Few things explain the current state of football more simply than the relationship between field goals and turnovers. In 2017, NFL teams kicked 169 field goals and committed 138 turnovers per 100 team games, according to research by analytics writer Chase Stuart. In 1950, teams made 51 field goals per 100 team games … and committed 373 turnovers. Those numbers remained in favor of the turnover for the next six decades. The story of the NFL is of those two numbers slowly converging, and now field goals have exceeded turnovers in every year since 2011.
Quarterbacks are simply better at throwing risk-averse passes and efficiently marching their teams down the field for points. The amount of yards Drew Brees’s passes traveled in the air dropped from 8.3 yards per pass in 2009 to 6.4 in 2017, according to airyards.com. Eli Manning’s dropped from 9.8 in 2011 to 7.3 last year and 6.8 on Sunday against the Jaguars. Today’s quarterbacks are excelling at throwing quicker, shorter passes that not only neutralize the pass rush but limit the chances for turnovers.
This, of course, can be harmful to the entertainment value of the game. Sacks and turnovers are fun. Short, simple, obvious completions are usually not. But there’s been a near-universal shift in the NFL toward passing no more than two seconds after the snap. Quarterbacks throw fewer interceptions than ever before; subsequently, their teams are in position to kick more field goals, which are not fun. In some ways the NFL is more innovative than ever, but some games can look like a Jeff Fisher fever dream.
Then there is Patrick Mahomes II, the second-year Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, the Deep-Passing Prince That Was Promised. On Sunday, the excitement around the league from football people was off the charts. Mahomes’s ability to hit big plays in practice has been raved about for nearly a year, and now it’s here, in a regular-season game, and it’s awesome.
According to Pro Football Focus’s Mike Renner, Mahomes’s average depth of target was 14.6 yards per pass on Sunday. The highest mark in the past decade over a season was 13.4. Mahomes is part of the anti-short-passing resistance inside the NFL.
The Chiefs have a near-perfect mix of talent around Mahomes. Head coach Andy Reid has compared his loose playing style to that of Brett Favre. The team traded Alex Smith, one of the most dependable players in the league, to make way for Mahomes, whom it drafted with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft after trading up from no. 27. On Sunday, Mahomes had his first meaningful start—the Chiefs beat the Chargers 38-28—and everything went according to plan, as he went 15-for-27 for 256 yards and four touchdowns. It is easy to overreact to the score of that game, but what’s important is how everything looked. To use a football term, it looked really freaking cool.
A unique player like Mahomes requires unique teammates.
“We’ve made a note, in our draft room, to look for guys who understand the play is never dead,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told me. “Because Patrick is going to hit you from anywhere.”
On Sunday, 22 percent of Mahomes’s passes were thrown 20 or more yards down the field, per Pro Football Focus. Tyrod Taylor, at 25 percent, was the only quarterback higher—except Mahomes’s quarterback rating on those throws was 135.4, while Taylor’s was 33.3. For Dallas, just 3.4 percent of Dak Prescott’s passes were deep balls (one of 29). Two of Drew Brees’s 45 attempts were deep (4.4 percent). And three of Nathan Peterman’s 18 attempts were deep—a cool 16.7 percent. He completed zero of those attempts.
The Chiefs are not just running four deep routes and calling it a day, though. Mahomes hit fullback Anthony Sherman—the fullback!—off a wheel route for 36 yards.
Yes, it’s only one game, and plenty of questions about Mahomes remain. He has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions, but we haven’t seen him enough to say that he won’t struggle with turnovers, something that’s happened in practice so often that it became a training camp story line. He is, all things considered, inexperienced when compared with Smith or any of the quarterbacks in his division—Case Keenum, Derek Carr, and Philip Rivers. But for each question there are many more possibilities, and that’s what makes Mahomes so exciting.
If I may fire up the hyperbole train: This week, ESPN’s Ian O’Connor dropped the nugget that Tom Brady once told a coach that if Aaron Rodgers played for Bill Belichick he’d pass for 7,000 yards. Brady’s point was that with Belichick’s coaching, Rodgers would be even better than he is. Mahomes is not Rodgers and Reid is not Belichick, but what if Mahomes and Reid are a low-grade version of the Rodgers-Belichick fantasy? Mahomes is not going to pass for 7,000 yards, but they could be one of the league’s most productive pairings.
Reid is one of the most forward-thinking coaches in the game—he destroyed the Patriots with plays rarely run in the NFL in Week 1 a year ago. Giving Reid a smart, athletic, big-armed quarterback like Mahomes is like giving Jon Gruden a franchise player to trade away: The possibilities are endless.
“Coach believes in letting your personalities show. He encourages that,” Veach said of the offense. “Even though he has been running variations of the West Coast offense for years, he’s always looking to push the envelope. He’s always looking to test things. He wants to be first on things.”
Look at how different the play-calling was for Mahomes than for Smith, with respect to deep passing:
Patrick Mahomes and Alex Smith Passing Charts. Different ways to win games. pic.twitter.com/UCTjE14D5G— Joey (@NFLDraftJoey) September 10, 2018
Mahomes came from a Texas Tech offense that runs the Air Raid, a type of spread offense. According to Pro-Football-Reference’s approximate value metric, Mahomes, after two starts, is already the second most valuable NFL quarterback to ever come out of the school—ahead of Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell, and a slew of record-setting quarterbacks from previous generations.
When I met with him, I asked Veach a question I already knew the answer to: Did that “spread” label worry him in the same way it worries some other coaches? Coordinators, general managers, and head coaches have complained to me about “college” offenses—about how quarterbacks from certain schemes can’t take snaps from center or read certain coverages. Reid, on the other hand, has told me that the NFL is always five years behind college and that these offenses were always coming to the NFL, regardless of any complaints the wider league may have.
“I know that Coach, and our staff, we don’t look at an offense or where they came from—Patrick is a great example of that,” Veach said. “Sometimes really good players end up at schools and they do a good job of developing and working on their craft and it’s out of their control what offense they play in. … Not everyone is a five-star recruit who can say, ‘I’m going right here, to Alabama, to run this offense.’”
Mahomes was a Rivals three-star recruit. His only other offers came from Houston and Rice.
“Some players are still developing and not highly recruited. Then maybe a coach sees something and it’s his only Division I offer and he’s at the mercy of what they are running,” Veach said. “It doesn’t mean he can’t play. It doesn’t mean you stop looking at the tape. The way we look at it is we never look into [the offense]. All across the league you’re seeing more and more of these [spread] guys. Teams are blocking out the hearsay and the chatter and homing in on the player.”
The ideal Mahomes represents is that a risk-taking, young quarterback can bring excitement. The Favre comparison is apt in at least one regard: Like with Favre, you have to watch Mahomes because literally anything can happen at any time. Look at this damn thing from his first start last year:
"Patrick Mahomes beat the Broncos backups in Week 17 of the 2017 season"- @MileHighReport— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) April 20, 2018
Here's a shot of backups Von Miller and Shaq Barrett rushing Mahomes on the final drive, with backups Brandon Marshall and Bradley Roby among those in coverage pic.twitter.com/xGBfBqfvSE
Look at this practice throw:
The Chiefs have already done a brilliant job of building an offense around Mahomes. Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt are two of the most dynamic players in the league. Sammy Watkins averages 15.8 yards per catch in his career. Travis Kelce is one of the best tight ends in football. The line is solid.
When looking for skill-position talent, Veach said he’s looking for players who don’t do this: “Guys who get paralyzed when they run their route. They go 12, 14 yards and they just kind of look around. Some guys just naturally see it, get the flow of the defense, and find the pockets.”
Unprompted, he brought up Antonio Brown. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen at this. How many yards and catches does he get outside of the play that’s actually called?” Veach said. “And Ben [Roethlisberger] knows. You see this amazing thing on tape: You’ll see Ben look and Antonio is covered, he looks off the backside, getting off his second, third, fourth looks, and you can see Antonio and it’s ‘There he is,’ and he’s 20 yards from where he’s supposed to be, but Ben knows where he’s going to end up. It’s wild.”
Veach and Reid’s task is to improve on what is already a great supporting offense for Mahomes. The possibilities are endless. It is too early to make any long-term proclamations about Mahomes—whether he’s going to pilot a consistent contender or bring a Super Bowl to Kansas City or win an MVP. It is wildly premature to predict any of those things. So, here’s the one thing we can say for certain: We’ll be watching.