Before we get to the end of the first sentence, I want to be clear that I believe Patrick Mahomes can be a terrific NFL quarterback, and that the Chiefs did the right thing in trading up to give him that chance. If you missed it, I wrote more about that here, here and here.
Columns that start off with disclaimers usually take sharp turns, and here it comes in the second paragraph: what follows is an illustration of the challenges facing Mahomes and the Chiefs as they attempt to turn a 21-year-old who graduated from high school three years ago into a top-level quarterback at the most advanced level of football.
By now, I trust you’ve heard plenty about Mahomes’ arm. You’ve probably heard Chiefs coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey make the Brett Favre comparison. Maybe you’ve even gone nerdy and looked at some of his college highlights.
There is a downside to all of this, though, and it’s most often noted with throwaway lines like “has to make better decisions,” or “footwork needs improvement.” But I haven’t seen much done beyond that about him, so I thought it might be worthwhile to show some of what Mahomes needs to refine.
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Again: I’m all in with the pick, and especially with the aggressiveness and philosophy behind it.
Mahomes’ numbers are not quite a lie, but they are an exaggeration. His 41 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a junior at Texas Tech look terrific — and they are — but Pro Football Focus had him with the second-most turnover-worthy throws in the country. Even accounting for the volume of throws, and that Texas Tech’s horrendous defense had him often playing catch-up, that’s a problem the Chiefs need to coach out.
So, a week after the Chiefs made their most important draft pick in years, let this serve as an explanation of why they agree with the industry consensus that Mahomes needs at least one season before he’ll be ready to start NFL games. (Also: a very big thanks to the heroes at DraftBreakdown.com, which makes all of this so much easier than it otherwise would be.)
Two themes we’ll hit on a lot here are decisions and footwork, and this first clip hits both. The pocket is collapsing — watch even a few of Tech’s games, and you’ll see the pocket collapses a lot — and instead of eating the sack Mahomes rushes the throw, which means it’s all arm, and lofted, and into double coverage.
It’s not an interception, but should’ve been.
First and 10 at the Oklahoma 20, and Mahomes goes off-balance, lofting a throw to the goal line that gives the defensive back more than enough time to break on the ball and make an easy interception. Mahomes has plenty of arm to make this throw — he wanted to go deeper — but when he doesn’t set his feet it leaves him vulnerable to mistakes like this.
This is third and long, so Mahomes is being aggressive, but particularly when backed up inside his own 20 this is an unacceptable risk. You’ll see him make plays like this — rolling one way, throwing the other — so it’s not that he should never try this. It’s just that he needs to be able to see when he’s throwing into quadruple coverage. This absolutely should’ve been an interception, but what’s even worse is that if he somehow completes it, his man still isn’t past the first down line.
Just eat the ball here, punt, get ‘em next time.
This is a pretty basic decision he’ll have to make often in Andy Reid’s offense, and he blows this one. It’s a zone read, and Mahomes is supposed to take his cue from the defensive end, who is in perfect position to make the play. Maybe he thought the end would bite down on the fake handoff, but the guy is clear of any blockers, so the quarterback needs to let this ball go. Instead, it’s a five yard loss.
This might seem like nitpicking, but the quickest way for a young quarterback to tick off his receivers and lose their trust is by putting them in position to be a defensive back’s kill shot. This is one of those subtleties that Alex Smith has nearly mastered. To Mahomes’ credit, you don’t see many of these on his tape, but even just a couple early can affect how receivers play for him.
A bad idea executed poorly. He’s back pedaling against pressure, and instead of taking the sack or trying to escape, he lofts it down the middle of the field to an area where the closest three humans all play for the other team.
This is the very next play in that game, which was by far his worst of the season. He missed a few series with an injury, and this is after he came back, so we can keep that in mind. But no matter what, this is another backfoot throw to a well-covered receiver with help coming. Deserved what he got on this one.
What in the heck. You see some of his gifts on this play. You see his pocket awareness, and ability to extend a play, while keeping his eyes downfield. Those traits will serve him well. Also, his receivers could’ve down a better job in the scramble drill.
But there is no circumstance in which throwing across the body into a swarm of defenders in the middle of the field is a good idea. Especially not on third down in the red zone, in a two score game, when you can take the field goal, hope for a stop, and get a touchdown on the next drive.
This is a play Mahomes can make, with enough space, and he doesn’t need a lot of space. But he needs more than he has here, especially when shifting to his left. The linebacker comes up at the last minute, forcing the throw a tick quicker than Mahomes would like, and lofted a little too high. If he’s able to step into it, he might be able to get the ball behind the double coverage, but here the thing just dies in the air.
Should’ve been picked. These are difficult decisions, made in the midst of chaos. But that’s part of the job.
Another pass that should’ve been picked. Looks like the defensive back peeled off the receiver running the out, which may have fooled Mahomes. Either way, the ball is thrown a bit behind the receiver, and into traffic.
Again, this is more about refinement than prohibition. Part of Mahomes’ productivity is his ability to fit throws through tiny windows, but he needs to be careful about which risks to take.
Of all the throws I watched, this might be the one that would most infuriate the Chiefs’ coaches and players. This is early in the game, tie score, and second down, so there is no inherent reason to take a big risk. But Mahomes never gives himself a chance to square his body into the throw — that footwork again — and lofts it against his own momentum, and short.
When you hear football people say Mahomes gets lazy with his footwork because his arm is good, this is what they’re talking about. Considering the game circumstance, it’s a difficult and ill-advised throw even if he’s set. But drifting away from the play like this, it’s a football crime.
One more example of bad footwork costing him. This needs to be a touchdown 10 out of 10 times. The cornerback bites and Mahomes’ receiver has at least 5 yards of separation. A mediocre throw is a touchdown. A bad throw is a 30-yard gain. Mahomes goes off his back foot again, which means he’s not as accurate as he could be, and he overthrows it.
A better receiver might make the play, but it would’ve required a better catch than should’ve been necessary with that kind of room.
This is a good one to end on, for a lot of reasons. Mahomes shows an ability to throw from what football people call multiple platforms, even if he didn’t need to break the pocket that early. He makes a bad decision, throwing into coverage, in the red zone, on third down when a field goal would’ve tied it.
But the reason this is a good one to end on is that it works out: The pass is completed. By most accounts, he should’ve thrown it away, or taken the sack, and the three points. The throw could’ve — should’ve? — been picked off, but instead it’s a first-down conversion that sets up a short touchdown.
So this will be the Chiefs’ challenge: to let Patrick Mahomes be himself, but also to help him find the most efficient line of acceptable risk. His will be further to the extreme than Alex Smith’s, but closer to Smith’s than what he played with at Texas Tech.
Mahomes’ NFL career will be as much a statement about Andy Reid as it is about Mahomes’ own abilities. Anyone who says Mahomes’ risk-taking and downfield production isn’t a good fit for Reid isn’t paying attention.
Reid will adjust the Chiefs’ offense for Mahomes, making it bigger in some spots to take advantage of the arm talent, and smaller in other spots to simplify things until he’s fully comfortable.
There is a lot to work with here. More than the Chiefs have had to work with perhaps ever, and more than Reid has had to work with since at least Michael Vick.
But I say this as someone who is fully on board with the trade and pick: The Chiefs will be best served waiting as long as they can to start him to make sure they get the best version of Mahomes.