(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear as a special section in the Sunday, Aug. 27 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
Tyler Bray was fortunate not to grow dizzy during his first practices as a professional quarterback.
“I remember the first couple of pro practices, I’d step in the huddle and about a third of the way through, I’d step back out,” Bray said. “I’d go back in, and step out again.”
College football to the NFL can be a mind-spinning adjustment, especially for a quarterback who had run some variation of a no-huddle spread offense.
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Bray’s teammate Patrick Mahomes is the latest test case, and his progress will draw plenty of attention for multiple reasons.
For one, Mahomes is the first quarterback in decades clearly identified as an heir apparent by the Chiefs, who through a succession of general managers had not been fond of the draft and develop approach.
Also, Mahomes, when he takes over for Alex Smith as the Chiefs starter, seeks the success unknown to most of his predecessors who led an Air Raid offense.
Many modern, passing-based college offenses feature similar components, but the Air Raid stands out for its don’t-blink tempo and scores and statistics that seem to defy the game’s natural order.
Take Mahomes and his Texas Tech Red Raiders against Oklahoma last season. On Oct. 22, 2016 in Norman, Mahomes passed for 734 yards and five touchdowns, the yardage matching an NCAA single-game record. He took 100 snaps and accounted for 819 total yards that game, which Tech lost 66-59.
Mahomes led the nation by averaging 421 passing yards per contest.
Despite the eye-popping numbers, Mahomes, like everybody else, heard warnings as the NFL Draft approached. He was seen as a risk because of his three years in the Air Raid system, and his teams finished with an overall losing record in the games he started.
Yet the Chiefs believed enough in Mahomes to trade next year’s first-round selection and switch spots with the Buffalo Bills, drafting him 10th overall.
In Mahomes, the Chiefs didn’t see a numbers machine who ripped apart suspect Big 12 defenses but a top-notch prospect with the physical tools — he’s listed at 6 feet 3, 230 pounds with arm strength, intelligence and intangibles that would have served him well in any system.
“I saw him play a bunch,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. “And the more I was around him Patrick the more I knew he was special. He’s young, he has size, mobility, arm strength, he’s smart, he’s a great kid and he’s working with a terrific coaching staff. That’s usually a recipe for success.”
Mahomes’ 13-16 record as a starter was brushed aside by Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. The Red Raiders had the nation’s lowest-ranked defense last season.
“I don’t know what more Pat could have done about that,” Kingsbury said.
About that system …
Texas Tech quarterbacks have posted other-worldly numbers in the Big 12 era. Seven of the eight top passing games in league history were crafted by Red Raiders quarterbacks.
Five different Tech quarterbacks, including Mahomes, have produced the school’s top seven seasons in passing yards. Three of those five — Mahomes, Kingsbury and Graham Harrell, lead Tech’s career passing list.
From 2000 through 2009, the Red Raiders led the Big 12 in passing and in six of those seasons they led the nation, as they did last year with Mahomes.
The offensive philosophy of coach Mike Leach, with origins in Brigham Young’s pass-happy days of the 1970s and 1980s, took root in Lubbock and quickly brought Tech prominence. Conventional football wisdom of mixing passing and running for balance was abandoned for a practice of throwing the ball everywhere on the field to every player eligible and running the offense as quickly as possible.
Tech under Leach hardly concerned itself with possession time or punting. Plug a quarterback into the system and watch the ball fly. It started with Kingsbury, who passed the baton to B.J. Symons to Sonny Cumbie to Cody Hodges to Harrell to Taylor Potts. Play Tech and prepare to face a quarterback who would throw for 400 yards and a system that could produce 50 or more points per game.
But there’s a reason those names don’t sound familiar to NFL fans. Kingsbury was the only one drafted, by the New England Patriots in the sixth round, and appeared in one NFL game. Harrell appeared in four games.
All were quarterbacks of a system designed to reward intelligence and experience over other qualities desired by NFL scouts like size and arm strength. Tech’s approach was the ideal underdog strategy.
Wide receivers are a different story. Emerging from the Tech system are Wes Welker, Michael Crabtree and Danny Amendola. Route running, speed and good hands aren’t specific system attributes.
Kingsbury entered coaching and worked with Case Keenum at Houston and Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M before returning to Tech in for the 2013 season, replacing Tommy Tuberville, and footballs again flew in Lubbock.
Baker Mayfield was Kingsbury’s first Tech quarterback, but he was injured as a freshman, lost his job to Davis Webb and transferred to Oklahoma after the season.
Mahomes arrived at Tech for the 2014 season and became the starter in the eighth game after Webb sustained a season-ending injury. When Kingsbury opened up the competition the next season, Mahomes won the job.
“Davis got banged up, Patrick rolled in there and really never gave it back,” Kingsbury said. “It got into a competitive situation and Patrick really wanted the ball in his hands.”
Webb transferred to California, had a monster 2016 season, and was drafted in the third round by the New York Giants.
“Patrick beat out big-time competition at a young age,” Veach said. “That speaks to his confidence, to his ability.”
The Chiefs had Mahomes on their draft radar for two years, and Andy Reid believed there was an advantage watching this Texas Tech gunslinger top the nation with 49 pass attempts per game.
“I don’t get too tied up in the system, I kind of take a different approach,” Reid said. “I have an opportunity to see guys throw the ball, and that’s a plus.”
Reid has worked with quarterbacks at his previous job as the Philadelphia Eagles head coach who prospered in the NFL after running various schemes in college. None better than Donovan McNabb dropped back and run some option at Syracuse.
Reid also had an Air Raid quarterback there, Kevin Kolb from Houston.
“People get hung up on under the center, or (shot)gun or this or that,” Reid said. “I just go, hey, the kid’s throwing the ball, he does it well, every quarterback has to learn, as long as they can do that and have enough vision in the passing game, that’s how we roll.”
That’s how Reid and the Chiefs see Mahomes, whose first few months with the Chiefs, from off-season activities to training camp and the first preseason game suggests he’s precisely on the path envisioned by the team. He’s worked with reserves as he studies Smith and works on smoothing the rough edges any rookie brings to the NFL.
“You have an answer for everything here,” Mahomes said. “In college sometimes, you would just make it work. Here, there’s an answer for everything, and you just have to know those things. I’m getting more comfortable with that.”
Which puts him ahead of many rookie quarterbacks, no matter the system or background.