When Andy Reid snatched the quarterback torch from Alex Smith and thrust it into the hands of Patrick Mahomes II, the possibilities for this year’s Chiefs team seemed endless. Kansas City’s potential on offense mirrored its new quarterback’s stockpile of talent; there seemed to be no limitations. But even the most ardent believers couldn’t have imagined this.
With his six TD passes in the Chiefs’ 42-37 win over the Steelers on Sunday, tacked on to the four he threw in last week’s win over the Chargers, Mahomes set an NFL record for touchdown throws (10) in a player’s first three games. Against Pittsburgh, Mahomes tossed more scores than incomplete passes (finishing 23-of-28) while racking up 326 yards. And the defense barely stood a chance. The deluge of rockets up the seam, perfectly timed back-shoulder throws, and on-the-move brilliance was unceasing. By the fourth quarter, most members of the Steelers defense looked like they just wanted to go home.
Given the team’s collection of skill players, a Mahomes-led offensive sensation was always in play for the Chiefs in 2018. Last season, the offense was already among the most riveting in football. Travis Kelce hauled in 83 passes for 1,038 yards, solidifying his status as the league’s second-best tight end. NFL rushing champion and 2017 third-round pick Kareem Hunt looked like the league’s next great back from the moment he stepped off the plane. Tyreek Hill transitioned from special-teams ace to legitimate wide receiver, giving the Chiefs the fastest man in football as an option on the outside. Pair all that talent with the spread concepts and creative wrinkles of the league’s most innovative offensive system, and the result was a team that could put up points in a hurry.
Jettisoning the QB who controlled that offense for one with 35 career attempts was a risk, no matter the potential returns. Smith was more than just a mainstay at quarterback; he was a valuable voice in offensive meetings and a calming presence for a collection of young receivers. He had become a part of the Chiefs’ DNA. Yet even as the offense piled up points last season, it felt as though there were levels still to be realized. Kansas City tapped Mahomes to find them, and now, the Chiefs are basking in the glow of those rewards.
Reid got a glimpse of what his offense could look like with Mahomes under center in his single start as a rookie—a Week 17 win over the Broncos. His overwhelming ability had been undeniable since college. Mahomes possessed a skill set tantalizing enough to convince K.C. to trade a third-round pick and its 2018 first to move up and draft him 10th overall, and Reid didn’t need one start in an otherwise meaningless game to confirm his talent. He’d seen it all season during practice. What Mahomes’s debut did show was his presence, authority, and weight. It was clear the rookie was ready to take the reins.
This season, with Mahomes at the helm, Kansas City has assembled the most high-powered offense in football. Over the first two games, Hill has proved that his 2017 campaign was no fluke, and this time, he’s got possibly the strongest arm in the league feeding him the ball downfield. And after a quiet Week 1, Kelce was back to his old self against Pittsburgh, with seven catches for 109 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Hunt has yet to have a monster outing, but those days will come.
As if the familiar faces weren’t enough for opposing defenses to deal with, the Chiefs went out this spring and added receiver Sammy Watkins for good measure. Kansas City was widely criticized for the three-year, $48 million deal it handed Watkins, as the 2014 fourth overall pick had underwhelmed with both the Bills and Rams during his first four years in the league. Paying a Mike Evans–level price for a receiver who finished with 593 receiving yards in 2017 was undoubtedly dicey. But against the Steelers, Watkins showed precisely what the Chiefs were hoping for when they assembled this offense.
With Watkins and Hill running past cornerbacks on the outside, Kelce dusting linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field, and several other skill players putting stress on defenders horizontally, defenses are outmatched. The sheer athleticism among the Chiefs’ skill-position group is unlike anything the league has seen in years. Hill ran the 40-yard dash at his pro day in 4.24 seconds. Watkins ripped off a 4.43 at the NFL combine. Kelce blazed a 4.61—at 256 pounds—before the draft. Utility man De’Anthony Thomas recorded a 4.39 at Oregon. No. 3 receiver Chris Conley, who lit up Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns for one of Mahomes’s six touchdowns Sunday, turned in a pre-draft 4.35 along with a 45-inch vertical leap. Together, Kansas City’s pass catchers make up the most dynamic assortment of teammates in recent memory.
Over the past decade, the league has been no stranger to dominant offenses. Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and the 2007 Patriots burned down defenses for fun. Peyton Manning was downright surgical while throwing 55 touchdowns for the Broncos in 2013. And the 2016 Falcons were an unstoppable force.
But what set those offenses—and even some of the units led by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees—apart is that their success was often the product of quarterback brilliance combined with pinpoint execution. Those groups usually featured at least one transcendent athlete (Moss, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas), but just as many of their offensive cogs were precision players perfectly suited for their roles in the machine (Wes Welker, Mohamed Sanu, and Jordy Nelson).
This Kansas City unit is a different sort of proposition. None of the team’s pass catchers rely on savvy; they’re each of capable of besting a defender by virtue of physical gifts alone. And collectively, they’re too much for any defense to handle. In Sunday’s game, Reid deployed a heavy number of empty sets, even as the Chiefs held onto a lead in the second half. By putting all of that speed on the field at once, a mismatch of some kind is all but guaranteed. As corners worry about Hill or Watkins challenging them over the top, timing throws on stops, comebacks, and back-shoulder fades open up. Terrified safeties converging on Kelce in the middle of the field leave the post route—like the one deployed on Conley’s touchdown—open for the taking. In this offense, there’s always an available option; it’s just a matter of whether the quarterback can find it.
And that’s how Mahomes ties it all together. With his kind of arm talent, the downfield shots and holy shit throws were always going to be on display. But what’s been truly impressive about Mahomes’s start this season is how comfortable he looks running the show. The unknown about Mahomes entering the year was whether he could pair his staggering gifts with a command of the offense that rivaled Smith’s. So far, he’s done just that. Against the Steelers, nearly every throw came out on time. Back-shoulder balls to Watkins and Hill were exact; his laser to Kelce up the seam for the team’s second touchdown came in an instant; and on Conley’s TD, he knew just when to let it rip. Combining that mastery with the arm strength he displayed on the third-quarter touchdown to Demarcus Robinson—a Rodgers-like toss to the back of the end zone while running to his right—is borderline unfair.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they’re going to need every point Mahomes can muster. As formidable as the team’s offense is, its defense might be just as feckless. The makeup of Sunday’s 42-37 win will likely be a familiar sight in Kansas City this season: One week after giving up 424 passing yards to Philip Rivers (whose receivers also dropped their share of throws), the Chiefs let Ben Roethlisberger rack up 452 yards and three touchdowns.
This formula isn’t unheard of for teams with Super Bowl aspirations. The Patriots finished 31st in defensive DVOA in 2017 and 30th in 2011. But like many of Bill Belichick’s defenses, New England found enough black magic to somehow limit scoring while also being one of the least efficient groups in football. The team allowed just 18.5 points per game last season (fifth in the league) and 21.4 in 2011 (15th). For these Chiefs, it seems like there will be no such disparity.
A more apt comparison for this Kansas City squad might be the 2000 Rams. Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and Co. scored a league-leading 33.8 points per game that season. Their defense gave up 29.4—the worst mark in the NFL. That recipe led to a 10-6 record and a wild-card berth, where the Rams were bounced by the Saints, 31-28.
Trotting out a hapless defense with a show-stopping offense is always a dangerous proposition, but there’s another reason the Greatest Show on Turf is the right comparison for Mahomes’s Chiefs: That 2000 team may have been the last time an offense featured such an impressive array of athletes in one huddle. This season, Kansas City has assembled a rare collection of physical prowess, one that’s orchestrated by a mad scientist coach and helmed by a quarterback whose ability has no bounds. Even if every game on the team’s march toward a championship turns into a shootout, the Chiefs are more than ready.