Chiefs coach Andy Reid stepped to the microphone and awaited the questions about Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes, the club’s first-round pick in 2017, had just aced his first career start, completing 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards and leading the Chiefs’ game-winning drive in a 27-24 victory at Denver to close out the regular season.
The kid had aced the test, and Reid knew it. So much so that the Chiefs’ usually unflappable coach had difficulty tamping down his excitement. When asked about Mahomes, Reid raved about the “complete control” the rookie had shown, comments Reid would elaborate on at the Senior Bowl.
“He proved he could function at a high level,” Reid told The Star. “It’s not just calling the plays and lining up and doing it. It’s a matter of the protections against that defense, moving people around.
“He had a center that was a backup at the time (Zach Fulton), and they had to work that together and get everything picked up, and he was able to handle that.”
In retrospect, it’s clear that Mahomes’ impressive performance helped clear the way for general manager Brett Veach’s trade of veteran quarterback Alex Smith to Washington, which became the talk of Super Bowl week in Minneapolis.
The trade cannot be fully consummated until the new league year begins on March 14, but that hasn’t kept anyone — fans, analysts, coaches, players — from speculating on what the Chiefs’ offense could look like with Mahomes under center.
“He makes some throws where you say ‘Man, the QB we’re about to play can’t make this throw, so don’t even worry about that,’” Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said of Mahomes’ work on the scout team.
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick went so far as to say the Chiefs’ are “giddy” about handing Mahomes the job.
“They think he is a unique, unique talent with a unique arm, not just in terms of strength but in terms of the accuracy in which he can use that arm,” Riddick said. “I know they are excited about it, and Chiefs fans should be excited about it.
“The kid will not be discouraged, will not be talked out of being someone who is going to push the envelope in terms of making big plays. They love everything about him, from everything I’ve heard, and they cannot wait to see him taking all the reps, getting all the individualized coaching as far as nuance and playing the position under Andy Reid this offseason.”
But if Mahomes is going to succeed as the Chiefs’ next quarterback, he must first earn the trust of the men in the locker room. And you do that, players and analysts say, by playing well and leading from the front.
“Look, to be a good quarterback, you have to be cocky, confident,” said Geoff Schwartz, a veteran offensive lineman who spent 2013 as a starter for the Chiefs. “You have to command a huddle, even if you’re a rookie. You have to come in there and say, ‘This is my huddle,’ because it is. You’re in charge, this is your deal, right? Because (center) Mitch Morse is only doing so much for you.”
That’s one of the reasons Reid was so happy with Mahomes after the Denver game. He knew the formations; he knew the defenses. And he let it all hang out, with no hesitation. That’s called swagger, and having it is necessary if you’re going to lead a room full of football-playing alpha males.
“If you’re kind of timid at quarterback, I don’t think it works,” Schwartz said. “So I hope Mahomes is talkative and confident, a little cocky. You have to be, to be a quarterback.”
The good news is that Mahomes has already shown some of this to teammates.
“Pattycakes, man, he’s a confident player — he’s a confident football player,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “He’s still young; he’s still gonna go through some growing pains ... but I think he’s shown enough upside through the preseason, games and practices.
“Just who he is as a competitor, man, he’s got all the confidence in the world. So I don’t think the transition is going to be too tough.”
Johnson, the veteran linebacker, said Mahomes not only did a nice job blending into the background this season while serving as Smith’s understudy, he was eager to take advice.
“He did a good job keeping his mouth shut and learning a lot,” Johnson said. “There were times on the field where he knows I like to jump routes, and there were times he’d really try to bait me into jumping a route ... and maybe it worked on some people, but I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to be that dramatic — that’s when I know you’re trying to bait me.’
“So I’m always talking to him when I’m out there, and he was always receptive, saying, ‘OK, I got you.’ He’s a guy that’s very humble for his stature.”
Riddick said that in the NFL, while it’s important to have an on-field presence, there’s only one way to really win over your teammates at the quarterback position.
“It isn’t about standing up, giving fiery speeches and making ridiculous gestures about eating W’s or anything like that,” Riddick said, referencing a maligned pregame speech by young Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston. “This is a performance league, man. And although you’d obviously like players who have great football personal character who do all their (work) the right way. In the end, what really talks in the NFL is your performance, and that’s what he’ll need to do.”
As long as Mahomes plays well on the field and doesn’t make any bad decisions off the field that would cost him his availability to the rest of the team, Riddick is confident Mahomes’ talent will help him be a successful leader, even at the young age of 22.
“It’s just different, man,” Riddick said of Mahomes’ talent. “And we all know it’s different.”
The big unknown, of course, is how Mahomes will fare over a full 16-game slate against the best football players in the world. The Chiefs are confident they know the answer.
“They’re making the bet that he’s going to be everything they thought he was going to be,” Riddick said, “and I’m right there with them.”