On Inauguration Day of the Patrick Mahomes era, the center of attention for the Chiefs was determined to tamp down the nerves and not be too amped.
Trouble was, less than two minutes into the season, before Mahomes even took the field, he had a fresh challenge:
Tyreek Hill fielded a punt 91 yards from the end zone on Sunday at the StubHub Center and was gone a few electrifying strides later.
It was hard to stay calm after that, Mahomes said, smiling, after the 38-28 victory over the Chargers in which he nonetheless excelled with four touchdown passes.
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Mahomes could have been speaking for anyone watching on what was just the start of a mesmerizing day for Hill, who also scored on a 58-yard catch-and-run from Mahomes and a 1-yard pass that was more sleight of hand than anything else.
He finished with seven receptions for 169 yards on a day he was checked for a concussion and cleared after he “kind of landed on my head a little bit” after making a circus catch for 30 yards.
“I mean, that guy Tyreek Hill is unbelievable to watch; what a dynamic player,” Chargers veteran quarterback Philip Rivers said. “I don’t want to make any too-crazy-of-statements but … I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody better, the things he can do speed-wise, in all my time playing.”
For that matter, who’s more fun to watch in the NFL, period, right now than Hill?
Especially if you consider the personality accompanying all this:
Like the peace signs along the way to the first two TDs, and the backflip after the last one. (“I had to show my athletic ability,” said Hill, adding, “I shouldn’t have done it, though, because I started cramping right after.”)
And that extended run up the ramp some 30 yards away on the first one: (“Oh, man … when you’re so fast you just don’t want to slow down, because if you just slow down then you might pop your hamstring.”)
Or his ever-present sense of humor: (“You probably were (real) fast back in the day, so you probably know something about that, huh?”)
“Tyreek,” coach Andy Reid said in his postgame opening monologue with a smile coming over him. “Tyreek, Tyreek, Tyreek. He kind of got things going.”
Or as center Mitch Morse put it: “We already had the Human Joystick (Dante Hall) here once. It’s like Human Joystick 2.0.”
New and improved, that is.
But here’s the thing: Just like Mahomes’ promise as a quarterback is about far more than just his arm, Hill’s emergence is propelled by his speed but, less appreciated, enabled by so much else.
In fact, his speed almost masks everything else — with a little prompting from him. After all, he’s about the fastest football player you’ll ever see and likes to point it out with everything from his Twitter handle (@cheetah) to playful references to it.
When did he know he was taking the punt back? “Oh, man, once I caught it.”
As for the 58-yard catch touchdown on a superb read by Mahomes that hit him in stride? “Then after that, it’s history — Cheetah speed, baby.”
True enough for a player who per ESPN has nine touchdowns of 50-plus yards (on offense and returns) since Week 15 of 2016 — five more than anyone else in that span.
But it’s also true that the difference between good and great, which he is on trajectory toward, is about maximizing talent.
And that the difference between raw skills and defying “the laws of physics,” as his high school track coach Jerry Hill puts it, is about habits and dedication and attitude.
So Hill’s innate gifts, the agility, balance and vision, are being catalyzed by the learned and earned ones: his sense of where he is, understanding of the scheme, anticipation, footwork, sheer pass-catching ability and work ethic.
“You should see the guy in practice,” Morse said. “The guy practices a million miles an hour, practices with that game speed.”
For all his lighthearted banter about that game speed, the first thing Hill said about his punt return was that it was a “great job by the whole unit” and that special teams coordinator Dave Toub game-planned it well.
Asked about scoring three touchdowns, he alluded to the Chiefs drafting him amid controversy after his arrest on domestic abuse charges and said, “Just to be able to be in this position is a blessing for me. (Owner Clark Hunt and coach Andy Reid) took a chance on me, and I’m thankful. So each and every day I’m going to give every guy in that locker room everything I’ve got.”
Which is another dimension entirely, one with seemingly infinite possibilities working with Mahomes … providing he can stay calm playing with Hill.