Patrick Mahomes Took the Next Step in His Development—by Getting More Boring

Patrick Mahomes has been an elite NFL quarterback since he took the field. Forget his 2018 MVP campaign, his first season as a full-time starter for the Kansas City Chiefs; Mahomes even looked the part in his first start, which came in a pointless game at the end of his rookie season.

That day against the Denver Broncos, Mahomes did everything we know about him now. He did not throw a touchdown, but had 284 passing yards and an average of 8.1 yards per try, leading the Chiefs to a 27–24 road victory over the 11th-ranked DVOA NFL defense. The film is replete with your standard magical Mahomes fare. He even threw a pass without a lookthat you can get away with as a former MVP, but damn bold if you try to be a rookie. I mean, look at this nonsense:

With everything the 27-year-old has accomplished since his professional debut, it’s easy to forget how shocking this performance was for football fans. But Matt Nagy, who was Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator at the time and is now the Chiefs’ quarterbacks coach, says it hardly surprised those in the building. The Chiefs coaches have seen this in practice. They saw it all over his Texas Tech movie. And when it came time to develop a game plan for Mahomes’ first start, they didn’t hold back.

“Even in college there wasn’t a play he couldn’t put on,” Nagy told me this week. “I remember driving to my son’s baseball game and showing him the highlights [Mahomes] on youtube from your phone. And when you find such a talented player, you’ll want to do whatever you can find.”

Instead of defending the rookie quarterback with a conservative approach, the Kansas City staff essentially said, “Fuck it, this guy is right, so let’s show him.” It was beginning score for Mahomes. The following season, he won the league’s highest individual honor. He won the Super Bowl the following year. And he played again for the second ring in the season after that. By that time, Mahomes was already considered the best quarterback in the NFL. He was 25 years old.

That second Super Bowl performance didn’t go so well. Much of the Chiefs’ starting line was missing, and the Buccaneers pressured Mahomes in more than half of his retreats. Kansas City lost 31–9, and it was indeed the first time that Mahomes had played poorly—at least statistically. To those of us who watched him at home, he still seemed valiant even after the defeat. His incomplete passes are remembered more than any Tom Brady pass. He even had the Bucks sideline at a loss.

However, Mahomes was not so impressed with his performance. A few months after the game he said Bell ringerKevin Clarke said that he watched the film twice, trying to find a way to improve, and focused on one particular aspect of his acting that needed to be fixed. “I go back to backyard football too often,” Mahomes said in 2021. “And you could definitely see it in the Super Bowl. I mean, there were times when my pockets were empty and I was still scrambling. … I’m coming back [working] at that. Making sure I trust the guys around me and trust my pocket, read in my pocket and don’t try to make a big game.”

The NFL’s most exciting (and most effective) quarterback decided the way to get better was to play more boring football with fewer big games. As paradoxical as it may sound, two years later Mahomes proved himself right. He is completing the best regular season of his career and is likely to take home the NFL MVP award for the second time on Saturday night, right before he plays for the Super Bowl second ring on Sunday. And he got to this point, setting record lows in his career for both deep completions and average goal depth.

Numerical failures like this don’t lead to better results for other quarterbacks who walk the ground, but they did lead to Mahomes. He became the more boring quarterback he was going to be almost two years ago, and yet he simultaneously widened the gap between himself and the other 31 NFL starters.

If 2022 is the best season of Mahomes’ career to date, then 2021 has certainly been the worst. It wasn’t bad by most standards, but the Chiefs star set career highs in expected points, passer rating, and yards per try with a career-high 13 interceptions and a career-high 28 sacks. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 13th best quarterback in the league, and that’s not entirely an undeserved rating.

It’s been an awkward transition year for Mahomes, who finds himself caught between the high-flying quarterback he was early in his career and the one he eventually became in 2022. Now this guy was still an elite passer most of the time, but he was prone to long-term uneven play. The opposing defense that Mahomes and Tyreke Hill had been burning down for the previous three seasons was sold out to take away the deeper parts of the field. And while Mahomes began to look for safer options more often, he was still largely reluctant to do so. He would often force things by trying to hit a shooting window that simply wasn’t there – hence the inflated interceptions – or he would work on his progression and end up getting to his checkdown but it took too long. Hence the highest layoff rate since his rookie season.

During one particularly bad stretch for the offense, a frustrated Mahomes said the Chiefs saw news coverage that no other crime had seen. He was not mistaken: the defense weakened and forced him to throw a checkdown, and it was not until November that he began to submit to them, which caused a resurgence at the end of the season.

After a memorable division shootout with the Bills in Kansas City, Mahomes seemed to have turned the corner completely. This was followed by the AFC title game against the Bengals, which was arguably the first time Mahomes’ individual performance was the biggest losing factor at the end of the season. He started the game enthusiastically, averaging 10-plus yards per rebound during the first two quarters, but Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo made a few changes to him in the second half. Cincinnati began throwing eight defensemen for cover while rushing only three. It was a more extreme version of the reporting Mahomes referenced earlier in the season, and it seemed to break his brain. Mahomes flipped the ball several times in the second half, giving the Bengals short fields, and Cincinnati took advantage of this en route to a 27–24 win. It was the worst half of football Mahomes ever played in the NFL. And this turned out to be a serious setback in the process of growing up.

However, as it turned out, it was just a speed bump. Mahomes hasn’t shown a bad game this season.. And he wins in a way we’ve never seen him try before. What was once a passing game based almost entirely on goals by Hill and Travis Kelsey has become more egalitarian. No Chiefs pass catcher has hit more than 25 percent of the team’s goals this season, and Hill’s production has been replaced by Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdez-Scantling. Second-round rookie Sky Moore and mid-season acquisition Kadarius Tony also played a small but important role in the passing game, as did Ivy League Day 3 pick Justin Watson, who gained 315 yards after scrimmage.

Part of this approach can be explained by Hill’s off-season departure and management’s decision to replace him with a committee rather than find another star receiver. But much of that, according to offensive coordinator Eric Binemi, has to do with Mahomes’ individual improvements. “He sees the pitch better,” Beniemi told me this week. “Besides, just think about how diversely he distributed football [compared to past seasons]. And then over Whathe approaches and finds a checkdown.

“Everyone has become a piece of the puzzle.”

Mahomes isn’t just splitting goals more this season. He also throws the ball to different areas of the field. Here are heatmaps of all of its completions that yielded at least a 1.0 EPA from 2021 to 2022, via TruMedia:

Mahomes not only forces the defense to consider multiple options on every play; it also forces them to protect the full width of the field. If the defense wants to play in the zone, Mahomes makes those defenders cover a lot of grass. If they play as men, Mahomes can just pick the right match, knowing he has solid targets that won’t need extra help, like Kelsey and (formerly) Hill.

“It just makes it harder for teams to try to plan a game,” Bienemi said of this more comprehensive passing game.

This season, Mahomes has outflanked the rest of the field except Josh Allen in the EPA despite not hitting the outfield as often. And the offense is still averaging 29.2 points per game, the best in the league. But of all the stats that show Mahomes’ maturation this season, this one best sums it up: a year ago, Mahomes averaged 2.41 seconds per shot on backwards targets under 5 aerials…


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