I’m afraid we’ve entered the greatness fatigue portion of Patrick Mahomes’s career.
There’s a two- or three-year-old semiserious social media bit, the gist of which is “If Patrick Mahomes had done that, the NFL media would go nuts.” (The first time I remember seeing it was with a Matthew Stafford no-look pass in 2020, but I think the sheer number of people who have tweeted roughly the same thing likely indicates that it was a widely held sentiment even before that.) The idea is that NFL tastemakers are so smitten with their anointed highlight king that they praise plays by Mahomes while ignoring equally special passes made by every other quarterback.
But at this point, I think we’ve got the equation backward. My Twitter feed these days is filled with the laser beams and catapults let loose by the Trevor Lawrences and Justin Herberts of the world—great players, to be clear. But any individual Mahomes miracle—like this weird improvised lob, which moved Jerick McKinnon to the perfect place to get him headed downfield for a 56-yard touchdown against Denver earlier this month—doesn’t really move the needle much. And when Mahomes led a two-minute drill to beat the Chargers, well, it was kind of expected. That’s what he does.
Trust me—I’m in the media! Who wants to read about a great player who is still great when they could read about new players who have a chance to become great or formerly great players who have suddenly become bad? This is Week 16, and this is the first Mahomes piece we’ve run on The Ringer since the preseason.
It’s been five seasons since Mahomes burst onto the scene in 2018, throwing 50 touchdowns and running away with NFL MVP voting in his first year as the Chiefs’ starter. He has not stopped innovating, and he has not dropped off even a bit. His team has won the AFC West every single season and made the AFC championship game four times. (The Chiefs are 2-2 in those games, with both losses coming in overtime.) His “worst” statistical year was probably the 2019 campaign, when he put up career lows in touchdowns, yardage, and touchdown percentage; that year, he finished fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt and won the Super Bowl. Yet from 2019 to 2021, Mahomes received just two of 150 potential MVP votes (there are 50 votes per season), finishing third after Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen in 2020 and off the ballot in 2019 and 2021.
The truth is that if any other quarterback did what Mahomes is doing right now, the media would be going nuts. Mahomes currently leads the NFL in touchdowns and passing yardage and is top three in yards per attempt and touchdown percentage. His Chiefs rank first in points scored and yards per play, and they are tied for the best record in the AFC. Mahomes is responsible for 65 more expected points added on dropbacks than the no. 2 ranked quarterback, Josh Allen; that’s as big as the gap between third place and 21st place. At his current pace of 321 yards per game, Mahomes could come close to breaking Peyton Manning’s record for passing yardage in a single season (although he’ll have the benefit of a 17th game to do it). In subjective rankings, he’s the top QB in ESPN’s QBR and Pro Football Focus’s ratings, as well as The Ringer’s QB Rankings. Mahomes has been the MVP betting favorite at times this season, but he had fallen behind Jalen Hurts as of late and moved back ahead of the Eagles’ quarterback only after Hurts suffered a shoulder injury.
The greatness fatigue is somewhat understandable. People would get bored by superheroes too after the first 100 times seeing them fly. But it’s time we all get on the same page about what Mahomes is doing this season. He’s the best QB in the NFL, but we already knew that. What we may not have realized is that he might be playing the best football of his career.
The 2022 season was supposed to be a test for Mahomes with the departure of superstar wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Some felt that the Chiefs offense would drop off—that group apparently included Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, who praised Hill and said the trade would “expose some people.” Or perhaps Mahomes’s supreme talent had allowed Hill to thrive.
As the season has played out, neither has proved true. Hill has been astoundingly good for the Dolphins and is currently second in receiving yards, having already set a single-season career high with three games to go. His Dolphins have jumped from 22nd to ninth in scoring since his arrival (along with that of new head coach Mike McDaniel) and are on pace to make the playoffs for just the third time in the past 20 years. In the few categories in which Mahomes is second or third in the NFL, like touchdown rate or yards per attempt, Hill’s new QB, Tua Tagovailoa, is usually first.
Yet the Chiefs have somehow improved without Hill. They were fourth in scoring last year and are first now. They’re gaining .173 EPA per offensive snap, the best rating for any NFL team since … the 2018 Chiefs. The Eagles are second, with .095 EPA per snap, only about half as good as Kansas City. And it’s virtually all Mahomes: The Chiefs are getting negative EPA from their running game, about minus-.017 EPA per non-QB rush. The Mahomes-era Chiefs always have banked heavily on Mahomes’s magic, but in 2022, they’ve leaned in especially hard. In an overtime win against the Titans, for example, Mahomes had 68 passing attempts while also leading the team in rushing with 63 yards. (Nobody else on the team had more than 5 rushing yards in that game.) If his 68 passes, six carries, and four sacks taken are combined, Mahomes was involved in 78 plays, the second most by any player in any regular-season game in NFL history.
One possible explanation for this is that perhaps the loss of Hill has helped ease Mahomes into a strategic shift required by the changing way defenses play against him. Back in 2018, Mahomes and Hill were beating defenses over the top week after week after week. That year, Mahomes had seven passing touchdowns of 50 yards or more, four of which went to Hill. And in that season, 15.2 percent of Mahomes’s attempts traveled more than 20 air yards, the fourth-highest rate. It was a perfect combination of one of the fastest receivers and one of the biggest arms in the game.
In response, defenses have done everything they can to take the biggest plays away from Mahomes and other quarterbacks like him. NFL defenses have shifted heavily from man coverage—the type in which a defender might not be able to keep up with a player as fast as Hill—toward more conservative zone looks. In 2019, teams played zone on 60.6 percent of pass plays; that has jumped to 70 percent in 2022. (There’s no data available for 2018, Mahomes’s first year as a starter.)
As a result, the shape of the Chiefs offense has changed significantly. In 2019, 24.7 percent of the Chiefs’ routes were either go routes or post routes, both of which essentially end with a receiver streaking toward the end zone to catch a deep ball. Hill missed four games that year, but in 2020, he was second in go routes run with 165—more than 10 per game. Now in 2022, the Chiefs’ first season without Hill, go routes and post routes have accounted for 15.4 percent of their offense. With 14 games in the books, nobody on the team has run 100 go routes, and only 8.3 percent of Mahomes’s passes have traveled at least 20 yards in the air—about half as many as in his first year as the Chiefs’ QB.
But the Chiefs offense is better than ever, even without Hill. Tight end Travis Kelce is tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns, JuJu Smith-Schuster is having a career renaissance and ranks 21st in receiving yardage, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling is 58 yards away from setting a career high in yardage after spending four years playing with back-to-back MVP Aaron Rodgers. McKinnon ranks fourth among running backs in receiving yardage, with 182 yards in the past two weeks alone.
Maybe we’re bored by Mahomes because he’s a bit more boring than he used to be. Gone are the repeated 60-yard bombs, the 55-yard bombs, the 50-yard bombs, and even the 45-yard bombs. High completion percentage throws are in. Can you get excited for hitch routes and crossers? But this shift has allowed Mahomes to largely stay a step ahead of the defensive adjustments that have dragged leaguewide scoring down to its lowest levels since he became a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Mahomes is clearly the most valuable player this year. He’s shouldered the loss of his best receiver, become smarter and craftier, and reinvented himself as a different type of passer to become the key cog in the NFL’s best offense. And each year, we should reinvent our opinion: If our eyes and the stat sheet tell us that Mahomes is the best player, we shouldn’t knock him for failing to hit the heights of 2018 or give awards to other players for the sake of novelty. Mahomes hasn’t gotten greatness fatigue yet, which is why he was able to figure out a new way to dominate the league. We shouldn’t be feeling that fatigue yet, either.