Hail to the Chief: Patrick Mahomes is making all the moves all at once
The second-year signal-caller is turning heads and changing minds
The Kansas City Chiefs were very good offensively last season, but Patrick Mahomes’ performance this season has them playing at an even higher level.
However, his progress is even bigger than that.
While black quarterbacks are no longer as rare as they once were, negative stereotypes about their intelligence and ability to play the most prestigious position in football won’t die. We need only to go back to last week, when a Texas school superintendent said outright that Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson’s struggles were a function of him being black.
Although debunking the fallacies about black quarterbacks isn’t on Mahomes’ mind as he delivers from the pocket, his ascension is having an impact on the minds of young football fans, future coaches and general managers.
Through the early part of the season, Mahomes has been the best quarterback in the league. Kansas City’s offense has been unstoppable, thanks in large part to the second-year signal-caller. Here’s why:
The Chiefs make defenses cover everything at once.
To succeed, defensive coordinators and defensive players are constantly trying to predict the type of offensive play they will be facing. Based on down and distance, offensive personnel group and opponents’ tendencies in previous weeks, the defense can get an idea of what the offense will do in a given situation. Then the defense will call a play designed to take away what they anticipate from the offense.
Mahomes and the Chiefs make that nearly impossible because they play as if they’ll do anything at any time.
For example, on first down when most teams are looking for a modest gain to set up a manageable third down, Mahomes leads the league in passing attempts of 20 or more yards while being almost as likely to throw a screen pass. On first down, a defense can’t double either of the Chiefs’ star pass-catchers, Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill, because Mahomes targets them equally and is also comfortable throwing to Sammy Watkins or Kareem Hunt if that’s what the defense dictates.
All ⛽️, no brakes. pic.twitter.com/z0fuThyUPY
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) September 23, 2018
Watkins into the end zone 🙌 pic.twitter.com/L0BgSoazzS
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) September 23, 2018
On top of that, the Chiefs seem to unveil a couple of new and unusual plays every week. On third-and-1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2, they ran a roll pass with Mahomes as a decoy. Much like the Eagles’ famous Philly Special Super Bowl play, Mahomes motioned out of the backfield to the right slot, leaving running back Spencer Ware to take the shotgun snap with Hill and Kelce on either side. At the snap of the ball, Mahomes ran a deep route to take the attention of the defenders, while Ware rolled right and threw to Kelce, who was open in the area cleared out by Mahomes.
Threatening the defense in multiple ways on every play and throwing in some gadget plays tends to force defenses to play simple coverages because they don’t know what to guard against, which makes getting a good pre-snap read easier for Mahomes. And the Chiefs use a lot of pre-snap shifts and motion to force the defense to show whether they are in man or zone.
Mahomes is decisive because he knows where he is likely to throw before he even snaps the ball, which allows him to focus on looking off defenders and displaying his accuracy and arm strength.
If the defense is brave enough to play man coverage against this murderer’s row of playmakers, Mahomes needs only to find the matchup advantage, and there will be a mismatch. In the very unlikely occasion that a defense covers Kelce, Hill, Watkins and Hunt initially, Mahomes has the athleticism to buy time for them to get open or run it himself. If the defense plays zone, they aren’t much safer. This is when the Chiefs’ offense starts to resemble an NBA team. It is all about spacing the field. While all the offensive plays look different, the strategy against zone is always the same: Make the defense cover the entire length and width of the field and allow Mahomes to zip passes into the holes. This is when Kelce is deadly running up the seam against linebackers or the speed of Hill on the outside opens up a simple swing pass to the running back.
So defenders have only one option left: blitz. Even if the defense doesn’t get a sack or even a hit on the quarterback, against certain formations, blitzing can force the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly, which can eliminate the deep pass. So once a defense starts blitzing more, offenses tend to react by going to tighter formations that are better at picking up pressure, releasing fewer receivers into routes. The Chiefs do the opposite. They’ll spread you out even more, use empty formations and still go deep. It is counterintuitive, but the empty formation forces the defense to show where the blitz is coming from. If there are backs in the backfield or an attached tight end, defenders can blitz or cover from their alignment. But if you spread them out, the player who has to cover for the blitzing player cannot afford to disguise and the blitzer can’t come from too far away or they won’t get to the quarterback in time.
And the Chiefs will run go routes out of empty sets, which is almost unheard of. Empty formations are designed to stretch a defense’s width, not depth, and the lack of protection means the quarterback has to get rid of the ball quickly. This is another time when the speed of Hill and arm strength of Mahomes allow the Chiefs to do things that most other teams wouldn’t even consider. Hill gets deep fast, and with the flick of his wrist, Mahomes can throw a bomb while backpedaling away from blitzers. They only need to connect on that once to scare a defense back into a two-deep shell.
Much has been made of how bad the Chiefs are defensively, which is obviously a problem. A bottom-of-the-league defense will be a problem for the Chiefs throughout this season and postseason. But to accompany their best-in-the-NFL offense, they have the best special teams in the NFL, which is incredibly important for field position.
All of this together makes Mahomes and the Chiefs a legitimate Super Bowl contender.