Connect with us

Culture

Chiefs defeat 49ers in OT of Super Bowl to cement dynasty status

Published

on

Chiefs defeat 49ers in OT of Super Bowl to cement dynasty status

LAS VEGAS — The NFL has a repeat champion for the first time in 19 years. The Kansas City Chiefs, with a third Super Bowl triumph in five seasons, cemented their status as the league’s modern-day dynasty with a 25-22 overtime win against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

This one, the same as the last two for Kansas City and its superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, came with a stirring second-half comeback — and, this time, with some overtime heroics.

Jake Moody’s 27-yard field goal on the first possession of overtime put the 49ers ahead 22-19, but the Chiefs responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive and won it on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Mecole Hardman.

It was but the latest must-have drive for Kansas City, a team that has built a reputation behind Mahomes as most dangerous when holding the ball last. The Chiefs trailed 19-16 with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter when they marched 75 yards in 11 plays and Harrison Butker kicked a 29-yard field goal. The key play on the drive came on a third-and-7 with 16 seconds left, when Mahomes hit Travis Kelce on a crosser for a 22-yard gain that set the Chiefs up for the easy kick.

It’s the fourth Super Bowl win for the Chiefs franchise and the third for the team under coach Andy Reid, who joins Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs in a tie for third-most all-time. Only Bill Belichick (six) and Chuck Noll (four) have more.

Advertisement

“The number three is a big number in terms of dynasties,” Kelce said this week, adding that he wanted to win this Super Bowl more than any of the previous three he’d played in. Winning three titles in a five-year window puts the Chiefs in a different conversation, one that includes some of the greatest runs in league history.

GO DEEPER

How the Chiefs stack up among NFL dynasties (and a path past the Patriots): Sando’s Pick Six

Mahomes earned his third Super Bowl MVP going 34-of-46 passing for 333 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, resulting in a 99.3 passer rating. He joins Tom Brady (five) and Joe Montana (three) as the only players to win three Super Bowl MVP awards.

The championship also elevates Mahomes — a remarkable 15-3 in the playoffs in his six-year career — into elite company: he’s now one of five quarterbacks in league history to win at least three Super Bowls, joining Brady (seven), Montana (four), Terry Bradshaw (four) and Troy Aikman (three). Brady, Aikman and Mahomes, 28, are the only ones to win three before their 30th birthdays. Across the last two postseasons, Mahomes has gone 7-0, throwing 13 touchdowns and just one interception.

Advertisement

When CBS announcer Jim Nantz mentioned on the postgame podium how the Chiefs were underdogs in the last three games of this postseason, Mahomes said, “Just know that the Kansas City Chiefs are never underdogs. Just know that.”

Kelce added: “We couldn’t have gotten here without having that target on our back all year. Now we got a chance to do it three times in a row.”

It’s a devastating defeat for the 49ers, particularly coach Kyle Shanahan, who adds another chapter of Super Bowl heartache to what’s otherwise been a stellar career. As Atlanta’s offensive coordinator in 2017, Shanahan was on the wrong side of the biggest blown lead in Super Bowl history, when the Patriots rallied from a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to stun the Falcons in the only other championship game to go to overtime. Sunday’s loss is Shanahan’s second as a head coach in the Super Bowl; four years ago, the 49ers blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, eventually losing 31-20.

San Francisco’s championship drought is now at 29 seasons. After winning five Lombardi Trophies within a 13-year window from 1982 to 1995, the 49ers have lost in all three of their trips to the Super Bowl since (after the 2012, 2019 and 2023 seasons).

Before this year’s Chiefs, the last Super Bowl champion to successfully defend its title was the 2004 Patriots. What had become routine in the first few decades of the Super Bowl era — there were eight repeat winners across the first 39 editions of the game — became nonexistent, a byproduct of increased parity across the league and an indication of just how taxing Super Bowl runs can.

Advertisement
go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How a Christmas Day wakeup call helped the Chiefs get back to the Super Bowl

The title caps a stunning late-season surge from Kansas City, which slogged through its worst regular season since Mahomes became the starter in 2018. Plagued by an uncharacteristically inconsistent offense, including a league-worst 44 drops by its receivers, the Chiefs were just 9-6 after a loss to the Raiders at home on Christmas Day. It looked dire enough that Kansas City general manager Brett Veach was left wondering if his team would even make the postseason.

“You see it every year,” Veach said this week, “a team gets off to a hot start and doesn’t make the playoffs.”

But the Chiefs wouldn’t lose again all year, finishing the regular season with a pair of victories before ripping off four straight wins in the playoffs. What started in frigid temperatures in Kansas City, a wild-card win over the Dolphins in the fourth-coldest game in NFL history, continued with two gutsy road wins in Buffalo and Baltimore — the first true road wins of Mahomes’ playoff career — and culminated with Sunday’s comeback in Las Vegas.

It’s the most improbable title of the Chiefs’ current run, not simply due to their regular season struggles but because of the intense spotlight that’s trailed the team for most of the year. Kelce’s relationship with pop superstar Taylor Swift became its own phenomenon, and her appearances at games during the regular season and playoffs — she made it to all four during Kansas City’s postseason run, including Sunday’s Super Bowl after a Saturday show in Tokyo — became one of the biggest stories in sports.

Advertisement

Asked what he’s learned about the crush of celebrity over the past few months, Kelce smiled and offered this in the week leading up to the game: “That being famous worldwide is a lot different than being famous in Kansas City.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

The Year of Travis Kelce: SNL, New Heights, Taylor Swift and another Super Bowl

On Sunday, the 49ers controlled the first half by owning the trenches, particularly when the Chiefs had the ball. San Francisco’s punishing defensive line constantly had Mahomes scrambling from the pocket, sacking him twice and regularly forcing hurried throws. In turn, the Chiefs’ offense never got in sync, managing just a late field goal to cut into San Francisco’s 10-0 lead.

The Chiefs finished with just 16 first-quarter yards — compared with 125 for San Francisco — and couldn’t get Kelce involved. Kelce caught an early bubble screen for one yard, his only target over the first 30 minutes of the game.

After kicker Moody drilled what was then the longest field goal in Super Bowl history — a 55-yarder in the first quarter — the 49ers scored the game’s first touchdown with 4:23 left in the second quarter when wideout Jauan Jennings, off a pitch from Purdy, hit McCaffrey for a 21-yard catch-and-run score. It was a gutsy and creative play call from Shanahan and the first touchdown pass of Jennings’ three-year career.

Advertisement

San Francisco led 10-3 at the break and had Kansas City frustrated. CBS cameras caught Kelce bumping into Reid on the sideline during a tense exchange.

Their chances didn’t look any more promising after the opening drive of the third quarter when Mahomes threw his first interception of the last two postseasons.

But the game swung after a critical 49ers’ mistake in the third quarter when returner Darrell Luter Jr. fumbled a punt on San Francisco’s 35-yard line. The Chiefs’ Jaylen Watson recovered, and it took Mahomes all of one play to capitalize: he hit receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 16-yard touchdown a moment later.

Suddenly, after being outplayed all game long, the Chiefs were in front. History was repeating itself.

Jennings caught the 49ers’ second touchdown of the night with 11:22 early in the fourth quarter, but after a blocked extra point, the Chiefs were able to tie the game on an ensuing field goal that capped a 12-play, 69-yard drive, before winning it in overtime.

Advertisement

Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said during the Lombardi Trophy presentation, “One of the most thrilling Super Bowls I’ve ever seen.”

Required reading

(Photo: Harry How / Getty Images)

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Culture

'Comfortable being mediocre': Why the Pirates keep losing

Published

on

'Comfortable being mediocre': Why the Pirates keep losing

A decade ago, then-Pirates general manager Neal Huntington presented ownership with plans for $8 million in upgrades to the club’s spring training facilities in Bradenton, Fla. The project would include constructing a 12,240 square-foot performance center to replace a weight room a tenth that size, and expanding a home clubhouse that was the oldest remaining building at a ballpark built in 1923.

Huntington asked for additional funds from ownership to cover the cost. Owner Bob Nutting, according to three sources, told Huntington the money would have to come out of the existing baseball operations budget, which covers everything from scouting to player development to salaries. The $8 million ultimately was drawn over time from the major league payroll.

“That’s what happens,” a former front-office employee said. “Bob is still Bob.”

Nutting, whose family made its money owning newspapers before buying a ballclub and ski resorts, has always asked his management team to do more with less. The Pirates’ 76-win 2023 campaign was 14 wins better than 2022, but still marked their fifth consecutive losing season. Regardless, Nutting says he expects a “meaningful step forward” in 2024. “We collectively believe we can compete for the division and a postseason berth,” he told The Athletic.

But as Ben Cherington, who replaced Huntington, enters his fifth season as Pirates GM, the Pirates are projected to finish last in the NL Central. Their farm system is ranked ninth by The Athletic’s Keith Law, but the Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals and Reds also are in the top 15. And though the Pirates have signed seven free agents this offseason, every other team in the division has spent more.

Advertisement

To win with a low-budget model requires excelling in all areas of player development. But conversations with more than 20 current and former players, coaches and club officials, some of whom were granted anonymity in order to speak freely, revealed numerous issues plaguing the Pirates: Years of misses in the draft and amateur international market. Conflicts between old- and new-school philosophies in the coaching ranks. Distrust among some players in the development process, including a situation last season in which third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes secretly sought help from the Pirates’ then-Double A hitting coach, who the team let go a short time later. Most of all: A front office handcuffed by a frugal owner.

Nutting, whose estimated worth is $1.1 billion, became the club’s principal owner in 2007. Since then, the Pirates have had a bottom-five Opening Day payroll all but three years: 2015 (24th of 30 clubs), 2016 (20th) and 2017 (24th). The four largest contracts in club history — Bryan Reynolds, Hayes, Jason Kendall and Andrew McCutchen — combined are still almost a half million short of the $288.7 million the Royals recently guaranteed Bobby Witt Jr.

“I’ve been in some meetings where my jaw dropped because we had to wait a day to trade a guy because it was going to save us $30,000,” a former instructor said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m hearing this.’ This is a $10 billion industry.”

The Pirates ended two decades of losing and made the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but the fact that they began 2016 with their highest payroll ever, $99.9 million, obscured the fact they’d lost a parade of veterans without adding any impact players. Payroll declined in each of the next five seasons, dropping as low as $45.2 million in 2021. Players felt Nutting had a chance to double down on winning after 2015, and didn’t.

“He pulled out so quick,” a former player said. “He was kind of comfortable stepping back and being mediocre. That permeates. That’s just what the organization is.”

Advertisement

Pirates team president Travis Williams, in introducing Cherington as Huntington’s replacement in November of 2019, said, “We needed to find a great baseball mind to crack the code in order to be successful in a market like Pittsburgh within the economics of baseball. Others are doing it. We will do it.” Cherington, working under different financial circumstances, had led the big-market Red Sox to a World Series title in 2013.Nutting had cleaned house — parting with Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle, president Frank Coonelly (who resigned), and more than $10 million in buyouts — because he felt the Pirates had fallen behind. He cited more creative, dynamic and innovative models working in Tampa, Milwaukee and Houston. “We need to be back out on the cutting edge,” Nutting said.

The club Cherington inherited in Pittsburgh had been weakened by missing on high draft picks, whiffing entirely in the international amateur market, and failing to transition prospects into big leaguers. For Cherington, cracking the code meant reversing all of this.

But many of those issues remain.

In 2011, the Pirates spent a record $17 million in the draft, shattering the league’s previous high by more than $5 million, and landed Gerrit Cole (first overall), Josh Bell (second round), Tyler Glasnow (fifth round) and Clay Holmes (ninth round).

The league introduced bonus pools the following year to curb draft spending, and since then the Pirates have had shockingly little draft success. Of the 71 players they have drafted in the top five rounds and signed since 2012, only four have produced at least 1 WAR for the Pirates: Hayes (12.5 WAR), Mitch Keller (4.1), Kevin Newman (3) and Jared Triolo (2.1). The Orioles have drawn more total value from just their top two draft picks in 2019: Adley Rutschman (9.6 WAR) and Gunnar Henderson (7.1).

Advertisement

Under Cherington, the Pirates have spent 14 of their 21 picks in the first five rounds on pitchers, so their farm system is now front-loaded with arms, led by last year’s No. 1 overall choice, Paul Skenes. That approach makes sense; starting pitching is the most expensive asset to acquire in today’s game. But few position player prospects are prepared to fill out the lineup. Termarr Johnson, the No. 4 pick in 2022, projects to be a future starting second baseman. But serious questions persist about whether Henry Davis, the No. 1 pick in 2021, has either the defensive ability to stay at catcher or the bat to stick in a corner outfield spot.

Cherington believes the Pirates will end up with multiple major-league contributors from his four drafts, and possibly more. Yet in November, the team reassigned Joe DelliCarri, who had run its drafts since 2012, to a new position and hired Justin Horowitz, who had been with the Red Sox, as director of amateur scouting.

On the international side, the club has not developed an amateur free agent into a consistent impact player since Starling Marte, who first signed in 2007.

“It is incredibly difficult to find and project players at such a young age within Latin America,” said Nutting, noting that “we know that we need to be excellent in identifying, acquiring and developing players in Latin America.”

Nutting said the Pirates are among the top few MLB clubs in spending on development. While those numbers are not publicly available, team sources found that assertion to be credible. But, too often, that spending has not resulted in prospects becoming big leaguers.

Like Huntington, now a Guardians special assistant, Cherington’s regime has struggled to transition prospects to the big leagues: Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester and Roansy Contreras, among others. Their clearest development win is Keller. The former top prospect had 6.12 ERA in his first 46 big league starts, and has a 3.83 ERA in 54 starts since then. He was an All-Star in 2023.

And yet the velocity spike and arsenal change that unlocked Keller’s ceiling came from an independent pitching lab in North Carolina.

Advertisement

Most Pirates who achieve success are traded before they reach free agency. A former team employee recalled a strange sense of urgency in the front office in January 2018 to trade Cole, the staff ace who still had two years of club control remaining. “It was a little frantic,” the evaluator said. “That was the priority. It was like, why?” The Pirates traded Cole and his $6.75 million salary to Houston for four players, but no top prospects. “It was almost like, we have to get rid of that money,” the evaluator said.

Cole, now the Yankees’ ace and reigning AL Cy Young winner, has spent more of his major league career out of Pittsburgh. But he’s sentimental about the three playoff seasons he experienced there.

“I saw how much the Pirates mean to the city and the people of Pittsburgh,” Cole said. “I so badly want them to have that relationship with their team again. It just means so much to those fans. It really does.”



Ke’Bryan Hayes hit .318 with 10 homers and a .933 OPS in almost two months working with minor-league coach Jon Nunnally. (Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

The secret sessions that saved Ke’Bryan Hayes’ 2023 season took place at a private hitting facility in the Pittsburgh area. The Pirates third baseman was on the injured list last July, stewing about being a below-average hitter since 2021, when he decided to take action.

“I was trying this and that,” Hayes said, “and it wasn’t working. I was just like, I don’t feel like being frustrated anymore.”

Advertisement

So he called “Nunns.”

Jon Nunnally, a former big league outfielder, was the hitting coach at Double-A Altoona, the Pirates affiliate about 100 miles from Pittsburgh. When Nunnally, 52, joined the organization in 2019, Hayes’ father, Charlie, an old acquaintance and 14-year major-league veteran, told Ke’Bryan: “He knows what he’s talking about.”

Pirates hitters long had lobbied to work with Nunnally. One former player said, “Everyone in the organization had been going to him for (information) forever.”

“He barely knows how to turns on his computer,” a former instructor added, “but that son of a gun can teach approach.”

Ke’Bryan Hayes and Nunnally first worked together at the Pirates’ alternate site in 2020. Hayes, 27, debuted that September and was National League Rookie of the Month. After only limited contact with Nunnally in 2021 and 2022, Hayes said he made it clear to the club that he would work again with the coach last spring. But once the season began, Nunnally returned to the minors and Hayes struggled anew.

Advertisement

In August, he started meeting weekly with Nunnally. In Hayes’ mind, reuniting with Nunnally after he had slumped in the first half made perfect sense.

“I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers,” Hayes said. “But then it got to a point where it’s just like, you know what? This is my career. At the end of the day, I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”

Both Hayes and Nunnally said they took pains to keep their sessions confidential. “No one really needed to know about it,” Hayes said of his time with Nunnally. “He was secretly helping me help the team. So it helps everybody. That was the way I looked at it. No harm, no foul.”

The sessions proved fruitful. In almost two months working with Nunnally, Hayes hit .318 with 10 home runs and a .933 OPS.

Cherington declined to comment on Nunnally specifically, but said the Pirates are not necessarily opposed to players working with personal coaches. “Many, many major-league players work with different coaches at different times of the year. We support this and we’ve seen many examples of effective collaboration between our major-league coaches and other perspectives,” he said.

Advertisement

However, Nunnally said when the Pirates eventually learned of the sessions, “For sure they were upset.” And when word that the star infielder sought help from a minor league coach was reported by the Post-Gazette, it looked to some like going behind the back of Pirates hitting coach Andy Haines, who already was taking heat from the fanbase for the team’s offensive collapse.

“I didn’t want to cause any problems for anyone,” Nunnally said.

But then, during the last week of the regular season, the Pirates let Nunnally go.

Hayes, who in April 2022 signed an eight-year, $70 million contract, the second largest in franchise history, said he conveyed to Cherington and manager Derek Shelton that he was upset by Nunnally’s departure. His relationship with the coach will continue; Nunnally, after turning down an offer to be Double A hitting coach for the Nationals, said he plans to work privately with Hayes and others.

The move, part of a trend under Cherington of replacing some veteran instructors with less experienced, more analytically savvy replacements, reflected a divide in the Pirates’ approach to player development. (A number of executives and instructors left voluntarily.)

Advertisement

“We had guys who lacked — and when I say lacked, it’s an understatement — experience in leadership,” a former instructor said.

“I’m not saying you need 10 years in the big leagues to be qualified,” a player said, “but you do need to have a certain level of teaching, understanding and communication that fit for players at the professional level.”



Gerrit Cole started the Pirates’ last postseason game in front of a packed PNC Park in 2015. The team has only finished above .500 once since then. (Jared Wickerham / Getty Images)

Before the start of the 2021 Triple-A season, the Pirates asked outfielder Jared Oliva, shortstop Cole Tucker and infielder/outfielder Kevin Kramer to remain at their spring-training site in Bradenton, Fla., for what they called “hitting school.”

Oliva, Tucker and Kramer all had struggled in the majors as hitters. The Pirates wanted them to work with Bart Hanegraaff, a native of the Netherlands who joined the organization under Huntington as a consultant and in 2020 received a promotion from Cherington to be “head of methodology.”

Hanegraaff, 35, specializes in training players to move their bodies more efficiently, employing methods taught by Frans Bosch, a movement expert the Pirates have used to instruct their coaches. Under Cherington, Hanegraaff rose to greater prominence, emerging as an influential voice in the Pirates’ hitting program.

Advertisement

Tucker, skeptical of Hanegraaff’s teaching, told the team he would only remain in Bradenton if Nunnally accompanied him, according to Nunnally and two other sources. Nunnally monitored as Hanegraaff ran the players through core exercises, twists, jumps and aqua bag workouts.

“I was there to just watch,” Nunnally said. “All I could do was say, ‘Listen, it’s great that you can do all these movement things. But you’ve still got to be able to perform in a game. The plan and approach has got to be there.’”

The Pirates at the time did not reveal the sessions to the media, advising the players to keep them “hush-hush.” The sensitivity on all sides highlighted the growing tension in the organization as Cherington introduced new coaches and concepts.

While declining to comment specifically on Hanegraaff or any other employee, Cherington said, “We’re fortunate to have a lot of great expertise in our coaching group and we aim to be open and inclusive about where that expertise comes from.” He added, “While playing games in the minor leagues will always be important, there are times when stepping away from the games and engaging in some intentional practice can have great benefit.”

Some players, however, lost trust in the Pirates’ approach to player development, as the blending of old- and new-school philosophies sent mixed messages and disrupted their progress. And from a player’s perspective, one former instructor said, “the one thing you can’t afford to do in this game is lose time.”

Advertisement

Another former instructor, recalling a presentation Hanegraaff and minor-league hitting coordinator Jonny Tucker gave in 2021, said, “All you heard was, ‘the move, the move, the move,’” meaning, the move to the baseball as a hitter began his swing.

The premise was that if a hitter moved into the right position, he would be better able to see the ball and make swing decisions. Another former coach who attended the presentation considered that logic sound. The problem, both coaches said, was Hanegraaff and Tucker made no mention of rhythm, balance, timing and thought process, all of which also are essential to hitting.

“I love Bart. He has a place in a major-league organization,” one of the instructors said. “But he can’t be in charge of the hitting program.”

Such tension is not unusual when clubs become more analytically driven. Even some who were part of Huntington’s regime acknowledge the team had fallen behind in technology, and needed to modernize. Young players accustomed to tech welcomed Cherington’s introduction of pitch-tracking devices. One former Pirates pitcher said the shift in the team’s processes “definitely felt much more collaborative and a lot fresher.”

But several former players and coaches said the Pirates went too far in their emphasis on data and technology.

Advertisement

“A lot of it was pitch design and pitch shapes and percentages of pitch usage, as opposed to, what is the hitter telling you? What is the game telling you?” said Joel Hanrahan, a former major-league reliever who was a minor-league pitching coach with the Pirates from 2017 to ‘21 before moving to the Nationals.

A former Pirates hitter agreed, saying, “With the new regime, everyone was trying to have the new best thing. They kind of lost sight of players as people.”

Other adjustments created confusion in other areas.

Cherington’s regime gave minor leaguers more freedom than they experienced under Huntington. Players, after years of toiling under strict rules, were encouraged, one former Pirate said, to “be you, the person you’ve always been.” While many players welcomed the changes, a former pitcher said of Huntington’s regimen, “It made us get our s— together. And it made us good pros.”

“I think the intention was fine,” a former instructor said. “The problem is you went from zero to a hundred.”

Advertisement

For some minor leaguers, the transition to the majors, where greater professionalism was expected, became problematic. One former player called it, “a weird divide.”

“They’d say, ‘Wear what you want. Be relaxed. Wear your chains,’” the player said. “And then guys started to go up to the big leagues for the first time, and all of a sudden they’re getting a message in the player messaging system: ‘Hey, guys, you’re in the big leagues. No backwards hats. Look the part.’”

Even in the majors, the Pirates were not always buttoned up. Two on-field incidents in the final two months of the 2022 season drew national attention. A cell phone fell out of infielder Rodolfo Castro’s pocket as he slid into third base. And Hayes was captured on camera standing with his glove off at third and reaching into his back pocket for sunflower seeds as the Mets’ Eduardo Escobar rounded the bag to score.

Both players took responsibility, but Hayes said the 2021 and ‘22 Pirates teams lacked “a veteran presence to hold people accountable.” Hayes viewed the return last season of McCutchen, 37, as a needed addition. But the team McCutchen rejoined was radically different from the one he’d left in 2018.


Teams that struggle in drafting and player development often use free agency to overcome those shortfalls. But the open market is the area in which Nutting’s frugality is most glaring. Under Nutting, the Pirates have spent less in free agency than any other club. Their record contract for an external free agent — two years, $17 million for Russell Martin in 2012 — is $13 million below any other club’s record free-agent deal.

Advertisement

The Pirates have not signed a multi-year free-agent contract since Daniel Hudson in 2017. Nutting has referred to free agency as “the hardest, most challenging and most inefficient marketplace in baseball,” and many executives agree. Still, the Pirates have taken frugality to an extreme.

The Pirates have spent slightly more than $30 million this offseason — less than the Brewers gave Rhys Hoskins — on veteran free agents Aroldis Chapman, Rowdy Tellez, Martín Peréz, Yasmani Grandal, Josh Fleming, Ali Sánchez and McCutchen, all on one-year deals, then added Marco Gonzales and $3 million of his salary in a trade.

Chapman’s $10.5 million contract was the largest average annual value the Pirates have ever given an external free agent. The MLBPA filed a grievance in 2018 against the Pirates, Marlins, Rays and A’s for not spending revenue-sharing money as intended; the matter is still pending.

The Pirates’ projected Opening Day payroll is $81 million, ahead of only the A’s. Asked whether payroll will continue to climb in the coming years, Nutting said, “We have and will continue to invest into the club in the most effective and efficient way possible to bring a winner in Pittsburgh.”

Asked whether he would authorize a multi-year free agent deal with an average annual value in the $15 to $20 million range, Nutting mentioned the Hayes and Reynolds extensions and said, “The most impact on winning in Pittsburgh will always come from the continued improvement of the players that are (on) our roster and in our system.”

Advertisement

For all the Pirates’ shortcomings, their roster has improved, and the division lacks a dominant power. Oneil Cruz is back at full strength after missing most of last season with a fractured fibula. “That will be huge for our lineup,” Hayes said.

“I feel like this year our division is up for grabs,” Hayes continued. “We’ve just got to be hungry, coming into the spring. We’ve got to bring it every day (and) not give in when times are tough.”

Cherington is approaching the same crossroads Huntington reached during his tenure. Huntington, having nearly been fired after a 2012 collapse, broke through in 2013 as the Pirates reached the playoffs for the first time in two decades. Pressure is mounting now for Cherington to follow a similar path.

“Our goal is to build a championship caliber team in a way that is sustainable and fits Pittsburgh,” said Cherington. “We have the resources to do that, and we have to execute.”

Nutting has set the expectation at contention, even while providing limited resources.  

Advertisement

“At some point you need to get some horses to run in the derby,” a former evaluator said.

“It comes down to ownership saying, ‘When are we going to go for it and spend money?’ That’s always been the underlying issue.

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Mike Carlson / MLB Photos via Getty Images; Mark Alberti / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Orlando Ramirez / Getty Images; Joe Sargent / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Advertisement
Continue Reading

Culture

Granny style: Can an 84-year-old make the WNBA? She's got their attention

Published

on

Granny style: Can an 84-year-old make the WNBA? She's got their attention

Shirley Simson, an 84-year-old mother of four, grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of 10, stood inside the lobby of Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel & Casino on an early January afternoon waiting for her ride. She wore bright pink athletic shorts with the phrase “SPORT DRIP” printed all over, a white single-leg sleeve running down her left side, a white shooting sleeve on her right arm and a white headband with “CANDY” in its center tying back her gray hair. Alongside two of her grandchildren, Shirley planned on making a 20-minute trip to Henderson, Nev., where the Las Vegas Aces are headquartered. She hoped to work out inside the WNBA team’s facility.

Before the trio departed, a teenager — “a young lad,” in Simson’s words — spotted her near the hotel’s entrance and asked for a photo. She had never been stopped like that before. She was surprised, but she obliged anyway.

Simson has lived almost all her life in obscurity. For around four decades, she was a registered nurse in southern British Columbia, Canada. Now retired, she gardens, plays bridge, creates stone sculptures and participates in two book clubs. Despite her age and height — she was once 5-foot-6 but says she’s shrunk to 5-4 — Simson is also a basketball player. Or, rather, she is trying to be one.

She’s hoping to become a WNBA All-Star. “To me, life is worth living,” Simson says. “I just think you should make the most of it because you’re only here for a certain length of time.”

In mid-October, Simson’s journey to the professional ranks began. Her grandchildren, Parker, 25, and Hunter, 21, pitched her on it, and she was immediately game. “I was enjoying being with them,” Simson says, “and I was always somebody into things a little bit zany anyway.”

Advertisement

They film her practicing at their local recreation center then share the edited videos on the Instagram and TikTok accounts of their basketball accessory brand, Court Candy, which they founded in the summer of 2020. They are aiming to produce at least 50 videos of her, presenting it as a series with each titled “Grandma to the WNBA.” Simson voices over her footage, using Gen Z phrases like, “I’m strapped,” “I started cooking,” and “chef Curry with the pot, boy.”

“I don’t know what it means, but they don’t understand lingo from my era,” she says.

The project is aspirational, of course. Simson’s grandchildren hoped it would bring more awareness to their company. But it was also a way for her to get in better shape after undergoing a left knee replacement last March. Most importantly to the trio, it allows them to spend more time together.

“She’s one of our best friends, genuinely,” Parker says.

Simson last played recreational basketball in nursing school six decades earlier. In her first workout back, she struggled. “I was hopeless,” she says. “I couldn’t dribble. I couldn’t get it to the basket, unless I was doing it granny style.” That didn’t deter her, however. Nor did it turn off consumers. Her progress has subsequently attracted the attention of millions.

The series debut received nearly 2 million views on TikTok alone. Three other videos have gotten more than a million views on the social media platform. Three videos on Instagram have crossed the 500,000-view plateau. Simson says she doesn’t really understand social media. “I don’t have enough time in my life to do all that,” she says. Nevertheless, she appreciates that people have followed along. Parker and Hunter frequently show her the comments. “We think that’s the coolest part for her,” Parker says. They are overwhelmingly positive. “I’m delighted that people have taken interest because one of the main factors is, if you’re moving, you’re grooving,” Simson says.

Advertisement

Her workouts start earlier than any standard WNBA or college practice. On training days, Simson wakes up at around 5:30 a.m. and begins getting ready. By 7 a.m., she’s on the court, outfitted not only in her grandchildren’s accessory brand but also their basketball sneakers, which she wears only after putting on two pairs of socks and inserting an extra in-sole. Her grandchildren run her through her drills, like two-ball dribbling and pin-down shooting. She practices both underhand and overhand jumpers. She’s still using an eight-foot hoop; they hope to eventually reach WNBA regulation.


Shirley Simson works on her agility with guidance from her grandchildren. (Courtesy of Court Candy)

In one video, Simson pushes away her walker. In another, she lifts free weights and does split lunges. She practices her vertical jump — it’s 0.67 inches — and completes a three-cone drill in just over six seconds. Multiple videos show her racing through a step ladder, sometimes with a basketball, which she says is among the most difficult exercises. “Baba, you’re 84-years-old. You’re doing great,” her grandchildren tell her when she struggles.

The WNBA has started taking notice of Simson. In December, the Connecticut Sun commented “Grandma… where you at?”

“That was like holy crap,” Hunter says. Soon after, and following Simson’s urging during a video itself, the league’s official account left eye-emojis on its Instagram and TikTok content. Liberty star Breanna Stewart even shared a video of Simson on her Instagram story.

Still, the Simsons’ Las Vegas adventure didn’t exactly pan out as they hoped. Without an appointment, Parker says a security guard at the Aces facility turned them away. Instead, they filmed a video on the sidewalk outside.

Advertisement

The Simson grandchildren hope the project creates more opportunities for “Grandma Shirley,” who they recently launched a separate Instagram page for. It’s called “EasyMoneyGranny,” a play on Kevin Durant’s “easymoneysniper” handle.

They’d love to see her receive an invite to a WNBA All-Star Game or for her to play a ceremonial role at the draft. “We just want to have it lead to some cool adventures for her,” Parker says.

That prospect excites Simson, though it produces some worries too. She’s asked her grandsons: “What if somebody wants me to actually come and then I’m not good enough? What if a team takes me and I play lousy?”

They respond: “Baba, don’t worry, they’re not gonna expect you to be dunking and doing crazy stuff.”

It also doesn’t help quell any nerves that a family vacation and a holiday cold temporarily halted Simson’s workouts. But having recovered and settled back in at home in British Columbia, her journey to the WNBA will continue.

“Those of us who are fortunate enough to still be alive, we should show people that old people can do things and old people can have dreams,” Simson says. “Though we might forget a lot, we sure know how to do a lot too.”

Advertisement

(Top photo of Shirley Simson: Courtesy of Court Candy)

Continue Reading

Culture

The Justin Fields trade market: Which teams might be interested and what could Bears get?

Published

on

The Justin Fields trade market: Which teams might be interested and what could Bears get?

A year ago at the NFL Scouting Combine, Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles announced that his team was open for business — the first pick in the 2023 draft was available.

“We need a lot, and that (first pick) gives us more opportunity to bring in more players,” Poles said then. “It’s a good situation to be in for where our club is.”

The combine then became an information-gathering mission for Poles and the Bears. They needed to do their due diligence on the quarterback class, which included interviews with Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson.

But Poles also needed to leave Indianapolis with an accurate gauge of the trade market for the first pick — and he got it. A few days after the combine concluded, the Bears traded the first pick to the Carolina Panthers.

The goals for Poles at this year’s combine should be similar. The Bears will meet with the best quarterbacks: USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye, LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and potentially others.

Advertisement

And then Poles also will have trade markets to feel out through his conversations with other GMs. Similar to last year, one market could be for the first pick. Another could be for current starter Justin Fields.

For Poles and the Bears, what’s the greater risk? Is it sticking with a quarterback who has the belief of his teammates but still ranks in the bottom third in the league in many statistical areas? Or is it passing on the best QBs in the draft for the second year in a row?

Which teams could be interested in Fields?

According to NFL.com, 66 quarterbacks started for teams during the 2023 season. That’s a lot. But two more started for teams during the 2022 season. That’s wild.

Teams are always looking for quarterbacks — and some won’t be able to find answers in free agency or in the draft. Unlike other teams, the Bears have certainty with the first pick.

There were 12 quarterbacks included in Randy Mueller’s rankings of the top 150 free agents for The Athletic. Only two of them — the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Baker Mayfield — made the top 20. San Francisco 49ers backup Sam Darnold was next at No. 98.

Advertisement

The trade market comes next. Teams will seek certainty at the most important position in sports heading into the draft. There could be a competitive market for Fields.

With the help of The Athletic’s beat writers, here are five potential trade partners to consider as the NFL world descends on Indianapolis next week.

GO DEEPER

Bears mock draft 1.0: Caleb Williams at No. 1, a Justin Fields trade and a receiver

Atlanta Falcons

New Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson didn’t give away much when talking about what the team wants in its next quarterback.

Advertisement

“Whether it’s a pocket guy, whether it’s a guy who can move around a little bit, we’re just going to be looking for the best guy,” Robinson said.

However, the fact Robinson has spent his entire career under Rams coach Sean McVay in Los Angeles suggests he’s looking for a Jared Goff-Matthew Stafford type. Fields’ big arm will appeal to Robinson, though. Robinson said the first thing he looks for is “how somebody throws the football and what that looks like.”

Whether the Falcons pursue Fields may simply come down to options. They don’t have a clear path to their next quarterback considering they pick eighth in the first round, and Atlanta isn’t one of the league’s top free-agency destinations. — Josh Kendall


The Broncos witnessed the full Justin Fields experience at Soldier Field in October as he put up big numbers but made a couple of critical mistakes late. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Denver Broncos

Sean Payton saw Fields at his best when the Broncos visited the Bears in Week 4 last season. Fields completed 28 of 35 passes for 335 yards and a career-high four touchdowns (a total he would match the next week). But in a narrow Bears loss, Fields also lost a fumble that was returned for a Broncos touchdown and threw an interception on Chicago’s final drive, sealing the defeat.

After voicing frustration with Russell Wilson’s inability to protect the football during key stretches last season, I don’t see the Broncos giving up significant draft capital for a quarterback in Fields who, while younger and more athletic than Wilson, hasn’t been able to fully address his ball-security issues.

Advertisement

If the Broncos are going to move draft capital in a deal to acquire a quarterback, it is more likely to be a move for a rookie Payton can mold in his offense, even if that means the player has to sit for a season behind Jarrett Stidham. — Nick Kosmider

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Why Bears’ quarterback decision will be the story of NFL offseason

Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders are very unlikely to pursue Fields because they hired the offensive coordinator who was fired after working with him in Chicago last season.

Luke Getsy was selected by the Raiders because of his work as passing game coordinator with the Packers and his run-game concepts with the Bears, as the Raiders decided the biggest problem with the Bears offense the last two seasons was the quarterback and not the offensive coordinator. Getsy also worked with Raiders receiver Davante Adams in Green Bay. — Vic Tafur

New England Patriots

The Patriots are exploring all options for upgrading their quarterback situation, even if the most likely avenue means using the No. 3 pick on the position. But they could be tempted to draft Marvin Harrison Jr., arguably the best wide receiver prospect of the last decade. So perhaps there’s an argument for trading for Fields and using that top pick on Harrison, immediately upgrading both quarterback and wide receiver — arguably the two biggest weaknesses on the roster.

Advertisement

Even if it seems the Pats are more likely to pursue a quarterback with their third pick, if those to-be picks (likely Maye and Daniels) underwhelm in interviews at the combine, perhaps the Patriots would consider parting with their third-round pick (No. 68) for Fields. — Chad Graff

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Inside Justin Fields’ 2023 stats: What the numbers tell us about the Bears’ QB situation

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have two paths they can take at quarterback: Hope new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith can unlock something in Kenny Pickett the NFL hasn’t seen or look for an upgrade elsewhere.

While the Rooney family is known for taking a patient approach, general manager Omar Khan has done business with the Bears before, and Fields may be the most realistic of the outside options. Fields’ mobility would add another wrinkle to the run-heavy scheme Smith is likely to install, and the former Buckeye’s big arm would showcase the skill set of underutilized deep threat George Pickens. The quarterback would also be backed by what’s projected to be the NFL’s highest-paid defense, so he wouldn’t be asked to be a finished product right away.

But what’s the price? If you’re giving up something to get him, it’s probably prudent to double down by picking up the estimated $23.3 million fifth-year option in May. Beyond that, and maybe most significantly, the Steelers would have to be ready to punt on Pickett. That’s a big bet for a quarterback the Bears aren’t sold on just three years after giving up four picks to get him. — Mike DeFabo

Advertisement

How would a trade play out?

Last year, the New York Jets went all in. They traded for Aaron Rodgers.

In 2022, the Broncos pushed in all their chips. They acquired Russell Wilson.

A team that’s interested in Fields and then acquires him in a trade with the Bears wouldn’t be doing the same. It could be hedging its bets at the position, not solely betting on Fields.

Fields’ situation also looks different from the Panthers’ desperate decision to acquire Darnold from the Jets in 2021 for a sixth-round pick in that draft and second- and fourth-rounders in 2022. The Panthers then guaranteed his fifth-year option.

Those three trades, though, happened before the draft. That’s important. Some QB-needy teams will seek clarity before the unpredictability of the draft. Other teams might be more compelled to wait until the draft.

Advertisement

Poles’ plan will have to be flexible, but only to a certain point. The Bears have complimented Fields since the season ended. Poles, coach Matt Eberflus and president/CEO Kevin Warren have all done it. But that could be viewed as an attempt to create leverage in trade conversations that could be coming their way in Indianapolis.

For all of his physical gifts and glimpses of potential stardom, Fields’ numbers tell you not to pick up his fifth-year option for the 2025 season.

Among qualified QBs, Fields finished the 2023 season 29th in completion percentage, 23rd in passing yards per game, 22nd in passer rating, 24th in QBR, 26th in adjusted net yards per attempt, 31st in sack percentage and 22nd in interception rate (according to Pro Football Reference). His numbers on third downs, in the fourth quarter and in late-game situations don’t inspire much confidence, either.

As always, more context is required. The Bears, as an organization, should be blamed for his failures as much, if not more, than he is. But the situation is what it is. The Bears built in the option to pivot from Fields if needed.

Fields, though, could still be the best option for other teams after free agency and before the draft. The difference between the Bears and those teams is that they have the first pick. The draft still starts with them.

Advertisement
go-deeper

GO DEEPER

2024 NFL Draft Big Board: Who are the top 100 prospects in this year’s class?

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

2024 NFL Draft consensus Big Board: Who’s rising, falling ahead of the combine?

(Top photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Advertisement
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Trending