... AND JUST LIKE THAT, THERE IS LIGHT AND HOPE IN CHIEFS COUNTRY. PATRICK MAHOMES HAS KANSAS CITY THINKING ABOUT THE SUPER BOWL—AND GMS WONDERING IF THAT'S HOW THEY SHOULD HANDLE A YOUNG QB
MITCHELL SCHWARTZ has been with Patrick Mahomes for 14-odd months now, so he knows better than to be caught slack-jawed by anything the freakishly talented 23-year-old QB does. But as the Chiefs were hanging on to an five-point, fourth-quarter lead in Pittsburgh on Sunday, the big right tackle saw what Mahomes was doing and, well, it hit him in a funny way.
"I looked up at the scoreboard and saw he had six touchdowns—and I was kind of blown away," says Schwartz. "In the flow of the game, I guess I didn't realize he'd thrown that many and we'd scored that much."
For the rest of us, it's hard to characterize what the 10th pick in the 2017 draft has done through two weeks as anything other than eye-opening. Mahomes has completed 69.1% of his throws for 582 yards, 10 TDs and zero picks in two wins. But there's a point in what Schwartz is saying that makes the exploits of this precocious passer with the East Texas twang all the more impressive. If you'd somehow predicted Mahomes was bound for this kind of explosion—and, come on, really?—then you probably would've been imagining some kind of high-wire act, all off-schedule plays and high-risk heaves. Mahomes, after all, is supposed to be the new Brett Favre.
And while, yes, there's been a bit of that, Mahomes has more often been running coach Andy Reid's West Coast-spun spread like Mozart at the piano. "The kid is just so smooth," says one Chiefs official. "Makes it look so easy. His vision and instincts are really impressive."
For their part, Mahomes's teammates had a pretty good hunch this would most certainly be a show—but not a circus. "The thing that we're not surprised with is just how smoothly the offense functions," says Schwartz. "People had the perception this was gonna be the early Favre years—gunslinging, highs and lows.... But he just operates Coach's offense really well." That much was apparent right from the start, in Week 1. But it didn't happen overnight.
NO NFL PLAYER worth his eye black wants to sit—not for a game and definitely not for a whole season. But that was Mahomes's reality last fall, relegated to the bench because his Chiefs were contending behind veteran Alex Smith.
With Smith now in Washington and Mahomes entrenched as his replacement, it hasn't taken long for the Kansas City QB to see the upside of waiting. In fact, it took all of five offensive snaps to get there.
Go back to Week 1, against the Chargers. The call was a run-pass option. Mahomes read linebacker Denzel Perryman coming down in run support and saw safety Derwin James chase Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins into the flat, so the QB flipped the ball to Tyreek Hill coming on a slant. In the moment, the idea was to take the easy money there for him.
"I made the right read and got the ball into his hands," Mahomes says. "Stuff like that, where you don't have to make the amazing play—you can just make the right read, put the ball into your playmaker's hands and score big touchdowns that way. I definitely benefited from having that year to learn not to try taking the big shot on every single play."
Big shot or not, that play hit the Chargers like a hollow-point bullet: Hill caught the ball in stride, streaking to Mahomes's left side and taking advantage of a Los Angeles defense influenced to the right by the play's run action. Fifty-eight yards later it was 14--3 Chiefs, and Mahomes's time at the helm of Andy Reid's offense was, quite literally, off and running.
By the time the sun-soaked afternoon in L.A. was over, Kansas City had 38 points on the scoreboard and Mahomes had completed 15 of 27 attempts for 256 yards, four touchdowns and a 127.5 rating. Add on Mahomes's Week 2 heroics, and you have proof that Reid and the Chiefs did right by their young gunslinger last year.
"In the preparation, the mental side of the game, I definitely benefited," Mahomes said of his 15 games on the bench last year. "Being able to watch how teams made adjustments, and then how we made adjustments to the defense—how we'd figure out what blitzes they were bringing, how to protect them.
"I'm so much further ahead mentally that I'm more comfortable in the pocket. I don't have to worry about, 'Am I protected?' I know those things. Being able to throw the ball to the right spots and trusting my O-line, it's definitely something I gained as I had last year to learn."
Smooth and on schedule—just how Schwartz described the offense. And three plays from that opener could write the story on how far Mahomes has come.
First quarter, 6:50 left, second-and-four, ball at the Chiefs' 42: Mahomes completes to Hill for a 58-yard touchdown. This is the aforementioned RPO, featuring what Mahomes calls a "slant-and-flat concept." An intriguing detail was how the QB dropped his arm angle to get the ball around a defender. "It was more trying to get the ball out fast," he says, "and then get it into the window it needed to be in. We'd worked on it, and Tyreek made that catch at practice."
This play presents two levels of growth for Mahomes: First there's the speed with which he read Perryman and James; that's remarkable. But then there's that weird angle from which he threw. People inside the organization talk about Mahomes making practice throws that look like, well, trick shots, and he's had to learn to pick his spots when deciding when to uncork this unique talent. On this touchdown he found the right place to fire one off.
"It started with baseball," says Mahomes, the son of a former major league pitcher Pat Mahomes. "I played shortstop my entire life; you have to throw it with your body not in the right position sometimes and still be accurate enough to get people out.... Then I got to Texas Tech with coach [Kliff] Kingsbury and [backup quarterback] Nic Shimonek, and we used to mess around with the sidearm stuff, throwing from different platforms. That was a big thing coach Kingsbury harped on. I loved it, and I got really good at it."
Next play: Third quarter, 2:54 left, third-and-13, ball at the Chiefs' 11. Mahomes completes another one to Hill, for 34 yards. Coach Andy Reid and his staff have emphasized that their skill players should fight to the whistle with Mahomes in the game because he's so adept at going off script to keep plays alive, and here's an example of that paying off. Mahomes broke the pocket, scrambled right and flattened out near the line of scrimmage to buy time on the play. There was a playground element to it, but there was also design.
"Tyreek was the 'alert,' he wasn't the primary guy on that route—I believe that was Sammy," the QB says. "I scrambled out to the right, trying to buy time for those guys to get open. I was about to fire it to Sammy, but they closed in on him, and I saw Tyreek flatten his route out at the top—so I just shot it downfield."
Mahomes underthrew it a little, and his receiver made "a great catch." It helped that Hill was wide-open because Mahomes bought time. It helped that Mahomes has a big arm and can throw on the run. But above all it helped that he knew where his guys would be, and that comes from spending a year learning.
And finally: Same drive, third quarter, 55 seconds left, first-and-10, ball at the Chargers' 36. Mahomes fires complete again to Anthony Sherman in the end zone. As opposed to the scramble play, this one's by the books: Mahomes saw everything correctly and relied on his preparation. "It was a play we prepped all week," he says, referring to the type of first-team practice reps he wouldn't have gotten last season. "The funny thing was, it wasn't designed for Sherm—Sherm was supposed to be the decoy guy that holds the corner. I was expecting to fire it in to [Travis] Kelce. We'd gone into practice with the scout team, and they'd naturally wound up covering Kelce." And both times they ran it, he fired TDs to Sherman.
"Of course, we get to the game and they did the same thing—they doubled Kelce, and it left Sherm one-on-one on the edge. He had a step, so I put it out there. He made a great catch, stayed inbounds and scored."
Mahomes was quick to bring up the one play from his debut that he wants back: third-and-10 in the fourth quarter as the Chiefs were trying to put the game away. "I'd actually protected it the right way," he explains of the way he arranged his blocking, "but I thought I was hot and so I scrambled out of the pocket too fast. If I'd stayed, I would've been able to hit Sammy for the first down."
So there's still plenty of room for growth. And there will be an adjustment coming from opposing defenses too. Carson Wentz got off to this kind of hot start in 2016 ... and then defenses got tape on him and the equation changed. Ditto for Marcus Mariota in 2015. Teams will build a book on Mahomes. They'll catch up to some of the Texas Tech-tinged twists that Reid and coordinator Eric Bienemy have installed. The challenge then for Mahomes will change.
The good news is that Mahomes is ready for that, too. "As teams get more and more tape, they're going to try different stuff," he says. "They're going to try to confuse me. But coach Reid prepares me for every situation. We make adjustments through the whole game, and that's something that I'm going to keep working on, keep getting better at—being able to make adjustments on the fly.
"Just get the ball into the hands of all these playmakers I have, and let them make the plays."