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Patrick Mahomes, Comeback God, Has Changed the NFL’s Defining Question

For the past two decades, franchises have worked tirelessly to find a blueprint to beat the Patriots dynasty. After Super Bowl LIV, the league’s guiding principle—and the force at the center of it—has shifted.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We have grown to believe that comebacks are flukes, that if you throw someone into a deep hole, the only way they can climb out is a miracle that leaves them battered and bruised. Then along came Patrick Mahomes, who gets thrown into deep holes and shrugs. He is built specifically to escape these predicaments.

This became clear Sunday on a third-and-15 in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, with the Chiefs trailing the 49ers 20-10. Typically, quarterbacks take three, five, or seven steps back before throwing a pass. On this play, Mahomes takes 12, putting him 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage and 29 yards behind the line to gain.

Why does he drift so far backward? Because San Francisco’s pass rush has hounded him all night, routinely forcing him to make throws quicker than he’d like. And this play—“Wasp,” as Chiefs head coach Andy Reid explained to NBC’s Peter King—is designed for Mahomes to throw a deep ball to Tyreek Hill in one-on-one coverage with a safety. The only question is whether Mahomes will have enough time and space to get the ball off. So Mahomes takes a 12-step drop, something that might be a problem for the noodle-armed quarterbacks of America. It’s not one for Mahomes. His pass travels 57 yards in the air, from his spot all the way back near the Everglades to a wide-open Hill streaking toward Miami Beach.

This is Patrick Mahomes math. On third-and-15, you need to drop back 15 yards so that you have time to throw the ball 60. Every other quarterback in the NFL would be desperate to pass it toward the sticks in this situation, and defenses have learned to guard that area of the field to prevent first downs. That just makes it easier for Mahomes to launch the ball over them.

In these playoffs, teams other than the Chiefs went 3-of-16 on situations of third-and-15 yards or more. Of the three first-down conversions, only one came on a legitimate throw past the sticks—a 26-yard pass from Lamar Jackson to Seth Roberts. The other two were a Russell Wilson scramble and a Deshaun Watson checkdown to Duke Johnson. On Wilson’s and Watson’s throws, the idea wasn’t to beat the defense deep, but rather to hope that somebody could break a tackle and make a mad dash to the marker.

In these types of downs-and-distances, Mahomes is in a league of his own. The NFL’s non-Mahomes quarterbacks combined for seven touchdown passes and 15 interceptions on third-and-15s or longer during the regular season. Mahomes, meanwhile, had three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 156.3 passer rating. (The highest possible rating is 158.3.) Here’s a clip from September in which CBS broadcaster Tony Romo says the Chiefs should try to pick up 5 to 7 yards against the Raiders to get into field goal range on a third-and-20. Instead, Mahomes fires a 42-yard missile to rookie receiver Mecole Hardman in the end zone. With Mahomes on the field, the Chiefs picked up five first downs on 17 plays in which they needed to gain at least 15 yards on third down this season, a 29.4 percent rate. The rest of the NFL picked up 57 first downs on 626 such plays, 9.1 percent.

Mahomes’s ability to pick up exceptionally unlikely first downs mirrors his ability to rally his team to exceptionally unlikely victories. The Chiefs played three games this postseason, and trailed all three by at least 10 points. As you’ve probably heard, they went on to win the Super Bowl, becoming the first team with three double-digit comebacks in the same playoff run. And they didn’t just win each game—they won each game by double digits. The Chiefs are the first team ever to win three consecutive games in which they trailed by at least 10 and then won by at least 10 in the regular season or postseason. The most spectacular comeback came in the divisional round against the Texans. The Chiefs trailed 24-0 in the second quarter, led 28-24 at halftime, and won 51-31.

This is what Mahomes does. If he needs 15 yards to pick up a first down, he chucks the ball 60. If he needs 25 points to pull off a comeback, he hangs 51. The deeper the hole, the easier it seems for him to climb out.

Mahomes is 24. In his first season as a starter, he passed for 5,000-plus yards and 50 touchdowns and was named league MVP. In his second season as a starter, he won the Super Bowl and was named Super Bowl MVP. His career arc is already in the clouds. For the past two decades, the defining question in the NFL has been how other franchises can keep up with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and a Patriots organization that gains small advantages better than anyone in football history. After Super Bowl LIV, the question has shifted. How can other franchises stop a quarterback who makes massive and historic comebacks look stunningly easy?

Mahomes’s comebacks sometimes take place within a single play. My favorite Mahoment of 2019 is this 27-yard touchdown pass to Byron Pringle. Of course, it comes on a third-and-18:

The Chiefs need to advance to the Indianapolis 10-yard line to pick up a first down. Mahomes takes the snap, shuffles in the pocket, and then turns around and runs backward past the 45. There is no hard data on this, but I have to think the odds of success on a play in which you’re 35 yards behind the line to gain and running in the wrong direction are extremely low.

This ends in a touchdown. And the Chiefs probably wouldn’t have scored without this scramble. NFL’s NextGen dots reveal that the Kansas City receivers were well defended before Mahomes ran. When he moved, the Colts defense adjusted, assuming that he would either throw the ball to the right or cross the line of scrimmage. Instead, he uses his Mahomentum to zip a 30-yard rope to Pringle before the defense has a chance to snap back into position.

Mahomes comebacks sometimes don’t take place on the field at all. At any point in Sunday’s Super Bowl, did you think about how he dislocated his knee in Week 7 of this season? It’s true. His kneecap was dislodged and TV cameras caught a Chiefs staffer popping it back into place. When I saw this happen live, I was horrified. I expected him to miss the rest of the year.

He missed only two games. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Mahomes’s speedy recovery was due to the unusual anatomy of his knee, which Rapoport described as “naturally loose” and similar to what most people would refer to as double-jointedness. Mahomes threw for 446 yards with three touchdowns in his return and said that the time off actually helped him recover from a nagging ankle injury. Can you imagine? Your kneecap pops off and you think, “Hey, this will help me in the long run.” And it did!

Mahomes didn’t look bothered by his injuries during the postseason. In fact, he looked more mobile than ever. He rushed for 53 yards in each of the Chiefs’ first two playoff games—his career high is 59—and would’ve had 44 in the Super Bowl before last-second kneeldowns dropped him to 29. (This was a big deal in the gambling community.) He had a pair of playoff rushing touchdowns, including that play in the AFC title game in which he shook off a pair of Titans in the backfield, made a sharp right turn, tiptoed down the sideline, and powered over defenders to get into the end zone. This guy’s kneecap fell off in October.

The only time that a Mahomes comeback has fallen short was the AFC championship game in January 2019. Mahomes and the Chiefs fell behind the Patriots 14-0 and trailed 17-7 at the start of the fourth quarter. Then Mahomes went off, with Kansas City scoring 24 points in the fourth to force overtime. At this point, Mahomes was unstoppable. The Chiefs faced only one third down in the entire quarter, reaching the end zone three times and frantically driving for a game-tying field goal. The Chiefs had four plays that gained 20-plus yards and drew two pass-interference flags. They would’ve won in regulation had Dee Ford not inched offsides on what should have been the game-clinching interception.

If Mahomes would have touched the ball in overtime, the Chiefs would’ve scored. That seems less like a hypothetical and more like a fact. Instead, the Patriots won the coin toss, wiped Kansas City’s defense off the field on a 13-play touchdown drive, and went on to beat the Rams in the Super Bowl.

As wild as it is that Mahomes is a 24-year-old with an MVP and a Super Bowl win, it’s not as wild as considering that he should probably have won two Super Bowls. The NFL’s only answer for Mahomes until now has been a damn coin toss.

Mahomes is not unstoppable. San Francisco did a good job of containing him for three and a half quarters on Sunday. With a powerful pass rush and a sound secondary, the Niners proved that it’s possible to limit his magic. They chased Mahomes around for 50 minutes and picked off two of his passes. But even the strong get tired.

During his brief time as an NFL starter, Mahomes has accumulated plenty of highlights that show him being chased out of pockets before whipping pinpoint passes to tightly covered receivers. The highlights from the end of the Super Bowl don’t look like that. After the Niners made Mahomes look mortal, he beat them by throwing from clean pockets to open targets. Nick Bosa is great, but on the pivotal third-and-15, Mahomes knew that a gassed Bosa couldn’t make it 15 yards into the backfield before Hill beat a gassed San Francisco safety. Mahomes went so deep into the hole that he came out the other side.

It’s not about whether you can stop Mahomes. You can force him into a third-and-long, or stick him with a double-digit deficit, or chase him 20 yards into the backfield. But you’re just digging holes he’s climbed out of before.

Sunday’s Super Bowl seemed like a preview of the next NFL decade. With Mahomes in the mix, no lead will ever feel safe, and no down-and-distance will ever feel daunting. Mahomes entered a league where comebacks seem like flukes. Two years later, those comebacks already seem expected.