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When It Comes to Patrick Mahomes’s Passing, the Risk Is Always Worth the Reward

Already the most talented passer in the NFL, Mahomes has been avoiding mistakes at a remarkable clip in the playoffs. His coaches say he just sees the field differently than other players.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The word, Eric Bieniemy said, is autocorrect. The difference between Patrick Mahomes and the dozens of good quarterbacks who correct their mistakes, and the bad quarterbacks who can’t even do that, is that somewhere in Mahomes’s brain there is the same technology that tells you that you can’t spell restaurant. “He autocorrects in midsentence,” Bieniemy, the Chiefs offensive coordinator, added. This happens whenever a tweak is needed, whether it be midgame, on the sideline, midseason, or midplay if it breaks down. But the correction is always quick and usually the right decision.

It’s easy to define Mahomes by the long, often unguardable passes he completes, which have placed him among the best young quarterbacks ever to play the game. Those passes are the reason he won the MVP last year, and why he’s made two AFC title games and one Super Bowl, this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. It is probably more accurate to define him by what he doesn’t do: make a lot of mistakes. He has brought a brand of aggressive, beautiful football to the sport and, crucially, has minimized the risk that leads old-school football minds to hate aggressive, beautiful football. According to Pro Football Focus, Mahomes is making a negative play on 4 percent of his passes in these playoffs. The quarterback who made the least mistakes during the regular season was Drew Brees, at 8 percent. The league average for a negative play is 15 percent.

Once Mahomes returned to full health after a handful of injuries this season, he gradually became better at avoiding mistakes to the point that he didn’t make a negative play two weeks ago in the AFC title game. Only Brees took fewer sacks on a per-play basis this season, but Mahomes throws his passes 2.4 yards in the air longer than Brees’s average throw, meaning Mahomes is spending more time waiting for plays to develop. Mahomes knows how to turn almost everything into a positive play, even while throwing passes that would be risky for most quarterbacks. In fact, when Mahomes emerged as a deep-passing prince in 2018, the only quarterbacks reliably throwing deeper were Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who, let’s say, had different results.

NFL coordinators this decade have relied on shorter, more conservative throws to help eliminate risk, which has led to some bad football. The 2017 season, the year before Mahomes became a starter, Football Outsiders said it was the “year of the failed completion,” referring to a metric in which a pass is completed, but it falls short of where it needed to be. Mahomes came into a league of failed completions and wrecked it.

Mahomes’s month-long run of mistake-free football is not an accident. Coaches and players say it’s due to a combination of factors: the first, of course, is that Mahomes is wildly talented. “In practice, if something isn’t exactly how we scripted or the defense gives a different look than what we were expecting, we might blow the whistle and try to start again,” said passing game analyst and assistant quarterbacks coach Joe Bleymaier. “Pat immediately recognizes something is wrong and off his back foot, he’ll just launch a throw down the field, as more or less a throwaway, and with the idea we’ll do it again. But that throw is placed on a dime, point perfect, 40 yards down the field. A throwaway.”

Head coach Andy Reid also plays a role: His schemes get the guys open, and Mahomes finds them. Chiefs receivers targeted by Mahomes have an average separation of 3.8 yards, most in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats.

There’s a legendary line from a golf coach named John Jacobs, who says that golf is what the ball does. It’s not all about positioning, or tempo, or muscles. There’s probably a similar sentiment to be said about Mahomes. His plays can look drastically different. He can throw on the run—he leads the NFL in touchdown passes when on the move. Or he can throw from the pocket. He can throw across his body if he has to or just use solid fundamentals and get the ball out quickly. Greg Lewis, the Chiefs’ receivers coach, told me that while the Chiefs practice off-script plays, the best advice he gives to his receivers is just to watch the ball and get it. Watch what the ball does.

“I like to tell my guys: Just get open and catch the ball when he throws it to you. I don’t care how he throws it, or how you get open. We get paid to make plays down the field for the quarterback and if the play is not exactly what you expected it to be, it’s still your job to make the play,” said Lewis. “It just works for us. It’s a special chemistry. Most of the things we do are on time, but when they do break down we have a knack for understanding where we are supposed to be and getting everyone in unison.”

Then there is the mental part. Mahomes’s physical brilliance is easy to see: he has great fundamentals, a knack for improvisation, and a strong arm. But, Bleymaier said, minimizing mistakes is easy when you know exactly what’s going to happen on a given play, even if it doesn’t seem obvious. Mahomes, he said, “has an unbelievable ability to see the game. He can see the game on a drawing on a piece of paper just as well as he can see on film—someone else doing it—just as well as he can see it with the play clock going down to 1 with the defense moving around at the snap. To him, it all makes sense,” Bleymaier said. “The picture to the film to real-life live bullets, everything is synced together. Some guys might be good at one of those things, and in the game might be a little bit late to recognize things. He sees it all, and it’s one picture. It’s incredible.” The result is that Mahomes is pretty much good at everything. His rating when being blitzed is 115. His rating when facing a four-man-or-fewer pass rush is 107. He carves up zone coverage but can wreck man.

Last year, I visited Kansas City to do a story on how Mahomes practices and executes his incredible throws. In the process, I spoke to a handful of players and coaches who said that Mahomes tests his limits in practice because he wants to know exactly what he can do without making big mistakes. “Coach Reid wants us to try throws in practice because if you don’t try throws you aren’t going to make them,” backup Chad Henne told me. “So we try to make the most difficult throws we possibly can. … Patrick does some freak things in practice, and he’s able to translate it to a game.”

At age 24, he’s tested his limits so thoroughly that it’s OK to wonder whether he has any anymore.