The moment’s most intriguing athlete in Kansas City will stay in the hallway for now. This is a Wednesday, around noon, and most Wednesdays around noon Patrick Mahomes is in the locker room. Not today, though. Not this week.
The Chiefs quarterbacks, like all professional football players, live lives of routine. The middle of the week’s middle day is a break. Starters don’t have real breaks, so Alex Smith does media interviews. First radio, then with a group of reporters around his locker. The backups have less to do.
Tyler Bray, the third stringer, walked through. Stopped at his locker, talked to a few teammates, then headed out. Mahomes is usually here, too. He’ll answer questions if reporters have them, and if not, sometimes passes the time on his cell phone.
On this day, the only sign of him is his backpack, sitting in front of his locker. Something in there must be important, because a security guard was sent to retrieve the bag, presumably handing it over to Mahomes to keep him away from reporters.
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This is, in some ways, the biggest week of Mahomes’ professional life so far. He is the man more people in his new city want to see right now than anyone else. He knows this, which must be why the security guard was sent to get the bag, keeping Mahomes in the background, as Smith walked to his locker and stood in front of reporters.
“Alex,” the first question began, “in times like this do you change your routine at all?”
Chiefs fans of a certain age can’t help but think about the past. Twenty years ago — long enough that Mahomes was in diapers — the backup quarterback was the moment’s most intriguing and popular athlete in Kansas City.
That was Rich Gannon, who won five straight starts after Elvis Grbac was hurt. Marty Schottenheimer gave Grbac the job back at the end of December. The Chiefs had homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. They lost to the Broncos, 14-10, the last play an underthrown pass from Grbac toward the end zone.
Let’s be clear: There are more differences than similarities between that and now. Gannon was 32, five years older than Grbac, and proven. He needed no experience. Fans (and teammates) had actually seen him play.
“The similarity now is with the fans,” said Tim Grunhard, the starting center on that team. “There’s a discontent with the starting guy. I think people want to see the kid get a shot. The fans feel a little bit of, ‘This team needs a spark, a wakeup call, a shot of adrenaline.’ And I think that’s what Rich Gannon brought us.”
The offense just felt different with Gannon. According to Grunhard, the huddle had more energy. More focus. More drive. There could be a hundred reasons for that other than a lack of confidence in Grbac, but there was at least some of that, too.
Wasn’t Grbac’s fault, either. He tried the best he could. The coaches put him in that position, and what’s he supposed to do about it? Not play?
But guys took sides. The divide could best be generalized as offense vs. defense. Derrick Thomas was the loudest voice calling for Gannon to play. That was one of the best defenses in the league, too. That’s how the Chiefs won games back then, so those voices had muscle.
Fifty-three humans will never agree on anything, let alone something as subjective as when or whether a struggling quarterback should be replaced by a promising backup, but at least so far we don’t know what that dynamic might be like in the Chiefs’ locker room.
About a month ago, the Chiefs beat the Broncos after losing two in a row. Justin Houston stood in front of his locker and took a deep breath.
“It’s a mindset,” he said. “You lose two in a row, you know that third one is going to be a dagger. So you gotta break that losing streak right then. You gotta break it. If you don’t break it, it’ll wear on you and wear on you fast.”
Well, now the Chiefs have lost three in a row. It is a simple and undeniable fact that the longer the losing continues the harder it becomes to keep a group together. After each of the last two losses, Andy Reid has stood in front of a microphone and talked of the importance of maintaining belief in each other.
One of Reid’s greatest strengths as a coach is how he handles personalities, and emotions. The end was ugly in Philadelphia, but for the last two decades, few in the NFL have done it better. This, right now, is as difficult a challenge as he’s had.
“Players take sides,” Grunhard said. “I don’t think they’ll ever admit it. I don’t think it’ll ever come up, but I think there’s probably a faction in that locker room that would like to see Mahomes play, and there’s probably a faction in that locker room that likes the consistency of having a veteran in there.”
If the only discernible difference in Mahomes this week or any other is sending a security guard in for his backpack, then Mahomes is handling himself perfectly.
This must be difficult, you know. Most of the men in that room were chosen by football, their athletic gifts so obvious they had to play. Of those, many developed a corresponding love for the sport to carry them through the difficult times.
Well, Mahomes has both. The physical gifts are obvious, and if he wasn’t obsessed with becoming great — if he didn’t need to do this — he was a good enough baseball prospect that he could’ve had a seven-figure signing bonus to be a pitcher where his greatest health risk would be a blown elbow.
This wasn’t given to him, either. In high school, he wasn’t his school’s starter until midway through his junior year, and now he’s so close to his chance at football’s highest level. It can’t be lost on him that Davis Webb, who transferred from Texas Tech after losing his job to Mahomes, will soon be taking snaps for the Giants.
The Chiefs remain committed to Smith. Theirs was more than a marriage of convenience. Reid is trusting and protective of Smith, who in turn has usually kept the trains moving on time in Reid’s famously complicated and intricate offense.
Particularly with two games against division rivals immediately following this weekend’s game at the Jets, it’s hard to imagine Reid dropping Smith and remaking the offense on the fly.
But Mahomes is closer to playing, whether that’s this season or next. He is active on social media, and must be aware of the growing calls from fans for him to play. He is respectful, but also driven by a confidence that borders on cockiness. It’s what you want in a quarterback.
If he was asked, he would almost certainly say he wants to play. Now. That’s how it should be, and Bray should feel the same way. But Mahomes is also smart enough to know he doesn’t need to be saying that or anything else publicly this week. So he’ll stay in the background, silent, sending a staffer in for his belongings.
We’ll hear, and see, plenty from him soon enough.