading the question is you’re asking for guys who were the most unpopular while they played here.
It’s an important distinction, because at least for me it eliminates Lin Elliott from the list. I’m not here to tell you he was ever particularly liked, but he also never played here again after missing 32 field goals against the Colts in the playoffs*.
* I didn’t factcheck that but it feels right.
I’m also not including Johnny Damon, because his boos came after he left, which was always silly anyway because he would’ve stayed with a more competent organization. Speaking of Royals, I’m also not including guys I think of as sort of run-of-the-mill fan whipping boys. Chris Owings is the current version, but over the years we’ve had Jeff Franceour, Runelvys Hernandez, Joakim Soria (the second time), Yuniesky Betancourt, Kyle Davies, Tony Pena Jr. and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.
So, yes. Making this list is a high bar.
So we won’t be seeing Chiefs like Trezelle Jenkins or Glenn Dorsey or Ryan Sims or Larry Johnson.
I’m also not including Marcus Peters here, though he has an interesting case. In some specific ways he might have been the singularly least popular player here while he was playing. I would argue that he was clearly the least popular good player here.
But Peters also had passionate supporters, some of whom were as blind to his faults as a player as his detractors were his strengths. Anyway, that’s a different conversation. One we’ve written plenty about.
OK. Onto the list.
5. Steve Bono. He earned his way on here with the quote about the worst San Francisco restaurant being better than the best Kansas City restaurant. This place is too insecure and too parochial for stuff like that, but he’s this low because he’s not given nearly enough blame for the 10-7 loss to the Colts. Shouts to Lin Elliott obvi.
4. Neifi Perez. He also earned his way on here with a lack of production that was only surpassed by a lack of giving a damn. Famously refused to go into a game.
3. Mike Sweeney. It got ugly there for a while, whether Royals fans want to admit it now or not. I would wager that no athlete in Kansas City history has been booed at home more often. His toughness was questioned, his desire, his commitment. He always handled it with class.
2. Matt Cassel. Kids younger than 2 can’t remember it, but there was a time when Kansas City was quite tough on its quarterbacks. Eric Winston overreacted, because those cheers were for Brady Quinn, and my goodness I can’t even finish the thought because that is such a depressing sentence. Anyway, Cassel is the only athlete to inspire fans to hire an airplane to carry a banner. But he’s not tops (bottoms?) on this list because he always had Scott Pioli for cover.
1. Elvis Grbac. The GOAT. Few quarterbacks have underperformed the talent around them, which was compounded by the end of the Broncos playoff game and especially by Rich Gannon’s success. You can say what you want about Cassel, but those teams were never going anywhere anyway.
This is complicated. I know I keep using that word, but it’s the only one that feels accurate every time I use it on this.
Because in some ways ... I guess the answer is yes?
I can’t emphasize this enough: there is no tangible benefit to cutting him a week ago vs. cutting him in two months other than PR, and the Chiefs have shown what they think about PR.
I think what’s fair to say is the Chiefs want to keep him. He’s incredible at football, and the Chiefs are trying to win football games. That’s the truth.
But I’m not sure the answer to your question is yes. And I’m not sure for one specific reason, and it goes back to why I keep calling this complicated:
The Chiefs don’t know what’s coming.
The NFL doesn’t know what’s coming.
Tyreek Hill doesn’t know what’s coming.
There are so many moving parts here, many of them underneath the surface, and it seems to me that the amount of information we’ll never know dwarfs the amount of information that’s still coming which dwarfs the amount of information we have so far.
Hill’s lawyer threw a Hail Mary with the letter to the NFL that was recently leaked, and it succeeded in changing some of the conversation, but there is still so much more to be done.
What seems obvious at the moment is that the best case scenario for Hill is that he’s suspended but not cut, and able to sign a contract extension with the Chiefs. Presumably that contract would not be worth what it would’ve been without all of this, but I also think that Drew Rosenhaus is one of the best agents in the business and maybe we should push thoughts about the contract situation to a different day.
The worst case scenario remains that he’s cut and not allowed to play again for a long time, perhaps ever.
At this point I’d bet the outcome is closer to the former than the latter, but really, nobody knows. When KCTV-5 released that audio I assumed that was it for Hill and the Chiefs. But the second day of the audio provided some context that the first didn’t, and as stomach turning as it was to hear the way he talked to his fiancee on that tape it remains something short of a smoking gun.
I know I’ve written this before, but what I heard on the tape is a man who genuinely does not know the difference between discipline and abuse. Whatever punishment is coming is deserved. But I hope there’s help, too.
It’s all just massively sad. Crystal Espinal may have incriminated herself on the tape, and it remains a fact that her financial future and that of her kids is closely tied with how this investigation turns out.
So, one more time: Complicated. You’re not wrong in what you say, but what I really think is that the stuff that will decide whether Hill stays with the Chiefs (or plays again in the NFL) has not yet come out.
Yes. I agree with what you said.
Also: none of it is good.
I’m not here to bury Sporting. The roster is solid, and credibility has been earned. Injuries can’t be used as excuses, but they can be part of the explanation.
And you’re right!
The 1-0 loss at D.C. United was an improvement. Statistically, it was an even match. United’s chances were generally better, and it deserved the win, but still. Something like progress.
I think you’d agree that Sporting — no matter the injuries — should be past the point of moral victories.
The defense was improved against United, but let’s keep this honest. Tim Melia still needed to make a few highlight saves to keep it at one goal, and the midfield play just hasn’t been good enough. Sporting never had a truly great scoring chance.
I’m curious enough to see what it looks like when Benny Feilhaber is more acclimated, and of course things should improve as guys get healthier.
But I’m just not ready to blame this all on injuries. We go through some version of a Sporting freakout every year, and I always sort of laugh at it, but this team plays like one that is in legitimate trouble.
In general, I believe NFL teams and fans overvalue draft picks. If you have the cap space, and particularly with picks outside the top 10 or so in most drafts, I believe you’re better off taking the certainty of an established player over the low cost of a pick.
But there is a breaking point, at some point, and I don’t know that the team that just traded picks and a lot of cap space for Frank Clark is best served doing the same for Patrick Peterson.
Teams seem to find ways around the cap, but the Chiefs will be paying a lot of money to Patrick Mahomes and Chris Jones soon. They’re already paying a lot for Clark, Travis Kelce, and others.
Peterson will be 29 this season, and is owed $11 million. His 2020 season is basically a club option for $12 million. After that, he’s a free agent. Those are reasonable terms, even if you’re a little concerned about cornerbacks approaching their 30th birthdays.
But the Chiefs are soo close to the Super Bowl, and cornerback is such an obvious need. A man of Peterson’s talents would make Kendall Fuller the No. 2, Bashaud Breeland the 3, and the rest depth. That’s a pretty good room, and at this point in the franchise’s timeline, it would be a hell of a power move.
So, same as it is with most talks about a trade, I’d want to know exactly what it would take.
If the Chiefs could get away with one of their second-round picks*, I’m here for it. If it would require a first-round pick, I’d probably pass and hope like hell I didn’t regret it.
* Especially if it’s not the one from the 49ers next year, which should be relatively high.
I’ve been ridiculously lucky. I’ve seen Kevin Durant in college, LeBron in high school. I’ve seen Pedro Martinez when he was Peak Pedro, and Barry Bonds when he was chemically enhanced, and Usain Bolt in the 100, and Pete Sampras’ serve from the first row, and Tiger Woods from 20 feet away, and on and on.
I’d love to have seen some of the old-timers. Wilt, for instance. Bob Feller. Willie Mays. Josh Gibson. We could go on and on.
But when I read your question, the two moments that come first to mind have nothing to do with the event.
First, I lived the Kansas City cliche of playing hooky with my dad to watch the Big 8 tournament at Kemper. I am among what I assume is a million boys who had their first steak at the Golden Ox around the tournament.
I can’t tell you one single thing I remember from any of those games. I mean, I remember being there. And I remember it feeling like magic, and I remember feeling like the coolest kid in the world for not being at school. I remember feeling like a man, or at least as close to feeling like a man as an 8 year old is capable, because I was with my dad eating steak and watching ball and skipping school.
The other one I remember wasn’t a game at all, but one day my dad told me we weren’t going to school. We got in the car, picked up some sandwiches and snacks, and drove out to the Flint Hills to a ranch owned by a friend of his. We talked the entire time, about the geography and history of the Flint Hills, but also about school and friends and the world. I even got to ride a horse.
It’s those things that stick out, you know?
More than the moment, it’s what you were doing in the moment. What you felt, what you saw, what you smelled.
I’m guessing you’ve probably seen a generational talent or two in person before. But I’m guessing seeing the Unit sticks out because your dad pulled out of school, and the crowd was probably smaller, and it felt like the coolest thing in the world. Good on your dad.
The lesson, I guess: pull your kids out of school every now and again?
It’s a great question, and I’m not sure I’m the best to answer. There’s also no singular answer to this.
I take my share on social media. Twitter can be a dark, nasty, and dumb place. I’ve been called all sorts of names by strangers who would never think to say that stuff in actual life.
My philosophy is to take it for what it is. If someone I respect points out a mistake or shortcoming I will think about it for months. If someone on Twitter types the nastiest insult they can think of there is a 98 percent chance I’ll forget about it in 30 seconds. The mute button is a gift.
But I also know two things here. First, it took me a while to get to this place. And second, the stuff I get is a fraction compared to many others — sadly, awfully, absurdly, particularly women.
One reason the answer to your question is difficult is because there’s no real way to prepare for it. You could have a professor cite examples of nasty emails or voicemails* or tweets. They could even bring in journalists who’ve lived it. But I don’t think seeing it happen to someone else is proper preparation for experiencing it yourself.
* This is underrated, actually. Tweets are by nature easier to dismiss. Some of the worst stuff I’ve taken is on voicemails that nobody else hears. Stuff about family, even some threats. Those can be harder to shake.
I’m a little out of touch with what’s being taught in journalism schools now, and I know it’s changing rapidly. My hope is that this is already being touched on. The goal in journalism school should be to replicate the real world as closely as possible.
Students should have training on both sides of the camera, for instance, no matter what their plans. They should have extensive social media training, not just with what you’re talking about, but with lessons on how to maximize the benefits of Twitter and Facebook and whatever is coming next.
They should be required to take basic economics and programming courses. Business, too.
I know I’m sort of freelancing your question here a little bit, but this is what I mean when I say it’s difficult to answer. Because yes, absolutely, 100 percent, if someone graduates journalism school without any exposure to how ugly social media can be then the school has failed.
Those lessons (again, unfortunately) are especially important for women and minorities.
But I don’t think that problem can be fully prepared for in school, and universities have resources that can help students prepare in different ways, too, that shouldn’t be minimized.
I hope that makes sense.
This week I’m particularly grateful for what feels like a sort of, maybe, could be, don’t-want-to-jinx-it-but-maybe-it’s-real routine that’s including much more exercise and some smarter eating choices. I really let it fly for a while there, you guys. Starting to feel a little better. Also: I fully plan on going to the Peanut tomorrow.