Is the Chiefs' QB the new standard of greatness for the position?
Monday Night Football in Week 4 of the 2018 season matched the Chiefs and the Broncos in Denver. It was the first nationally televised game of Patrick Mahomes' career as an NFL starter. Mahomes' box score statistics weren't outlandish: 28-of-45, 304 yards, one passing touchdown in a close win. But those statistics didn't fully reflect what actually happened on the field.
On third-and-11 with 11:34 left in the third quarter, his team down by three, Mahomes faced a scenario that would have resulted in fourth down for 99 percent of NFL quarterbacks. Initial pressure wasn't there on a four-man rush, but the first read was covered, and the pocket was collapsing. Mahomes stepped out to his left and into a situation where most quarterbacks would likely either slide and take a small gain or try to heroball their way past defenders. Instead, he threw across his body after the short zone coverage rolled with him. Travis Kelce, who had been closely defended when Mahomes had read his side of the field, had seen his zone defenders vacate the premises to close off the running threat. Mahomes side-armed a ball across his body right to Kelce for a 29-yard gain. A long field goal attempt for any other team instead became a first-and-goal.
Later in that game, with the Chiefs driving in the fourth quarter while down three points, an intentional grounding penalty and a holding penalty combined to set up second-and-30 for the Chiefs at their own 31. The Broncos sent four rushers against Mahomes in an empty backfield and won when Von Miller got the edge against Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, forcing Mahomes to step up in the pocket. Once Mahomes broke the pocket and drifted to his right, interior lineman Derek Wolfe was able to run away from right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, forcing Mahomes to the edge. Running full speed ahead to the sideline, chased by Wolfe and Miller, Mahomes threw a low seed across his body to DeMarcus Robinson. Robinson broke off his initial route and was playing out of the context of the play against Broncos safety Justin Simmons. Robinson caught the sinking ball at his feet, and second-and-30 running to the sideline became third-and-7. On the next play, Mahomes found Demetrius Harris for 35 yards. Two plays later, the Chiefs had the lead.
That game wasn't the end of Mahomes' 2018 heroics — far from it. He would win the NFL's MVP award once Drew Brees stalled out in December. He led his team back from a 14–0 halftime deficit against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, though he never had a real chance to win thanks to the NFL's overtime rules. Mahomes' 50 touchdown passes led the league. Andy Reid's offensive designs took a quarterback who makes everything look easy and made him look superhuman.
Mahomes is a natural outgrowth of what Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick started when they first came into the league in the early 2010s, when plays outside the normal structure of a passing offense became real difference-makers in the NFL. Kaepernick rolled to one Super Bowl on the back of a balanced offense that allowed him to use his ability to run to help set up easier passing lanes. Wilson won a Super Bowl and made another even though his offense didn't utilize him as a designed part of the run game as much as it could have. Wilson's playmaking out of play-action and on the run made him a difference-maker, even though analysts and coaches at the time were a little slow to recognize quarterback mobility in the run game as a boon. Option attacks had never translated from the NCAA to the NFL, and the thought was that this new flurry of mobile QBs was just a fluke.
But as we head toward the 2020s, winning off the typical script is becoming the norm for NFL quarterbacks. For one thing, it's a lot easier to find a quarterback early on in his career who can add that element than it is to find a young Peyton Manning. Manning won by being hyper-focused on pre-snap reads, accuracy and quick decision-making. Few quarterbacks in history have been able to match how quickly his processor runs. But quarterbacks as otherwise limited as Tyrod Taylor have been able to lead effective offenses because of their contributions in the run game. Quarterbacks such as Wilson and Deshaun Watson have been able to buy extra time with their feet and hit big plays downfield with those precious seconds.
Simply put, what Mahomes demonstrated in his first season as a starter marked him as the best in the league at winning off-script. Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Mahomes at the Senior Bowl: "When Mahomes shows up, the only thought that pops into your mind is resignation, really."
In Week 3 against the 49ers, Mahomes caught pressure on third-and-goal from San Francisco edge rusher Cassius Marsh, who bullied past left tackle Eric Fisher. Mahomes flipped his hips and ran to Marsh's edge, then quickly reversed field a second time. This is the sort of thing you see a lot of young quarterbacks do, and aside from Wilson, most of them don't get away with it. For every incredible play that results from retreating backwards, there are 10 Case Keenum-esque sacks that put a team in instant-punt territory. When Mahomes reversed his field a second time, he shook the entire 49ers pass rush and ran down the field to his right to throw a touchdown pass. It left even announcer Thom Brennaman stuttering, "Are you kidding me?" Careful readers will note that this article began with two plays from the Broncos game, and neither was the famed left-handed pass to convert third down late in the game. Mahomes, in his first season, became a quarterback with the potential to erase any mistake his offense made.
In hooking up with Reid, Mahomes was able to create a statistically historic season despite the fact that there are still parts of his game he can improve upon. Reid's work in creating elaborate and devastating screens has been a Chiefs staple for years, and under Mahomes in 2018, that continued. Only one team with 60 or more screen passes had a higher success rate than the Chiefs: Reid's old team in Philadelphia. NFL Next Gen Stats charts a statistic called "Aggressiveness%," or the percentage of balls thrown into tight coverage. Mahomes had the lowest Aggressiveness% of any full-time starting quarterback in the NFL, with just 12.2 percent of his throws going into tightly contested windows. That points not merely to Mahomes' greatness but also to the ease with which Reid's offense afforded Mahomes open throws and the skills of the players around him.
|Quarterbacks by lowest percentage of aggressive throws, 2018|
|Source: NFL Next Gen Stats|
|Quarterbacks by highest percentage of aggressive throws, 2018|
|Source: NFL Next Gen Stats|
Tyreek Hill was amazing at winning one-on-one deep balls, and Mahomes' ability to lead him perfectly into open space made Kansas City one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. Kelce's frame is one of the most imposing things any defensive coordinator has to deal with over the middle of the field. Mahomes' ability to throw off-platform and from awkward arm angles stymied defenses that wanted to keep the ball out of Kelce's hands via blitzing. Blitz packages usually wind up with inferior cover players or disguised assignments having to take on a defender, and the technical skill of Kelce and Mahomes in those situations is a lot to account for.
So even though some of Mahomes' interceptions reek of rushed process or the famed "gunslinger mentality" — Gruden even compared Mahomes to Brett Favre at one point last season — in actuality, he was one of the least aggressive quarterbacks in the league. Where that really manifested was against zone coverage.
Mahomes threw the ball 578 times last season. Per the game charting of Sports Info Solutions, of Mahomes' unsuccessful plays, 171 were against zone coverage versus only 88 against man coverage. It wasn't an issue of unsuccessful completions, either — Mahomes' 16.2 percent unsuccessful completion rate was the lowest in the NFL among full-time starters last season. When Mahomes threw the ball, the design of the offense often made sure that the completions were getting the right amount of yardage to stay on script, at the very least.
Six of Mahomes' 12 interceptions came on deep throws against zone coverage. Five of those six throws were targeted at Hill. The common factor on all of them, interestingly enough, was that the balls were so far off-target that Hill didn't leap for a single one of them. The two balls that were on-script were poor throws — a long overthrow and a short underthrow. The other three were Mahomes trying to make something out of nothing.
In Week 9 against the Browns, Mahomes threw an interception toward the end zone because it was third-and-11 from the Cleveland 43, and every route the Chiefs had went 10 or more yards past the sticks. Mahomes' throw to Hill downfield was Denzel Rice's from the second it was thrown. In Week 14 against the Ravens, initial pressure forced Mahomes to step up in the pocket, and an arm around his waist had him throw off-platform and sidearm at the same time. There were open receivers in the area, but the ball was lobbed up and not a worthy challenge of the defense.
This isn't to say that Mahomes doesn't make wild throws; it's to say that the process of his deep misses against zone was still generally quite good. He was reading the coverages correctly but couldn't correctly ascertain if his body would enable him to complete the ball or not.
A couple of throws in Kansas City's Week 16 loss against Seattle exemplified the issues he had in this area. In the opening drive of the game, Mahomes threw on the run to Robinson against deep corner Shaquill Griffin in Cover-3, who had been beat. But because Mahomes was on the run, the ball didn't have enough on it to lead the receiver. Griffin was able to recover. In the second quarter, trying to spark a drive before halftime, Mahomes successfully stepped up in the pocket and saw Kelce over the middle against a Cover-4 look, but he stepped so far up that he was in the lap of his linemen, and so the ball thudded to the turf before it could get to Kelce.
More of the egregious misses were short throws. In fact, they were easy throws. Mahomes threw incomplete on seven different screen passes. Most of his egregious miscues involved curl routes and not being able to properly read the lay of the land underneath in those moments. The ball that Samson Ebukam intercepted and returned to the house in the Week 11 Monday Night Football points-fest against the Rams was designed to be a quick curl to Demetrius Harris. Mahomes never saw the passing lane reduction coming, and the ball was plucked by the linebacker. In Week 15 against the Chargers, Mahomes took a snap on third-and-3 with 8:18 left in the second quarter and found his early option double-covered underneath, with four Chargers in the middle of the field. The threat of a swing pass left Harris against Chargers defensive back Michael Davis, but by the time Mahomes threw the ball, Davis had his heels dug in and was ready to charge on the ball. Mahomes' process simply didn't respect the defenders on those curls as much as he needed to. He hasn't properly figured out the timing on coming back to a stationary route later in a down quite yet.
But when we're leading with that as a criticism, it's pretty clear where Mahomes' destiny lies. We haven't seen a quarterback combine this level of skill with instant results since Robert Griffin III — and Griffin wasn't anywhere near the passer that Mahomes is.
Statistically, it's only natural to expect and accept that some regression is coming in 2019. Quarterbacks don't throw for 50 touchdowns every year, and Kansas City's best players were able to stay on the field. The only real talent losses the Chiefs suffered were Duvernay-Tardif for a couple of months and Kareem Hunt after video proof of his domestic violence crystallized that situation for the Chiefs and the NFL. Center Mitch Morse and Harris fled in free agency, and the Chiefs don't have an obvious replacement for Morse on the roster. And the expected loss of Hill, one of the most dynamic players in the league, would be a significant blow to the Chiefs attack moving forward.
The hanging question is whether Mahomes can improve. At the end of the day, that's something that we can't know the answer to from the outside. Everything we've seen and read so far would lead us to believe that Mahomes is a smart, hard-working quarterback. That doesn't necessarily beget improvement, but it is a good sign. The talent is already so, so evident. Is Mahomes going to be able to refine it? We'll want to be watching for how far he wants to stretch his out-of-structure playmaking. Does he rein it in on throws he has learned he can't make, or are we going to get a few awkward throws a season because he's so good that it's not worth putting him on a leash? Is Mahomes going to grow with his pre-snap reads to the point where, like the Mannings, Tom Bradys, and Philip Rivers of the world, he can win before the ball is even snapped? Will he get more consistent with his reads against shorter zone coverages?
What we saw from Mahomes in his first season as a starter was a player who could reach absurd heights on every throw. We saw a system and player foundation that made his arm talent matter on a level that could dictate opposing coverages. We saw a player who threatened a defense every time he dropped back, no matter what kind of pass rush found its way into the backfield. We saw this new-age hybrid of Favre and Wilson who made sure the defense had no safety on any patch of the field.
In a world where everything is hyped before it ever delivers, Mahomes was an unexpected superstar from his first snap. The only thing that kept him out of the Super Bowl was his own team's suspect defense. Expecting him to improve feels a bit unfair. But as Mahomes gets a little more comfortable with his abilities, and learns a bit more about when to hit the throttle and when to dial it back, it's possible he just gets better.
It's possible that we were just watching the start of something historic.