WINNING SIX OF HIS FIRST SEVEN STARTS WHILE MAKING FANS FORGET ABOUT ALEX—UM, WHAT'S HIS NAME? THAT'S BEEN NO SWEAT FOR PATRICK MAHOMES. ESPECIALLY COMPARED TO WINNING OVER HIS OWN TEAMMATES LAST YEAR
IN DECEMBER 2016, Patrick Mahomes was hurting. The junior had played the last five games of Texas Tech's season with a left-wrist injury that would require surgery later in the month, and he had played the final eight games with an AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder. He was contemplating going pro, but although he'd led the nation with 5,052 yards passing and 53 touchdowns that season, he wasn't yet in the first-round conversation. But that wasn't what Mahomes and his godfather, former major league pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, discussed while driving Patrick's truck home from an MRI.
Hawkins had one important question: "Are you ready to lead men with families to feed?"
Hawkins, who had been a teammate of Patrick's dad, former pitcher Pat Mahomes, had grown so close with Patrick that he considered him family, and his advice carried a great deal of weight. Hawkins wanted to know if Patrick was ready to make 52 men want to follow him. "I'm ready," Patrick said. Hawkins wasn't satisfied. He posed a hypothetical. Say, for instance, A.J. Green is in your huddle, it's a contract year, and he says, Get me the damn ball, man! I gotta get paid! What are you gonna' say?"
"I'd tell him to get open, and he'll get the ball," Patrick said. He declared for the 2017 draft the following month.
Two years later, Mahomes hasn't yet had to go nose-to-nose with an angry wideout. But he is facing a different kind of challenge: How to deal with Super Bowl expectations. In his first year as a starter he is at the center of a pyrotechnic offense, utilizing a trend-setting quick-passing game to get the ball in the hands of playmakers and throwing deep balls on a dime 40 to 60 yards downfield. The Chiefs are 5--1 and are the league's highest-scoring team, and Mahomes seems to make history on a weekly basis. His 13 touchdown passes in the first three games of the season were an NFL record, and his five straight 300-yard passing games are a Chiefs franchise mark. Going back to last December, Mahomes has more passing yards (2,149) after seven career starts than any other QB in NFL history.
Even in losing efforts, Mahomes is winning. He came up short in a Week 6 Sunday-night shootout against the Patriots (who won 43--40), but he threw for a season-high 352 yards and lost only after Tom Brady drove New England to a winning field goal on the final play. Afterwards, Brady sprinted across the field to be the first to congratulate Mahomes, who was in kindergarten when TB12 took his first NFL snap.
"It was nothing we didn't already know," tight end Travis Kelce said afterward, nodding in the direction of Kansas City's second-year QB.
It might seem like Mahomes rose easily to NFL stardom. But his godfather was right: Before he could win over the rest of the NFL, Patrick Mahomes had to win over his own team. Luckily, his arm isn't his only unique gift.
CHIEFS EDGE RUSHER Justin Houston remembers watching the 2017 draft in Atlanta with friends. With Alex Smith at quarterback Kansas City had gone 12--4 the previous season, and Houston was excited to see who coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey would add to the team's cadre of young playmakers on offense, or perhaps to a defense in need of new talent. Instead, with the 10th pick they took Mahomes, who'd never had better than a 7--6 season in his time as a Red Raider. "In all honesty I said, Who the f--- is this? We traded up to get him?" Houston recalls. "We've got Alex at the time, and that was the last thing I thought we'd do."
It didn't take long for Houston to see what Reid and Dorsey saw in Mahomes. "I remember showing up for OTAs [a few weeks after the draft] and he made a throw, and I knew right then he was special," Houston says. "He was rolling to his left, and he hit this guy 30 yards downfield on a crossing route. I was like, Oh yeah."
It wasn't the first time that his once-in-a-generation arm strength had opened a door for Mahomes. The summer before his junior year at Whitehouse (Texas) High, Mahomes attended a camp where Texas Tech had scouts to check out KD Cannon, a track star and wide receiver prospect. Cannon met Mahomes and asked him to throw nothing but "go" balls in one-on-one scenarios. Rep after rep, Mahomes let fly a perfect deep ball without much windup or effort. That performance put Mahomes, who had yet to start a game at quarterback at any level, on Texas Tech's radar.
But it would take more than a shoulder cannon to convince a locker room full of NFL veterans that he should be the one to lead them. And behind the scenes, Reid was pulling strings to help the process along. Last year the coach hired Mike Kafka, a former journeyman QB who backed up Michael Vick for Reid's Eagles from 2010 to '11, as a quality control coach with a unique mandate. While many quality control coaches across the league serve their side of the ball in a more broad capacity, Kafka was told to spend the season focusing on the quarterbacks—Mahomes specifically. Kafka tutored the rookie in the playbook and reviewed practice film. He stood behind Mahomes in practice and offered constant and consistent coaching points. In short: Kafka's job was to speed up the development of an NFL backup, to help him learn the things he couldn't while taking practice reps with the second-team offense.
Smith, meanwhile, was putting together the best statistical season of his career: He'd finish 2017 with an NFL-best 104.7 QB rating, a career-high 26 touchdown passes and his second straight AFC West crown. After Kansas City's first-round playoff loss to the Titans, ironman offensive tackle Mitch Schwartz called Smith "the best quarterback in the NFL this year." And if Smith were to be traded and Mahomes named the starter? "We'd understand what we're losing," Schwartz said at the time. "We know that Alex is really the driving force that makes the offense go."
To his credit, Smith was also quietly helping with the Mahomes education project—and in the process making himself expendable when the franchise started making plans for 2018. Smith, Reid says, wasn't a tutor for Mahomes; that wasn't his job. But he made himself available to the rookie at all times and kept him abreast of his schedule. "Alex was being Alex," Reid says. "He left the door open for Patrick to join him. He just said, I'm gonna be here at this time, lifting, eating dinner, watching tape, watching more tape, studying the pictures of the game plan. He gave that freely to Patrick.
"That's a big-ego position. The QB room can be a little snitty at times. But Patrick came into a great situation. Alex didn't make any demands of him, but he didn't close the door on him. Patrick can't pay him enough for that opportunity."
"If there's one thing that surprised [Mahomes] about the NFL, I think it's the amount of preparation it takes and the lifestyle you have to lead to be the face of a franchise," says Kliff Kingsbury, Mahomes's coach at Texas Tech coach. "Alex showed him that."
Three weeks after their season ended with that loss to the Titans, the Chiefs dealt Smith to Washington for cornerback Kendall Fuller and promoted Mahomes. He had one NFL game under his belt: With the Chiefs' playoff position locked, Reid had let him start the otherwise meaningless Week 17 game against the Broncos—the first time a rookie had started a nonstrike game for the franchise since 1979. Mahomes threw for 284 yards and led a last-minute drive for a game-winning field goal. "He's the quarterback for the future of the Chiefs," Denver linebacker Von Miller said afterward. "Hats off to Mahomes. He's going to be a great quarterback."
KINGSBURY REMEMBERS a time when Mahomes wasn't so comfortable in pressure situations—Sept. 25, 2014, to be exact. Texas Tech starter Davis Webb got hurt against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, so Kingsbury had to toss his freshman quarterback into the fire. Mahomes promptly fumbled and then threw an interception—on the same play. "He didn't really know how to handle practicing as a backup, not getting many reps," Kingsbury says. "And when he got in there he just knew, I'm not prepared for this. He really didn't know what he was doing out there. And he was embarrassed by it.
"After that game, I could tell he was never going to have that feeling again on a football field. From that day forward he made football the centerpiece of his life."
Ask Mahomes now about the pressure of wins mounting and records falling, and he has a simple answer, the kind we've come to expect from this generation of CEO quarterbacks. "I don't feel that pressure, just because we've left so many plays out there ... 60-yard bombs that could've gone for touchdowns," Mahomes says. "Having the guys I have around me—the offensive line is blocking their tail off, I have all these weapons at wide receiver and tight end, so I know I don't have to try to do too much."
He can pretend he's just a cog in Reid's offensive machine, but he's not fooling anyone. For the record, he has more passing yards (1,865 vs. 1,637) and more touchdown passes (18 vs. 13) than Smith did six games into the 2017 season. Teammates marvel at Mahomes's maturity level; at how he never gets too high or too low; at how he effortlessly does things it takes most NFL quarterbacks years to develop—feeling backside pressure, knowing when to throw it away, cycling through progression reads. "During the week, he can be getting nagged. You've got coaches right behind him talking, every play, in his ear," Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins says. "Then game day comes, and they let him go. I watch him go through four reads every day, and that's rare for a young guy. He's definitely special."
That Sunday-night loss to the Patriots was one more example. There were no mind-boggling highlights like the on-the-run lefthanded pass he completed against the Broncos on Monday night in Week 4. But there was Mahomes, in front of a hostile Foxborough crowd, calmly leading a comeback from a 24--9 halftime deficit to tie the game with 3:03 left. Along the way, it seemed a force greater than Kingsbury or Reid or Smith or Kafka was guiding him. Midway through the fourth quarter Mahomes put the Chiefs up 33--30 with a one-yard TD pass to Tyreek Hill. Mahomes seemed to be throwing the ball to running back Kareem Hunt, but the ball sailed high ... and landed in Hill's hands in the end zone. So, who was the pass intended for?
"A magician," Mahomes said with a smile, "never reveals his secrets."
"HOUSTON WONDERED WHY THE CHIEFS DRAFTED MAHOMES—UNTIL HE GOT A GLIMPSE IN OTAS: "HE MADE A THROW, AND I KNEW RIGHT THEN HE WAS SPECIAL.""