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How Patrick Mahomes’ weakness displays his greatness

The Chiefs star’s success has come without the best friend to the modern QB

Patrick Mahomes has a weakness, and finding it made me appreciate his greatness even more.

In just two seasons as a starter for the Kansas City Chiefs, Mahomes has established himself as the most talented quarterback we have ever seen. In case you forgot how amazing he is, watch this play from last season:

It appears the only thing that stands between him and the title of greatest of all time is time. What’s surprising is that all of his success has come without the best friend to the modern quarterback: the play-action (PA) pass. According to the numbers, Mahomes is not in the top 10 at executing the one play-concept that juices almost every other quarterback.

Here are the top 10 quarterbacks by Total QBR since Mahomes became the starter in 2018 (minimum of 20 games):

Player Total QBR PA QBR Non-PA QBR Difference PA-Non
Mahomes 78.6 73.5 84.3 -10.8
Brees 76.4 87.7 81.4 6.3
Jackson 69.2 81.2 66.3 14.9
Wilson 66.8 83.2 62.2 21
Watson 65.4 74.4 66.4 8
Fitzpatrick 63.3 51.5 69 -17.5
Prescott 62.7 77.1 61.9 15.2
Ryan 61.8 76.2 63.2 13
Wentz 61.3 78.7 63.2 15.5
Brady 61.2 85.6 53.7 31.9

The only other quarterback who is less efficient off of a play-fake than a straight dropback is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is on his ninth team. That’s not the type of company we’d expect Mahomes to keep.

The act of faking a hand-off slows pass rushers, which makes the pocket more comfortable for the quarterback. And a convincing play-fake pulls in linebackers and safeties, which distorts zone coverages and allows route runners to get leverage in man coverage. Simply put, play action makes quarterbacks better.

So how is it possible that Mahomes is weak in this area? It must be someone else’s fault on the Chiefs, right?

Nope.

The receivers, offensive line, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and head coach Andy Reid are doing their part. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, on play-action passes Mahomes’ targets average 3.9 yards of separation versus 3.4 yards of separation on non-PA passes. And his targets’ drop rate is pretty consistent from PA (3.2%) to non-PA (3.5%).

I thought I solved the puzzle when I saw that the Chiefs’ pass rush win rate dropped from 51.3% for non-PA to 27.1% for PA snaps. But when you look at the more impactful protection stats, this theory falls apart.

Rate Type PA Non-PA
Sack rate 2.2% 4.9%
Pressure rate 29.2% 35%

(no screen passes)

Mahomes is actually pressured and sacked at significantly lower rates on play-action snaps. Still, over the past two seasons he has been much worse on his 292 PA pass snaps than in his 758 passes on non-PA snaps.

There is no one left to blame but the man himself.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mahomes’ off-target rate jumps from 17.5% in non-PA to 23% in PA. This contributed to a -4.3% drag on his expected completion percentage. The league average over that period was +2.6%. The dip in accuracy might explain his 2.33 touchdown/interception ratio in play action. That’s one interception for every two touchdowns. For comparison, on PA snaps over the same two-year period, Drew Brees has thrown zero interceptions to 19 touchdowns, and Russell Wilson has thrown one interception to 19 touchdowns. Mahomes’ ratio lands him between Baker Mayfield and Jared Goff.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. At Texas Tech, Mahomes’ QBR of 78.8 on non-PA snaps dropped to 74.6 on PA snaps. Minus 4.2 isn’t a lot, but the fact that it is not positive like almost everyone else is shocking.

Focusing on just this season’s QBR on play-action snaps, Mahomes is ranked 16th. He is a middle-of-the-pack quarterback. He did slightly improve in this area compared with last season — his QBR on PA snaps in 2019 is 74.7 compared with his 2018 QBR of 72.4 — but he’s still below league average.

So what could make the league’s best quarterback become worse when things get easier? It seems the answer is the obvious one: Play action is too easy for Mahomes. Relative to his peers, he is a better play-action quarterback when circumstances get tougher.

QBR Play Action Snaps

Under Pressure No Pressure
Mahomes 48.4 80.4
NFL Average 26.1 81.8

(no screen passes)

With no pressure, Mahomes is an average quarterback by QBR. But under pressure his QBR is nearly double the average. And that’s the Patrick Mahomes that Chiefs fans love, opposing fans fear, and the rest of us watch with cheerful bewilderment.

Mahomes, who will play in his first Super Bowl on Sunday, excels under pressure. His throws and production routinely blow our minds. But to think that the 24-year-old has room to improve is a terrifying proposition.

Domonique Foxworth is a writer at The Undefeated. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.