The Patrick Mahomes era in Kansas City did not begin on Tuesday night, when the Chiefs agreed to trade incumbent starting quarterback Alex Smith to Washington for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick. The Patrick Mahomes era in Kansas City began in August 2017, when the Chiefs played the Titans in a preseason game and this clip was filmed:
LOOK AT THIS BODY LANGUAGE FROM ALEX SMITH. LOOK AT IT. pic.twitter.com/5DcoGnUgnc— Clay Wendler (@ClayWendler) September 1, 2017
That’s Smith looking at Mahomes as if Mahomes had just walked away with the love of his life, feeling a pang of jealousy before being struck by a wave of disappointment upon realizing that the two are perfect for each other and will lead a fulfilling life together. Smith made that face after Mahomes unleashed this throw:
It was also after Mahomes made this throw:
And after Mahomes made this throw:
We’re cherry-picking from one half of a meaningless preseason game against the Titans in which most of Tennessee’s starters were not playing. That said, all of these throws came from one half of a single game. Mahomes can’t touch the field without creating a highlight reel that dunks on some quarterbacks’ career tapes.
Last April, the Chiefs made the trade that truly signed their future over to Mahomes. They gave the Bills two first-round picks and a third-round pick for the 10th pick in last year’s draft, which they used to select Mahomes. It was a weightier decision than they may have realized initially: The 11th pick in the 2017 draft was used on Marshon Lattimore, who emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL as a rookie with the Saints. The 12th pick was used on Deshaun Watson, who was on pace to smash a rookie quarterbacking record for the Texans before tearing his right ACL in November. Kansas City gave up a lot for the right to pass over prized talent in favor of Mahomes.
But that choice seemed justified, considering that up until last spring Smith’s decade-plus NFL career had been about as exciting as the sex life of a Galápagos tortoise. Then Smith recorded his best season ever. He led the league in passer rating, adjusted yards per attempt, and interception rate, while finishing third in completion percentage and sixth in touchdown percentage. Despite having a reputation as a noodle-armed checkdown artist incapable of completing passes more than 4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Smith led the NFL in passer rating on deep balls. He posted career highs in virtually every meaningful statistical category.
Smith was a consistently good quarterback for the Chiefs, never really having a bad year, with three Pro Bowl appearances and four trips to the playoffs in five seasons as the team’s starter. Kansas City ranked 31st and 32nd in scoring offense in the two years before Smith became the team’s quarterback; in the next five seasons, the Chiefs ranked in the top 10 in that stat three times and never finished in the bottom half of the league.
But there was a limit on the team’s ceiling with Smith. Kansas City went 1-4 in the postseason under his lead and never made it past the divisional round. This season ended with a disastrous 22-21 loss to the Titans in the wild-card round, a game in which the Chiefs blew an 18-point halftime lead.
When a team invests as much in a player as Kansas City did in Mahomes, it places a bet on which there’s no going back. Every day that Mahomes was not the starter represented a missed opportunity. Sure, Smith led the Chiefs to the playoffs, and even entered the MVP conversation during the first quarter of this season. But Smith’s touchdown bonanzas prevented the franchise from getting a read on whether Mahomes might bomb rather than throw beautiful bombs deep down the field. The deal Kansas City got for Smith was a coup: It should have been willing to hand over the keys to Mahomes regardless; instead, it did that while also acquiring an exciting young cornerback and a third-round pick.
Mahomes’s college statistics are ludicrous. He threw for 5,052 yards and 41 touchdowns as a junior, including 734 yards and five touchdowns against Oklahoma alone:
While it’s possible to be skeptical of Mahomes—he played for Texas Tech, a program whose pass-obsessed offense has produced plenty of ridiculous numbers, even for non-NFL-caliber quarterbacks—his efforts resulted in more than just empty stats. Mahomes wasn’t another player in the mold of Graham Harrell or Kliff Kingsbury, the two guys ahead of him on the Red Raiders’ all-time passing lists who combined to go 3-of-6 for 37 yards in the NFL. He was a legit first-round talent, with the arm strength to beat an entire fifth-grade class at laser tag while using footballs instead of lasers.
Here are three throws from Mahomes’s debut NFL start, a 27-24 win over the Broncos in Week 17. They rank somewhere between “great” and “sexually arousing.”
I really liked what I saw from Mahomes in his one game this year. Made some rookie mistakes, but his arm talent is everything they say it is. pic.twitter.com/uE7AQMl2Qp— Nick Olson (@NicholasJOlson) January 31, 2018
Here is a fourth throw from that same game that ranks somewhere between “sexually arousing” and “impossible.”
Every time I feel myself slipping back into "bummed" about the Chiefs, I watch this play. One of the best throws I saw from any QB all year, and Mahomes did it on a game-winning drive in his first start.— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 27, 2018
No guarantees, but man... LOOK at this play. pic.twitter.com/KO714c4G9r
Mahomes is excellent at keeping plays alive in the pocket and training his eyes downfield. Even if he’s in the process of getting tackled or being forced to throw on the run, he can deliver passes with enough power to hit receivers past the first-down marker, and enough touch to elude the outstretched arms of cornerbacks. Mahomes gets more zip on his passes when throwing off his back foot than Smith does when stepping into a throw. Head coach Andy Reid’s offense made Smith look like a superstar; Mahomes looks like a superstar even when everything is collapsing around him.
The Chiefs’ decision to turn the offense over to Mahomes is risky; after all, he’s yet to play in a meaningful professional game. But it’s less risky than building an NFL franchise around a soon-to-be 34-year-old who only just turned in the greatest season of his career. (Any time travelers reading this? If you have time to make a pit stop en route to killing Baby Hitler, go back to earlier this week and drop this paragraph off at FedExField. If that’s not possible, please focus on killing Baby Hitler.) Mr. Smith has gone to Washington, and now it’s time for the Chiefs to embark on their future.