We’ve hit mid-June, the deadest dead zone on the NFL calendar, which puts us right into peak NFL trope season—when every player is coming out of OTAs and minicamps in the best shape of their lives, ahead of schedule on their return from injury, on the brink of a major breakthrough, and/or enjoying newfound chemistry with teammates and an enhanced understanding of their respective playbooks. Far too often, this is the time of year when we fall prey to the false hope these types of recycled offseason narratives produce.
Unrelated: I’m completely, unrepentantly here for the Patrick Mahomes hype train.
That iron horse is currently rumbling down the tracks and picking up speed amid reports of no-look throws (hell yes) and the touch of new “flavor” the second-year signal-caller brings to the Chiefs’ already dynamic offense. And yeah, some of the recent excitement centers on reports of what Mahomes has done in limited, unpadded practices. But combine his electric preseason performance from last year, the handful of jaw-dropping throws he made in his encouraging Week 17 start, and the litany of praise he’s received over the past few months from both from players and coaches, and the buzz around the 22-year-old signal-caller feels like more than your garden-variety offseason hyperbole.
We saw a few flashes of a future star in his first start, the Chiefs’ 27-24 Week 17 road win against the Broncos. So with the hype growing to new heights, now is as good a time as any to revisit that performance—a game which had no bearing on Kansas City’s playoff standing, but would ultimately prove to be pivotal in the overall direction of the franchise. Starting in place of Alex Smith, Mahomes completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception in 17-degree weather, and it didn’t take the rookie too long to put his highly-touted arm strength on display. His first completion as a pro was this 35-yard downfield dart to tight end Demetrius Harris.
On that throw, Mahomes demonstrated not just an aggressive mind-set and pinpoint accuracy (there was literally nowhere else he could’ve put the ball to complete the pass), but the ability to read a defense, too. He looked to the right at the snap, then glanced to the left before getting to his third read—a seam route down the middle of the field on which Mahomes saw and then attacked the trailing Denver defender, safety Will Parks.
Mahomes showed off more than just a big arm and moxie in that game, though. He demonstrated poise in the pocket, too, and crucially, refused to drop his eyes in the face of oncoming pressure. Early in the second quarter, Mahomes skirted away from an unblocked blitzer, kept his eyes on his receivers’ developing routes, then threw off of his back foot to complete the pass to Albert Wilson to convert a third-and-14.
He showed courage in the pocket later in the quarter. He stared down the incoming blitz long enough to let his receivers’ routes develop so he could get off the throw, then lofted a touch pass to Wilson for a gain of 19 yards.
That ability to sense pressure and still go through reads is one of the most important skills a quarterback must possess, and against the Broncos, Mahomes passed that test with flying colors. Time and again, he dropped back, sensed pressure, stayed with the play’s design, moved in the pocket, and completed his throw downfield.
A few things Mahomes did in the pre-snap phase showed a veteran understanding of the game, too. On a third-and-8 midway through the third quarter, the rookie surveyed the defense, and sensing a blitz, appeared to change the protection up front. He sent one of his primary blockers, fullback Anthony Sherman, out into a short route instead of keeping him in to protect, but that protection scheme gave him a quick dump-off option in the flat—and it worked. The pressure came off both edges, but Mahomes simply lobbed a pass to Sherman. The play picked up 7 yards and set up a fourth-and-short, which the Chiefs converted on the next play.
Oh, and it didn’t hurt that Mahomes sprinkled in a little bit of Aaron Rodgers–style magic, too. Late in the fourth quarter, with the game tied, Mahomes sprinted away from pressure and, nearing the sideline, made an off-balance, impossible-looking throw in traffic, hitting Demarcus Robinson for a gain of 14 yards. That throw might’ve been a little ill-advised, sure—but it wasn’t pure luck, either. Mahomes, once again, kept his eyes downfield throughout the whole play, picked up Robinson running across the field, and threaded the needle to extend the drive and help set up the eventual game-winning field goal.
Then-Broncos corner Aqib Talib didn’t hide his admiration for Mahomes’s performance, and a few days after the game, correctly predicted Kansas City’s offseason succession plan—noting that Smith “might be on the market this year.” Mahomes “can play some ball,” Talib said. “He’s smart. I saw him checking protections; I saw him reading the defense. We know how strong his arm is. The guy is a competitor.”
Mahomes wasn’t perfect, of course. He did throw a pick in the first quarter when he airmailed a pass over the head of and behind his receiver, and on a few other plays, his poor footwork led to inaccuracy downfield. Apparently, though, he showed Andy Reid and the Chiefs brass enough to convince them to trade their longtime starter to the Redskins—despite the fact Smith had just posted an NFL-best 104.3 passer rating and led their offense to a fourth-ranked finish in Football Outsiders DVOA. On one hand, Mahomes brings to Kansas City the promise of a more exciting, dynamic, and daring downfield passing attack (not to mention the salary-cap flexibility provided by his cheap rookie contract). But on the other hand, much of the Chiefs’ identity on offense in the past few years has centered on their ability to protect the football. Last year, Smith finished with a 26-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and the team finished with the fewest turnovers (11) of any team in the league. Mahomes has big shoes to fill—and his biggest challenge might be to strike an effective balance between his signature aggressiveness and a Smith-like ability to avoid turnovers.
The offseason hype machine isn’t exactly batting 1.000; every year, a handful of players (or teams) fall short of expectations … or bomb completely. And the excitement for Mahomes isn’t bulletproof: he did struggle mightily during one of the team’s public OTA practices last month, completing just four of 15 passes during a full-team session.
But the Mahomes hype seems to stem from a few factors. First, we saw last year what he was able to do against most of Denver’s defensive starters. And second, all the pieces are there for the second-year pro to hit the ground running as the Chiefs’ new starter. He’s set to take the helm of an offense that seems almost tailor-made for his skill set, one that mixes college-style RPO plays with read-option runs, lots of play-action deep shots, and plenty of older-school West Coast principles. Last year’s rushing champ, Kareem Hunt, should help provide a solid foundation on the ground. Tyreek Hill is one of the league’s premier field stretchers. Travis Kelce is as dangerous down the seam as any player in the league. Throwing Sammy Watkins, who the team signed in free agency, into the offense is just the cherry on top. Oh, and by the way, according to early reports out of Chiefs offseason practice, the connection between Mahomes and Watkins “is real.”
We’ll have to wait until September to see whether the Mahomes hype train continues to build up speed or falls off the rails completely, but there are few players I’m looking forward to watching more than Kansas City’s new aggressive, big-armed quarterback.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Patrick Mahomes threw a pass to Albert Wilson in a fourth-quarter scenario; the receiver was Demarcus Robinson.