The NFL’s fourth preseason game tests the fandom.
Starters usually don’t play, with game action belonging to second- and third-teamers and others who will be released in the next couple of days. That will be the case for the Chiefs on Thursday night when they wrap up the exhibition portion of the schedule when the Tennessee Titans visit Arrowhead Stadium.
But this one should rate higher in entertainment value for home fans. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is making his first start in an NFL uniform.
The playing time script will stay the same, but Thursday marks the first time in decades that a quarterback drafted by the Chiefs in the first round will start a game of any kind.
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Mahomes isn’t downplaying the moment.
“This week is going to be special to get that first start under my belt,” Mahomes said. “It’s a preseason game but we’ll all be treating it like it’s a real one.”
It’s been an encouraging preseason for Mahomes, who was elevated to second team from third team ahead of Tyler Bray after the first preseason game.
In the first three preseason contests, Mahomes started 10 possessions. Three ended in short touchdown passes, two others in field goals and five in punts.
On one of those drives, at Cincinnati, Mahomes operated with the first team, a possession that ended with a touchdown.
All the disclaimers apply. It’s preseason. Nearly all of the drives matched reserves. But the Chiefs have liked what they’ve seen, enough to elevate Mahomes on the depth chart and give him he start that Bray got in this game last year.
“It’s another step forward and another opportunity to see how he handles it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It’s a chance, right? A chance to get in the game as a starter and put that one under your belt, that you’ve done it.”
Chiefs coaches didn’t single out an area of concentration for Mahomes. They’ll monitor footwork, progression reading and pocket presence. Offensive coordinator Matt Nagy will look at how Mahomes reads the rush and how he eludes trouble, which has been a Mahomes strength so far.
“He understands he needs to push up in the pocket and stay in the pocket if he can and go through his progression,” Nagy said. “He’s a smart football player and he gets it.”
In three games, Mahomes has completed 25 of 38 passes for 207 yards. He hasn’t thrown an interception and has been sacked twice.
His touchdown passes have come on an across-the-body toss to wide receiver Marcus Kemp against the 49ers, a nice recognition of an open tight end Demetrius Harris in the back of the end zone against Cincinnati and a screen to wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas, who scooted into the end zone against the Bengals.
Mahomes didn’t flex his arm strength on any of the touchdown passes, and his long throw of the preseason has been 19 yards, although he had a 41-yarder against the 49ers — his first throw in a game — called back by a holding penalty against an offensive lineman. Expect the deep ball to be part of the game plan Thursday. The Chiefs may also expand Mahomes’ playbook, and explore his creativity.
And he can be creative, like his scramble right to elude Bengals defensive end Will Clarke and strong throw to eight end Gavin Escobar, one play before his scoring pass to Thomas.
If all goes as planned for the Chiefs, Thursday’s game could be the last time Mahomes sees action for a while. Starting quarterback Alex Smith took every snap when he was healthy last season, 89.53 percent, sitting only after he suffered a head injury. Reserve Nick Foles took the other snaps. In 2015, Smith took 989 of 1,002 snaps.
For Mahomes, the preparation for action won’t stop when he’s not playing.
“Just going in and getting those mental reps at every practice will help,” Mahomes said. “I feel like the mental side of the game is where I need to improve on … calling the play back there by myself like I was in the huddle, seeing what Alex does compared to what I was thinking and making sure we’re on the same page.”
That part of Mahomes’ game will begin after Thursday. Against the Titans, for the first time, the starting role is his.