The last time Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes II squared off, what was billed as a football game quickly devolved into absurdist theater. The two met in Lubbock, Texas, on October 22, 2016, with Mayfield leading an Oklahoma team that was unbeaten in conference play against Mahomes and a struggling Texas Tech squad that had scored just 17 points the week before in a loss to West Virginia. What followed was a ludicrous offensive explosion, even by Big 12 standards.
The Sooners and Red Raiders combined for 125 total points in Oklahoma’s 66-59 win. Both offenses gained 854 total yards. Mahomes finished with 734 passing yards; Mayfield tossed seven touchdowns. “It almost felt like an NBA All-Star Game, where you just knew they were going to score on every possession,” says Fox Sports’ Joe Davis, who was the play-by-play broadcaster for the game. The Red Raiders ran so many plays that the pace nearly derailed one of the most up-tempo spread offenses in the country. “There came a time in that game,” says former Tech offensive coordinator Eric Morris, “when we were doing so well going back and forth, I remember looking down at the play sheet and saying, ‘We’re almost out of plays to run.’”
It was a memorable afternoon for all involved, but when the game ended, few realized they’d just seen two quarterbacks who’d eventually shape the future of the NFL.
The dominant story line coming into the game was Mayfield’s return to Tech following a messy divorce two years before. He walked on to the 2013 Red Raiders and won Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors before declaring his intention to transfer that December, and all the drama surrounding his departure left lingering resentment on both sides. In the week leading up to the OU-Tech showdown, Mayfield was happy to fan the flames. “He talked about how he needed a police escort a couple years prior to that, when he was just on the sideline redshirting at Oklahoma when they played Texas Tech,” Davis says. “He was obviously stirring the pot, per usual.”
But beyond the histrionics, little thought was paid to each quarterback’s professional future. At that point, Mayfield was considered by many to be a college star unsuited for the next level, a walk-on without the physical profile to succeed in the pro game. Mahomes was seen as yet another stat-padding quarterback in Tech’s prolific scheme, a reckless backyard football star with outlandish arm talent who was more quirky than compelling.
Now, two years later, Mahomes is the story of the 2018 NFL season. In his first year as the Chiefs starter, he’s leading the MVP race thanks to 26 touchdown passes in eight games, and his offense is scoring a league-leading 36.3 points per game. Mayfield is six months removed from being the no. 1 overall draft pick for the Browns, and his franchise just fired its head coach and offensive coordinator to ensure that neither would scar the organization’s most prized asset. Together, Mahomes and Mayfield are two of the most intriguing young players in the league. The QBs will face off for the second time ever on Sunday as Cleveland hosts Kansas City; before they take the field, it’s worth revisiting their intertwined paths that—when closely examined—help explain quarterbacking in the modern NFL.
There’s one Mahomes throw that Morris remembers vividly. It came during the quarterback’s second scrimmage of his true-freshman year with Texas Tech in 2014. Mahomes was leading the Red Raiders’ no. 2 offense down the field when the coaches dialed up a bootleg. The final read on the play was a post to the back side of the action, and in the five years Morris had run it, he’d seen only one player successfully make that throw: Case Keenum, who had a record-setting career at Houston. After the snap, Mahomes faked a handoff and was chased to his left by a linebacker. As he ran full speed, he launched a perfect throw to the post 55 yards in the air without squaring his shoulders or setting his feet. “I remember sitting there—me, Coach [Kliff] Kingsbury, and Coach [Mike] Jinks, who’s at Bowling Green—and we rewound that film probably 12, 13 times,” Morris says. “We were all in amazement. We were counting the yards. We’d never really seen a throw that accurate where a kid was running that hard going left. And after that, he just kinda started making these throws over and over during the course of practice.”
At that point, Mahomes was backing up first-string quarterback Davis Webb. Webb and Mayfield spent 2013 fighting for the Tech starting job, and it was that battle—for a job Mayfield felt he’d rightfully earned—that motivated the eventual Heisman Trophy winner to transfer to Oklahoma ahead of his sophomore season. That choice set off a chain reaction that helped get Mayfield and Mahomes to where they are today.
Both quarterbacks share a past in Lubbock, and even after Mayfield split for Norman, they’ve remained linked in a few key ways. Both had their styles of play questioned when they decided to enter the pros. Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley started his career as a student assistant with Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and was raised on the same spread concepts that Leach made famous. Mayfield proved to be a remarkably accurate passer under Riley’s tutelage, but NFL scouts criticized the comfort and ease he experienced in Riley’s well-tailored scheme, in which receivers got open all over the field, and throwing into tight windows was rarely a concern. For Mahomes, the question was whether his huge arm could be harnessed. Tech’s offensive approach consisted mostly of quick screens and deep bombs; the intermediate throws that are necessary at the next level were mostly absent, and picturing his freewheeling style in an NFL offense was difficult for even the most imaginative evaluators.
The fact both players became first-round picks within 18 months of their 2016 matchup speaks to a sea change in NFL decision-making. Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Browns general manager John Dorsey have embraced the notion that spread quarterbacks can succeed in the NFL. “I’m just happy that there are people at the next level that are modernizing the game and maximizing the skill sets of these [quarterbacks],” Morris says. “You look at Jared Goff, what he’s doing [with the Rams]. He’s an old [school] spread quarterback. You look at Mahomes. You look at Baker. These guys are starting to change the outlook of how people are calling the game.”
Outside of their proficiency in spread systems, Morris says Mayfield and Mahomes are also two of the smartest players he’s ever coached. They synthesize data at a rate few passers can. “You can put so much on them on Monday game-planning, and they came out Tuesday, and they’d processed the information as good as anybody we’ve ever had,” Morris says. Mahomes was even named an Academic All-American during his junior year at Tech. When the Chiefs were evaluating him before the 2017 draft, they sent a stack of plays to Lubbock for Mahomes to memorize. He aced the team’s test, and then some. “Andy [Reid], leaving our facility at Texas Tech, was like ‘Holy crap,’” Morris says.
The cognitive abilities of both players exceed those of many quarterbacks, but more importantly, so too do their natural and learned instincts. Morris says he loves when he gets to work with a QB who’s played multiple sports because he believes it gives that player a better sense of field awareness. Mahomes was both an elite high school pitcher and an accomplished basketball player, and Mayfield was a prodigious hitter as a first baseman in high school. “[That experience] allows them to always keep their eyes up and see things happening around them and kind of develop that sixth sense of people around them without looking at them,” Morris says. “You can almost feel the game without seeing it.” Mayfield, for instance, has developed a near-supernatural ability to perceive how a pocket will shift around him. His feet are the most undervalued facet of his game, and his ability to navigate traffic and find open receivers just before the walls cave in keeps plays alive.
Mahomes’s Spidey senses, on the other hand, manifest themselves when he’s outside the pocket. His teams at Tech practiced more scramble drills than any squad Morris had ever coached because with Mahomes’s arm strength and vision, if a play broke down the ball could wind up anywhere on the field. The Red Raiders even incorporated no-look passes into their practices, during which Mahomes would escape outside and torch the defense. “They’re Lamar Jackson running around making people miss,” Morris says of both QBs, “but they have a great feeling of when to go, when not to go, when to step up, when to slide out right, left, and keep their eyes down the field to make a big play off it.”
Baseball may have been a connection point between Mayfield and Mahomes, but their respective strengths on the diamond also hint at the differences between their styles at QB. In two varsity seasons at Lake Travis High School in Texas, Mayfield hit .338 with 22 doubles. Baseball players—the successful ones, anyway—generate bat speed and power using their entire bodies. A powerful lower half and violent torque, more than beefy forearms or a Superman chest, make the ball fly. Just ask Mookie Betts.
Mayfield’s throwing motion resembles a baseball swing in many ways. Like a hitter, he spins his back foot forcefully into the ground as he opens his front hip. “Baker torques it a little more [than Mahomes] with his torso,” Morris says. “You can see that recoil.” Mayfield is just barely over 6 feet tall; Webb, his competition at Texas Tech, was 6-foot-5. But Morris and the coaching staff quickly learned Mayfield could make all the throws that his taller counterpart could. His arm strength surpassed that of nearly every QB his size, and by using his entire body and staying on balance, he maintained his patented accuracy.
The pop on Mayfield’s throws may have been surprising to his Tech coaches, but Mahomes’s arm strength has been in a class all its own since high school. Mahomes was a flamethrowing pitcher at Whitehouse High School in Texas, with major league potential and a mid-90s fastball; the Detroit Tigers even took a flier on him in the 37th round of the 2014 MLB draft. Habits he learned on the mound mostly have helped him through college and in his first two years in the pros, but there was one trait Tech coaches attribute to his baseball days that they tried to change. Mahomes’s pitching-inspired throwing motion led to an elongated delivery that worried Morris and others on staff. “He was such a good baseball player, so he was kind of used to drawing that thing back,” Morris says of Mahomes’s release. “But we never really messed with [arm angles] because that stuff came so natural to him. It was kind of like an art form.”
Despite that drawback, Mahomes’s pitching career has served as the basis of his trademark arm strength. When he cocks his arm back, it’s like watching the Death Star’s superlaser power up before destroying Alderaan. “It looks like he’s barely flipping the wrist, and that ball is spinning out of there,” Morris says. “He had an uncanny ability to throw the ball accurately while he was in just the craziest positions.”
Both quarterbacks have their own unique style, but what’s really separated the two since coming into the NFL is the quality of their surroundings. Mahomes couldn’t have asked for a better situation to start his pro career. After Kansas City traded up to take him with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Mahomes spent the first 16 weeks of his first season on the bench, learning from Reid and veteran Alex Smith. Mahomes had never been asked to dictate protections in college, and with the Chiefs, he was given almost a year and a half to learn Kansas City’s process before being thrown into the fire. When he was brought in as the Chiefs starter, he was surrounded by the most dynamic set of pass catchers in football. Installing Mahomes as the starting quarterback was akin to sticking a pair of wings and a jet engine on a Maserati.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Mayfield is driving a 1991 Toyota Tercel with the exhaust pipe dragging on the street. Reid had the luxury of patience with Mahomes. As a playoff team in no rush to thrust their QB of the future into the fray, the Chiefs waited and brought Mahomes along at his own pace. Dorsey seemed to have a similar plan in place for Mayfield, as he traded for former Bills QB Tyrod Taylor in March, about a month before drafting Mayfield first overall. Taylor was supposed to serve as a bridge quarterback, someone to run the offense until Mayfield had fully settled in and learned the system. But that plan fell apart about a month into the season as Taylor got injured in Week 3 and the fans’ clamoring for Mayfield became too loud to ignore. So far this season, the inexperienced Browns receiving corps leads the league with a 6.9 percent drop rate, and the offense hasn’t been able to match the strides of the team’s defense.
While Mayfield throws to maybe the worst group of pass catchers in the NFL on Sunday, in his first game after the Browns fired their head coach and offensive coordinator, Mahomes will be at the helm of a system devised by arguably the best play-caller in football, in a huddle with Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, and a bevy of other big-play receivers. “Mahomes has so much flippin’ talent around him, he doesn’t have to do a ton,” says Fox analyst Brady Quinn, who served as the color commentator during the 2016 OU-Tech matchup. “I think as much as we’re wowed by his ability to move and make throws at different arm angles, it’s also Tyreek Hill running wide-ass open.”
Like everyone else, Quinn has long been enamored of Mahomes’s gifts as a passer. But as a former Browns quarterback who was drafted in the first round, he knows firsthand how important circumstances are for an NFL quarterback’s career. That’s why, even if Sunday’s Chiefs-Browns game becomes the blowout many expect, it won’t say much about the trajectory each quarterback will take from here. Our collective fascination with Mayfield and Mahomes, their shared history, and their parallel futures, exists for a reason: They represent where the sport is going. And whether either reaches the game’s highest level may be the ultimate statement on how environment shapes the quarterbacks we champion.