Monday, August 23, 2010

Chiefs Show Signs of Life In Loss to Bucs

For what it's worth, the Kansas City Chiefs gave us some reason for optimism Saturday in their 20-15 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The offensive attack looked much more determined. Quarterback Matt Cassel bounced back from a dismal effort in Atlanta with a solid performance in Tampa. He completed 14 of 19 pass attempts for 125 yards and a touchdown against the first-team Buccaneers defense. Cassel, preparing for his sixth season in the NFL, avoided throwing an interception for the second straight week and finished the game with a 108.4 QB rating. He exited after the first half.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Whitlock's Departure Signals End of an Era

After almost four months of what the Kansas City Star was calling a "vacation", the newspaper announced today that their lead sports columnist, Jason Whitlock, was leaving the paper to "pursue other interests".

The aren't many words to describe the loss this is for the Kansas City sports scene, and that's ironic considering Whitlock, the writer. He was never a man of few words.

Memoirs of a Misguided Sports Fan

This past weekend was a fairly interesting and eventful few days on the Kansas City sports front. The Chiefs, with their seemingly popular new rookie class, opened up their preseason schedule against the Falcons in Atlanta on Friday. Meanwhile, the struggling Royals hosted the hated New York Yankees for four games in yet another David vs. Goliath style matchup.

This is how it all looked from my vantage point..

* * *

Let's start with Friday, which, at least when the weekend began, was the day most fans in this city (including myself) were looking forward to the most. It was amazing to see how quickly the hype and excitement surrounding the Chiefs coming into this season seemed to vanish. In my previous post, I mentioned a few things to look for during the game that might help clue us in on how much this team has really improved.

Well, if we were to use that as a basis, the results are mostly mixed. Branden Albert looked okay, but the ultimate goal of him improving is to see the offensive line perform better as a whole. That did not happen, at least while the Falcons first-team defense was still in the game.  In limited play, new addition Thomas Jones had little room to the run the ball between the tackles, and it wasn't until the second quarter when Jamaal Charles checked in that the running game really even got going. By then, the Atlanta starters were already out of the game, making the results less signifcant. Also, right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan whiffed on a block on the second offensive series, leading to a sack and fumble by quarterback Matt Cassel.

Cassel didn't look great at all Friday, either. His final stats (other than the fumble) may have looked up to par - six of eight for 25 yards - but you have to look deeper. During one series on third down, Cassel took a sack when he had an opportunity to throw the ball away and secure a very makeable field goal attempt. The sack led to the attempt by kicker Ryan Succop being much longer, and of course, he missed it. Playoff quarterbacks do not make those kinds of mistakes.

It was surprising to see that, at least to my knowledge, Cassel (or any of the quarterbacks) never even targeted receiver Dwayne Bowe on a pass attempt. Now, it's possible that was more of a product of conservative play-calling than anything else. Still, even in the first preseason game, it's a bad sign.

And we haven't even elaborated on the fumble play, which could have easily been avoided. The block was missed by the right tackle, which isn't a right-handed quarterback's blind side. So your guess is as good as mine as to why Cassel didn't simply step up in the pocket and roll to the outside, which he clearly had plenty of room to do, to try and make a play. Instead, he tried to rush his throw, but his arm was hit by Atlanta defensive end Kroy Biermann, and the ball was knocked loose before the tuck rule could come into play.

There were some encouraging signs to speak of Friday. Although first-round draft pick Eric Berry didn't make any big plays, he did seem to be around the ball on almost every play while he was in the game. The two second-round picks from the 2010 draft were the real stars, though. It was somewhat of a shock to see Dexter McCluster lined up as a running back more often than a receiver after the team made it clear he'd contribute primarily as a slot receiver in the offense. That didn't seem to matter one bit, though, after the ball was in his hands. It's pretty obvious to me that, if he can stay healthy, McCluster will quickly become a star in Kansas City. His quickness was absolutely unmatched by the Falcon defense as he repeatedly beat the linebackers to the outside on sweeps and pitch plays for big chunks of yardage. On the end of one run, McCluster took a big-time late hit by a Falcon defender but immediately popped back up with a smile on his face. Let's hope he can continue to do that into the regular season, when the wear and tear begins to take its toll on the players' bodies.

The other second-round pick, cornerback Javier Arenas (who is also known for his speed), shined as well. It looks like the Chiefs may have finally found a comparable replacement to Dante Hall in the return game. Arenas returned three kickoffs for 85 yards, including a 42-yarder. He also had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown taken off the board because of a holding penalty called on rookie free agent Justin Cole. Not bad at all for a debut.

Overall, though, the team and its fans got a healthy dose of reality Friday. Maybe all those playoff predictions were a bit premature. Or maybe not. On the one hand, you got the feeling Friday that if the starters stayed in the game, the Falcons would have won by five touchdowns. On the other, it is preseason. Just as we may have put too much stock into a solid offseason and smooth (so far) training camp, we should apply that to our analysis of Friday's disappointment and avoid jumping to conclusions just yet.

* * *

Saturday was a change of pace, as I, for the first time since April visited Kauffman Stadium to see a Royals game.*

*On April 10th, after yet another Royals' loss, I left Kauffman with the worst feeling in the pit of my stomach and vowed not to give owner/soul reaver David Glass one more dime of my money until the team put a respectable product on the field. At the time, I figured my boycott would last until opening day 2011, when there should be more reason for optimism than there is currently. What I wasn't considering was the annual trip to Kauffman some of my extended family (who come in from out of town) and I have been attending for some years now. So I went.

There was definitely some electricity in the air, as would be expected with the Yankees in town. Now, these may not be your daddy's Yankees, but the new-look Bronx Bombers did not disappoint. After splitting the first two games of the series, the Yankees brought the bats on Saturday in a big way. Alex Rodriguez, the newest member of the 600-homerun club, led the way with three absolute monster homers against three different Royals pitchers. By the time A-Roid had rounded the bases on his second long-ball, at least half of the crowd at Kauffman had joined in for a loud "Let's Go Yankees!" chant. After the third homer - which landed in the left field fountains - I was completely in awe, as I'm sure the rest of the spectators on hand were as well.

It wasn't until after the game that it really dawned on me that I had just witnessed history, or something close to it. It's not every day you get to see a member of the 600-homerun club play ball, let alone blast three in one game. Obviously, in A-Roid's quest to join the elite group (there are now only seven members) there was a lot of talk about how big of a deal the 600th homerun would be, considering his use of steroids while in high school, which he admitted to a few years back.

It's sad, really. Baseball statistics are what allowed the game to stand out. Numbers in baseball seemed to matter more, or at at least most fans believed that to be true. Now, because of steroids, the numbers just don't seem to be relevant at all. They're not real. It's impossible for the casual fan to respect the sport anymore, and the game's popularity has taken a hit because of it.

As for the Royals, they were able to split the series (which seems like a miracle in itself) after a 1-0 victory Sunday afternoon. Former first overall draft pick Brian Bullington picked up his first major league win after tossing eight innings of two-hit ball against the Yanks. I could only think of two possible explanations for this happening:  Has Bullington finally, after eight years as a pro, figured out how to pitch, or was Sunday's anomaly simply a product of Jeter and co. having one too many drinks late-Saturday night on the Kansas City bar scene? I'll let you decide on that one.*

*The players are human, too, and I'm in no way knocking having a few beers at the bar on a Saturday night. But if that indeed did take place, the Yankees ought to be embarrassed after being shutout on two hits Sunday. I feel it's worth noting that during the game Saturday, I had a conversation with my uncle where we discussed the possible clubs and bars some of the pin-stripers may hit after the game. I commented to him that if the Yankees looked sluggish the next day, then we could safely conclude they hit the town hard the night before. Combine that with the fact that they probably didn't get the chance to do much after Friday's game because of multiple rain delays, and it's pretty obvious to me how they spent their Saturday night.

* * *

Sunday, as it turned out, was the highlight of my weekend. I actually wasn't able to watch the Royals game live, because a few friends and I made the somewhat spontaneous decision to head to St. Joseph to check out a Chiefs training camp practice.

We got to Missouri Western State University with over an hour to spare until practice was scheduled to start, so we decided to walk around campus and take it all in. It didn't take long (maybe two minutes) for us to find a way to disrupt the goings-on, as we were able to stumble upon what appeared to be a player parking lot (The 250-pound beasts getting in and out of the Escalades and Camaros were a dead giveaway.). After we walked past a sign that said "Chiefs VIP Parking - not open to the public", we decided to hang out by the front door of the building, which looked to be the cafeteria, presumably where the players were eating before practice.

Just as we were considering moving on, Cassel, Brodie Croyle, and (I assume) Tyler Palko came rushing outside to head to practice. None of them had the time to stop for an autograph or picture, but as Croyle explained (he was the only one we actually asked, and I don't think Cassel liked that all too much), they would have plenty of time after practice to chat and sign an autograph or two. It wasn't long after they hopped in Croyle's (it had Alabama plates) Avalanche that a security guard came outside and pointed us toward the practice fields. Off we went.

The practice was fairly uneventful. I was impressed with the fan turnout - my guess is the total number of spectators was easily more than half than the number of people who attended Sunday's Royals game. There weren't necessarily many plays of note. The highlight was probably watching offensive coordinator Charlie Weis move around on the rascal. I mean no disrespect to people who deal with disabilities, but an NFL coach telling 300-pound grown men what to do from the seat of his rascal is comedic gold.

I've never attended an NFL training camp, so to be fair, Sunday's practice may have very well been the most interesting Chiefs practice they've ever had. I mean, it's safe to say the Chiefs are the only team with a coach calling shots from his rascal, so we have that. But with no real point of reference (I may attend Wednesday's night practice), I can't be certain.

* * *

So, what did I learn over, what some might consider, a pretty fun and entertaining weekend from a sports fan's perspective? I found out the Chiefs, even with all the perceived improvements over the offseason, still look a whole lot like they did last year. I found out the Royals have the ability to be very good and very bad in a very short period of time, but overall, they still stink. We know now, and we may have known before, just how insignificant baseball numbers and records have become.

And in St. Joseph? Well, I'm still torn as far as what to take from that experience. I know now just how entertaining it can be to watch a grown man drive a rascal all over a football field. Right now, as sports fans in Kansas City, we have to take our happiness in small, sometimes minute doses, so I'll take it.

If I get any further than that, I'll let you know.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Chiefs Must Show Progress In Atlanta

Well folks, it's here. Football is back. On Friday, the Kansas City Chiefs will visit the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons in their first preseason game of 2010.

With what had to be one of the more impressive offseasons in recent memory, the Chiefs, after two full weeks of a mostly smooth training camp, are finally starting to make believers out of the usual skeptics. Friday, though, will be the team's first test, and it will be GM Scott Pioli and Head Coach Todd Haley's first real opportunity to show the city and fans the progress they've made.

Progress is the operative word here. It's really all I'll be looking for Friday overall. Still, there are a few specific things I'll be looking for that will help us get a better understanding as to where this team is and what we can realistically expect when the games begin to count.

My eyes will be, for the majority of the evening, on the left tackle position. More specifically, I'll be watching Branden Albert. The Chiefs had many weaknesses in 2009, possibly none bigger than the offensive line's inability to protect the quarterback. While Pioli improved the interior line via free agency and the draft, the left tackle position, or the blind side, was left unaddressed.

There hasn't been much talk about Albert during training camp, which may be a good sign. Here's to hoping it is. Many experts are predicting the Chiefs offense to be much improved this season, but it'd be hard to imagine things getting any better without the third-year tackle taking a major step forward.

If the line can protect, the Chiefs have an opportunity to be much better in the passing game this season. It will be interesting to see, in limited play Friday, if quarterback Matt Cassel has developed better timing and chemistry with his receievers compared to 2009. Chris Chambers, whom the team picked up off waivers from the Chargers mid-last season, quickly developed into Cassel's favorite target because of the continued inconsistent play of Dwayne Bowe. Everyone knows it's now or never for Bowe. Pioli and Haley have shown rare patience with the controversial wideout. Now, to be fair, early reports from camp have shed Bowe in a positive light. It's been said, but not confirmed, that Bowe worked out with All-Pro Arizona Cardinals receiever Larry Fitzgerald this past offseason. For our and his sake, let's hope it pays off. If all we see is more of the same (bad routes, drops), don't be surprised if this ends up being his last go-round in Kansas City.

As we know, Pioli did nab speedy running back/slot receiver Dexter McCluster in the second-round of the 2010 draft. If the upcoming season goes south in a hurry, McCluster may be the only reason for Chiefs fans to continue watching late in the year. He's already become the standout fan-favorite amongst the training camp spectators in St. Joseph, and if things go according to plan, he should eventually provide Kansas City with some national star power for the first time since Jared Allen wore the red and gold. New Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis probably won't give the Chargers (the Chiefs' first regular season opponent) too much game film on McCluster, especially since it is just the first preseason game, but this will still be fun to monitor.

Another fan-favorite in camp so far has been the team's first-round pick, safety Eric Berry. Berry has impressed just about everyone so far - from the coaching staff to the fans - with the way he conducts himself on and off the field. It'd sure be nice to see him make a play Friday. It won't mean much of anything if he doesn't, but it's been a long time since we've seen an immediate return on such a high draft pick in Kansas City. Many are expecting the former Tennessee star to make an impact early for the Chiefs, but it doesn't mean much until we see it happen. The sooner Berry makes his presence known (Like during the first defensive series Friday possibly?), the better.

It's safe to assume we won't know much more about this team after Friday than we do right now. We will find out, though, just how superstitious Haley and the rest of the coaching staff is. I'm, of course, talking about whether or not the Chiefs will be wearing their white pants against the Falcons. See, throughout the 90s (otherwise known as "the glory years" in my inner-circle), the Chiefs wore all white on the road. And, as we know, the Chiefs won a lot during that time period. Then, when Dick Vermeil took over in the early 2000s, the team switched to the red pants on the road. It seemed like a fashionable enough move at the time.

Now, I believe it's time to bring back the white road pants permanently. In the past couple seasons, the team has used them for a game or two here and there, and it would immediately remind me of the glory days of the 90s when our entire city stopped everything for three hours to watch Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith and Dale Carter dominate opposing offenses. The white pants on the road could be symbolism for the tide turning in Kansas City.

Overall, the coaches, players, and fans just need something positive to take from the first preseason game. Last year, with a young roster, the team played poorly during the preseason and it carried over well into the regular season. The team is still very young this year. The fans still haven't completely bought into a complete turnaround (Word is, the Chiefs still have plenty of tickets they need to sell - to the extent that it's likely one or both of the home preseason games will be blacked out.). So a solid performance Friday - and maybe a victory - sure couldn't hurt.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Revis Situation

It seems there is a pretty intense situation going on in New York these days. It involves New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and his desire for a new, long-term contract.

There was plenty of talk leading up to training camp that Revis would holdout after putting together a monster 2009 campaign. The third-year cornerback established himself as the face of the NFL's number one defense while helping the Jets make it to the AFC Championship game (with a rookie quarterback, no less). The nickname "Revis Island", a term used for Revis and/or the side of the field he's playing on, refers to the fact that he's often allowed to matchup with the league's top receivers without any help from a safety.

Revis, of course, did not report to training camp. He's now 10 days into his holdout, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. Jets owner Woody Johnson has said he doesn't think Revis will play for the team this season.

Here's the deal. ESPN is reporting that Revis, who is due to make $1 million this season with three years left on his current contract, is looking for something in the range of 10 years and $160 million (wow). The Jets brass, according to the New York Daily News, have offered him a 10-year deal worth $120 million.

These dollar amounts all seem ridiculous to the casual fan, but as we know, it's all relative. Before the 2009 season, the Oakland Raiders gave premiere cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha a major pay raise, making him the highest-paid corner in the league at about $16.5 million per year. Revis, believing (correctly) that he is as good as or better than Asomugha, or any other cornerback for that matter, wants to get paid like Asomugha. In this light, Revis' request seems understandable, given the precedent that has been set.

Surprisingly, many Jets fans have turned on Revis during this ordeal. It's odd. In most player vs. ownership financial battles, it's the team's brass who find themselves worse off in the public eye. Also, Revis was already one of the more popular players in New York. I couldn't imagine if, during his time with the Chiefs, the late Derrick Thomas asked for a new contract and the Kansas City community then collectively sided with King Carl Peterson and the Chiefs brass. There would have been a boycott of Arrowhead Stadium until a new deal was done.

And let's be clear. Maybe Revis is not yet ready to be compared to the likes of Thomas in terms of his stake in the community, but his importance to the Jets defense going forward is certainly on the same level.

Revis' popularity has also taken a hit due to ESPN's biased coverage of the story. They're biased for two reasons:  The coverage is being dictated by the worldwide leader's employees who, some of which, are New York residents and/or Jets fans, and also because, and this is directly related to reason number one, the bias stems from the networks ridiculous love affair with Jets coach Rex Ryan.

Instead of boring you with the disgusting details of the ESPN/Ryan relationship, we'll go at it this way. On Wednesday, Ryan suggested he would call off practice and bring the whole organization in - including the players - to have a meeting with the Revis camp until a deal is worked out. Ryan claimed to be "absolutely serious" about the idea.

It's a joke. This is why coaches coach and general managers and owners, well, they do what they do. Ryan ought to apologize, take his comments back, and claim he wasn't thinking clearly because of heat exhaustion. As frustrating as the Chiefs tight-lipped shot-callers can be, most fans would still probably choose professionalism over the circus Ryan has created.

Anyway, back to Revis. The key in the negotiations, as it usually is in the NFL, is the guaranteed money. It's been reported that the last offer the Jets made included only $5 million in guarantees. To put that in perspective, Chiefs' first-round draft pick Eric Berry signed a deal two weeks ago worth $34 million in guaranteed money. Needless to say, the Chiefs have high hopes for Berry. Still, he hasn't played a down in the NFL. How in the world could Berry be worth more - that much more - than Revis, coming off the season he had in 2009?

So the total years and money on the contract are almost meaningless. NFL contracts aren't structured like some of the other major sports, and most contracts end up having loopholes in them to where the team can get out of the deal without any major penalties long before the contract is due to expire. Revis would be a fool to accept only $5 million in guarantees, because it's the only part of the contract that really has any substance.

Injuries are something players have in mind, as well. Revis is the best player in the NFL at his position, but is currently being paid (and will be, unless a deal is worked out, for the next three years) like a reserve. Anything can happen in the NFL, and players' careers can end at any moment. Take Revis' former teammate, Leon Washington, for example. The Jets offered Washington a long-term deal with guarantees included during the 2009 offseason. Washington declined, instead opting to play out the rest of his contract in hopes that he could raise his stock even higher during the season. Washington then broke his leg early in the year, ending his season and changing the league's perception as to how high of a level he can play. He missed out on millions of dollars because of the risk he took.

Revis can't afford to make the same mistake, and shouldn't feel pressure to take any risks here. He's the best cornerback in the league and deserves to be paid like it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Whitlock's Absence Would Be Felt

This morning I got an e-mail from a friend of mine. In the message was a link to a story by Bottom Line Communications about Holly Lawton's recent announcement that she will resign as Sports Editor for The Kansas City Star.

BLC goes on to speculate that Lawton's decision stems from her differences with the Star's lead sports columnist, Jason Whitlock. According to an inside source, Whitlock had a problem with editors over-editing his columns and also wasn't a fan of working for a woman.

Later in the day, 810 WHB's Kevin Kietzman proposed the idea that Whitlock may have already written his last column for the Star on his radio show. After all, the newspaper had assured readers that the controversial writer was on a seven-week vacation and would be back soon. Problem is, Whitlock's last column was printed May 26th, so seven weeks has come and gone.

A couple things need to be made clear here. The BLC story seemed amateur and extremely biased. Before this morning, I had never heard of BLC, and if you can get past the sloppiness of their website, maybe you can fill me in on what exactly it is that they do.

So, past a possible Lawton/Whitlock quarrel, we'd be smart to take the rest of the story with a grain of salt.

Also, it's obvious Kietzman had ulterior motives. During his piece on Whitlock, Kietzman mentioned that it's possible the overweight writer is on a leave of absence because he has an addiction or is on a weight-loss program. Kietzman's goal, other than to insult Whitlock, was more about pointing out that he believes that most Kansas City sports fans haven't noticed the writer's absence than it was about analyzing what his absence might mean (like he tried to sell to his listeners).

If you don't already know, he and Whitlock have a bit of a history. Years ago, somewhat of a competition began between them when they worked together at 810 WHB (Kietzman was more or less Whitlock's boss). Eventually, Whitlock claims, Kietzman crossed the line and the two have been dissing eachother on and off by way of their respective outlets ever since.

So we know to keep our minds open when reading or listening to egomaniacal media-types. Still, Kietzman's theory absolutely holds water. The Chiefs have started their training camp, and Whitlock is nowhere near St. Joseph. During his absence from the Star, he has continued to write his column for Add to that the ongoing fear that newspapers have almost become obsolete in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, and it's not hard to imagine Whitlock's time with the Star coming to an end.

Kietzman preached to his listeners earlier that it was "interesting" that people didn't care if Whitlock wrote his column or not. It's natural Kietzman would feel this way. Not long after his arrival at the Star in 1994, Whitlock had become the King of Kansas City sports-media, a title Kietzman has long-starved for and never quite reached.

I really believe people do care. I believe they care now and I believe they'll care more if Whitlock's column is missing during football season. Since I was about ten years old, I've been reading his opinion on many sports topics, but mainly his unique criticism of the Chiefs. I didn't always agree with Whitlock, but I realized early on that that wasn't what it was all about.

It's more than just gaining readers and pleasing the eye or the ear. It's about writing with conviction and respect at the same time. It's about inspiring others, including myself, to write and to not be afraid of what it may sound like or who it might upset or whatever else.

If this really is it, I can't say I like the abruptness of it. Say what you want about Whitlock the man, his departure from the Star would surely impact the city and our newspaper negatively. If you're one of the many who disagree with his column often, it really doesn't matter. We need an opinion to hate.