That this year was different. That his stats were down. That they lost out on the No. 1 seed. That Lamar Jackson is living an approximation of his breakout season. But, as the Chiefs’ playoff run gets underway, he also knows that he’s a better quarterback than he was a year ago, and that he’s part of a much better team, with every expectation of making a Super Bowl run.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Everything is different now, one year after the year, after the 52 touchdowns and the 5,097 passing yards, after so many no-look tosses and one insane left-handed throw, after the oohs and aahs and the MVP trophy, the ubiquitous commercials and the myriad endorsements, and the supreme start to another season. Patrick Mahomes believes this. Just not in the way that some might think.
He’s sitting inside an office at Chiefs headquarters in late December, leaning forward to make his point. Yes, he’s aware of the did-he-really-just-do-that force known as Lamar Jackson, the Ravens quarterback who spent 2019 living an approximation of Mahomes’ 2018 life. He says that Jackson “is going to be MVP for a reason,” that “I’m a big fan.” Sure, Mahomes also knows that the Chiefs are not the top seed in their conference this time, that to win the Super Bowl, they will likely have to go on the road, through Baltimore and through Jackson. That there are crowns, and that his must be reclaimed.
And yet, what’s different to Mahomes about this season is not the two games he missed for injury, nor the perhaps inevitable drop in statistical production from the bonkers numbers he amassed in his first season as the starter. What’s different, he says, is that this Chiefs team, with its improved defense—having allowed a league-low 9.6 points per game since Week 11 and having recently claimed veteran edge rusher Terrell Suggs to bolster the unit—its improving health and its firm grasp on some late-season momentum, is better positioned to win the Super Bowl, starting with this week’s divisional round match-up against Houston. And he, Patrick Mahomes, is an overall better quarterback than the international phenomenon who seized the attention of the sports world last year.
“I feel that I’m [an improved quarterback], 100 percent,” he says. “I mean, obviously the stats aren’t the same. I don’t have 50 touchdowns, 5,000 yards, or whatever it was. But as far as positive plays vs. negative plays, I’ve done a lot more, just being higher on positive plays and not putting myself in negative situations.”
So how did Mahomes and the Chiefs arrive here: more confident, more balanced, and yet also slightly more forgotten than 12 months ago? How did Mahomes compile arguably the best first two seasons as a starting quarterback in NFL history and also arrive at another postseason looking up at a rival QB? The answer to those questions lie in the larger story of the Chiefs’ 2019 season, and they start with the quarterback who astonishes with such regularity that people tend to forget his heroics are all grounded in the most boring, cliched concepts. Mindset. Practice. Work. That’s the funny thing as another postseason begins: Perhaps this version of Mahomes will lead Kansas City deep into the playoffs, to the hard-luck franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in half a century.
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The path to another Super Bowl push began at the end of last season, at home, against the Patriots in the conference title game. Throughout the first half, New England controlled the clock and the Chiefs, limiting K.C.’s kaboom offense. But Mahomes followed the most pedestrian half of his career with one of the best, throwing for 230 yards and three touchdowns as K.C. scored 31 points in the final two quarters to force overtime. They lost the coin flip and the Patriots marched in for a touchdown, the season ending without Mahomes having touched the ball.
In defeat, Mahomes says he learned that every play matters, citing a first-quarter throw he missed to running back Damien Williams down the sideline that might have gone for a score. The loss also added to a frustrating career pattern, ending another season where Mahomes compiled gaudy numbers but so did opposing offenses; in college, his Texas Tech teams always yielded more than 40 points on average, and last season the Chiefs defense ranked second-to-last in the NFL while the offense ranked first. He went to the Pro Bowl, still frustrated by the loss but more resolved. He watched the team he almost beat win Super Bowl LIII. Then he went home to Tyler, Texas, and went right back to work. “I knew that every year, you’re not going to have all those yards, all these touchdowns,” he says. “You have to grind through.”
Mahomes’s magic, style and celebrity can mask his ethos that way, hiding the obsessed, maniacal grinder that lives within. He’s the same guy who, the day after he found out his friend and mentor Alex Smith had been traded to Washington to make Mahomes the team’s unquestioned starter, began calling teammates and arranging informal workouts. He went into last spring wanting to focus on fundamentals, specifically his footwork. All the off-balance completions looked pretty, but they could also contain unnecessary risk that in some instances could be eliminated. “When my feet are right, usually I can be as accurate as I want to be,” Mahomes says. “But there were some times when I still fell back on old habits, throwing off my back foot and that type of stuff.”
Many close to Mahomes say he possesses something of a photographic memory, that he’s like Rams coach Sean McVay and can recall every play of his career in high school. Those same people wax poetic about his arm strength, like the famous time, at the end of his pro day, when Mahomes launched an 83-yard bomb through the uprights at the far end of the field. He left those parts of his game alone last summer—he didn’t change or alter his throwing motion in any way—working toward a more balanced, risk-averse-but-still-aggressive style of play. “What people see with all the no-look stuff is the final product of him being able to just go out there and play free,” says his teammate, tight end Travis Kelce.
To that end, Mahomes summoned his private quarterbacks coach, Jeff Christensen, to Tyler this spring. They spent most afternoons in March and April doing footwork drills, refining how Mahomes moved, concentrating on precision in his lower body. Most days, they’d mix in drills that put Mahomes in awkward positions, then figure out ways for him to regain balance or retain body control.
At that point, Mahomes firmly remained atop the NFL universe. For a few more months, anyway.
Mahomes carried his lessons from this spring into this season, becoming a more clinical and efficient passer but still birthing memes with the kinds of throws no other NFL quarterback can make. It made for a scary combination: 378 passing yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Jacksonville, 443 yards and four TDs against Oakland in Week 2, five 300-yard games to open the season. He had cut down on his negative plays. He would throw only five interceptions for the entire year, in 484 attempts. “Yeah, he’s gifted,” says Andy Reid, the Chiefs coach. “But he’s not the fastest guy out there, not the strongest, all that. He works at it.”
Early into ’19, the Chiefs offense again looked like the most formidable unit in pro football; Kansas City scored 28 points or more in each victory during its 4-0 start. Mahomes tied that directly to the changes he had made, subtle as they were. The stuff that made him a (slightly) more boring quarterback had made him a better passer, too. Don’t get that wrong. He remained electrifying, slinging passes from odd angles, throwing sidearm darts, looking one way while throwing the opposite direction. But he did that less often to disastrous results. “I felt like before the injury, I was doing really good with my feet,” he says. “But just the adversity we went through, you’d never expect.”
Of course, the injury. Week 7. Thursday night. At Denver. Mahomes had already exacerbated a sore ankle against the Jaguars in Week 1, and the pain had lingered, hidden by more offensive explosions. What happened against the Broncos, though, cast the Chiefs’ immediate future into doubt. Kansas City led, 10-6, in the second quarter, when Mahomes tried a QB sneak deep in Denver territory but remained down after the play ended. He looked at his right leg and saw his kneecap had been displaced. “That was the first thing that went through my mind, when I saw it sideways,” he says. “That doesn’t look normal. That can’t be good.”
Mahomes, like the legion of long-suffering Chiefs fans, was worried that his season might be over. Doctors immediately shifted his kneecap back into place. He felt . . . fine, almost instantly recovered. He argued with the trainers to go back into the game. He did not win that argument, and he did not play for the next two weeks. Still, he did not miss a single practice, only parts of them.
After Mahomes did come back, the Chiefs offense stalled as much as it has sputtered since Mahomes became the starter. The quarterback followed a 446-yard, three-TD bonanza against the Titans in Week 10 with his first two career games under 243 yards passing (excluding the game he left with that injury), which says more about his career than any perceived slump. The Chiefs beat the Chargers and the Raiders in those games anyway, scoring 64 points. In between them, Mahomes flew in Christensen during the Chiefs bye week to clean up some minor footwork issues that had resurfaced after the injury layoff.
While Mahomes “struggled” in only a relative sense, Jackson’s star shot skyward. Few could understand what that might feel like the way Mahomes did. The superlatives. The accolades. The interview requests. But also, more importantly, the on-field play, the adrenaline that surges when something as dynamic as the Ravens offense of ’19 or the Chiefs offense pretty much every year begins to take shape. The football world had turned away from Kansas City, looking east to Baltimore. But Mahomes could sense something else, something impossible to quantify. He could feel Kansas City quietly peaking at the best possible time, while everyone could see the Patriots had begun to fall apart.
Near the end of his injury-interrupted 2019 season, Mahomes went into Foxboro and topped Tom Brady, despite enduring a right hand injury that required an x-ray (which came back negative). Against Denver, at home, in blizzard-ish conditions, he looked like the MVP version of himself. His 340 passing yards against the Broncos marked the 17th time he had surpassed the 300-yard mark in his brief career, which means Mahomes can boast of almost as many 300-yard-passing games as total interceptions (18). He again won the AFC West. He reached 70 career touchdown throws faster than any quarterback in NFL history and posted the highest passer rating (108.9) of any signal caller ever in the first three years of their career.
Late in the season, the website FiveThirtyEight studied Mahomes “regression” in his second season. The site found that Mahomes did technically regress: his touchdowns per pass attempt dropped closer to the league average, his red-zone passing featured some instability, and his production outside of the pocket and against man coverage both fell. Again, this remains a relative concept. Some level of regression was inevitable. Mahomes finished behind only Jackson in Total QBR and FiveThirtyEight labeled his ‘19 season the 25th-best by a QB since 2001, according to that measure.
All of which means that not only had Mahomes improved last spring and fought through multiple injuries and led Kansas City back into the playoffs, but he had also proven something, to both the world and himself. Kelce, noting injuries the Chiefs suffered on their offensive line and with several skill-position players, says, “Last year was not a fluke by any means. He’s still the best quarterback in the NFL.”
On one play in the Chiefs’ second game against the Broncos, Mahomes deftly side-stepped a defender, like a matador who had found his favorite cape. Television cameras caught him asking teammates if he resembled Jackson on the play. “That’s as close as I can get right there,” he said.
At that point, by mid-December, Lamar Mania had reached fever pitch and Jackson had seized control of the MVP race, with Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the mix but falling further behind. Mahomes cared more about his defense, which had started to limit him more in practice. He saw how much additions like safety Tyrann Mathieu and pass rusher Frank Clark had added, and he liked the tweaks that coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had sprinkled into his scheme. The defense seemed more capable, more aggressive, more technically proficient. “Without a doubt,” Kelce says. “It’s just a different energy, really. Right now, we’re just a confident football team.”
The more anyone raved about Jackson, the less time they spent looking at Mahomes. That suited him just fine. Fans could see him that slights still fueled him in Week 16, during a win in Chicago, when Mahomes subtly counted out 10 on his fingers after a touchdown pass, signifying his position in the 2017 draft while beating the team that selected a different quarterback—Mitchell Trubisky—second overall that spring. He dismissed the notion that he was sending some sort of messages to the Bears, but the gesture said something about what still motivates Mahomes.
The quarterback loves his adopted town of Kansas City and its rabid fans—on multiple occasions he’s autographed a limb so that his signature could be made into a tattoo. But the low-key vibe also reminds him of Tyler, like when people wait for him to finish eating before asking for a picture. He lives in BBQ Heaven 10 months out of the year with his girlfriend and their two dogs. He bought a house there, started his foundation, 15 and The Mahomies, which is dedicated to improving the lives of children, there. He plans to begin his own family there as well.
As soon as this offseason, Mahomes is likely to sign the largest contract in NFL history, with one year left on the extreme bargain that was his rookie deal (four years, $16.4 million). “I want to be here for a very long time,” he says. “I’m blessed to be here. I got to come in, and I got to be on a winning team, right when I started. No rebuild or anything like that.”
Sometimes, people forget Mahomes is only 24 years old. No one knows how good he’ll be in his prime, because he hasn’t entered it. Asked if that’s a scary thought, Kelce laughs and says, “It’s not scary to me!” Mahomes is on pace to set the all-time touchdown record in his 15th season, three years faster than Peyton Manning and four seasons quicker than Drew Brees. When I wrote a cover story on Brees in 2018, he said, “There are things happening in this era of quarterback play that that have never been done before, and I’m sure we’re going to see Patrick Mahomes and some of those guys doing even more stuff.” Archie Manning, when reached for the same story, said he wished that he had started in this pass-happy era, adding that “if Patrick Mahomes plays into his forties, he might have 100,000 yards.”
Right now, as the 2019 season winds down, the NFL seems to be entering the dawn of that next era. Both Tom Brady and Brees were upset by teams seeded sixth in their respective conferences in the first round of the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger missed most of this season due to a right elbow injury. Eli Manning has played perhaps his last game. Aaron Rodgers is 36. Only Wilson, the Seahawks’ 31-year-old starter, seems likely to serve as some sort of bridge between the generations, helping mark the shift from traditional pocket passers to more dynamic, dual-threat quarterbacks.
“A lot of that is due to how long Brady and Brees and Ben and Rodgers have been able to do it,” Kelce says. “All those guys have just been so consistent throughout their careers. For us to be able to see these young guys write their own legends is pretty exciting. You can literally watch every single one of them as a fan. I’ve still got my money, though, on Pat.”
Mahomes won’t cop to the start of a new era, noting that none of the old guard have retired—yet. But the next group is here, and that was evident last weekend, when Jackson and Mahomes rested on their bye weeks, Deshaun Watson led Houston to a comeback victory and two future Hall of Famers over 40 both stumbled into the offseason. Mahomes did say that he can’t recall a higher volume of elite passers. “It’s just a golden—I don’t want to even say that. It’s this great era of quarterback play,” he says. “Everybody seems to have a franchise guy, or close to it.”
Reid is more direct. Having coached through several eras that featured some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, when asked about the dawn of the next one, he says, “Well, it’s exciting and great for the league. The NFL is in good hands.”
Imagine what might take place in Baltimore in two weeks. Mahomes vs. Jackson, Chapter III. The Chiefs beat the Ravens in overtime in Jackson’s fourth career start last year, and handled them with relative ease at Arrowhead in September, but this would be the first battle in Jackson’s backyard. A trip to the Super Bowl would be at stake. Two of the more vibrant quarterbacks of their generation, in offenses that have redefined how teams play football. Imagine them doing that for five, 10, even 15 years. “It’s early,” Mahomes says, sounding a note of caution. “Until we get to the Super Bowl it really doesn’t mean much.” Better and (slightly) more boring. That’s Mahomes now, in 2019, which may ultimately be remembered as the year he didn’t win MVP and the year he won it all.