Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ most impressive play from his first professional preseason game was not an out-of-the-pocket touchdown pass to his third read, or a 25-yard fastball between two defenders, or a completion downfield while being pushed back by a 275-pound defensive lineman.
It was an incompletion.
Because if everything you’ve been told about the Chiefs’ rookie quarterback was true, it would’ve been an interception, and probably a pick-six. It would’ve spoiled an otherwise encouraging first step, and painted him as behind. It would’ve almost certainly kept him third on the depth chart, behind starter Alex Smith and Tyler Bray.
Instead, he showed instincts, calm, and smarts.
This is about a 1st-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 30. They lined up with three receivers, including Gehrig Dieter (slot) and Jehu Chesson (wide) toward the right against nickel coverage.
The Chiefs had run the same play a few times earlier in the game, with both Smith and Bray, for easy completions. With Mahomes running it, Chesson looked open initially. Mahomes began his arm motion to throw with Chesson a few yards past the line of scrimmage and no defender within reach.
“We had kind of seen throughout the game with Bray and Alex running the plays that there was a chance that could be open,” Mahomes said. “(But) their corner and their nickel safety kind of both went to it.”
At the moment Mahomes’ right arm cocked, two defensive backs read the throw and broke toward Chesson.
Mahomes truly intended to make the throw, but saw the defenders breaking with his peripheral vision. He pulled the ball down — he developed a deceptive pump fake at Texas Tech, and has shown it in training camp, too — and in the first moment had Dieter wide open in the middle of the field.
“I was definitely looking to throw it,” Mahomes said. “But once you saw both those guys break on it, I just kind of pulled it down, try to complete it inside (to Dieter).”
With hindsight and away from the chaos of the moment, Mahomes said he should’ve thrown to Dieter immediately. Mahomes scrambled a bit too soon — left tackle Donald Hawkins was beat, but Mahomes still had the blink he needed to throw — which may have thrown off the timing of the play.
It’s also possible that he’s covering for Dieter, who was moving toward the middle of the field as Mahomes wound up but stopped at the release. The ball went by, uncatchable, but would’ve been in Dieter’s hands if he kept moving.
“I’ve just got to complete that pass,” Mahomes said.
He is saying exactly what he should say there, but the important stuff is what happened during the play.
This is one of those subtle but critical signs of development that coaches work for and revolve their decisions around. Mahomes is capable of the spectacular, so the mundane is particularly important for him.
He may have thrown that interception a month ago, too. College defensive backs aren’t as aggressive, aren’t as quick, and aren’t as smart. They don’t anticipate the same way.
The narrative of Mahomes as a swashbuckling gunslinger is a little exaggerated. To be sure, his brand is in the spectacular. If you watch his college tape and what he’s done in camp so far, there are moments of bad risks. He hasn’t thrown a lot of interceptions in camp, but the ones he throws seem likely to be returned for touchdowns.
But he also threw just 10 interceptions in 591 attempts last season. That’s a rate of 1.7 percent, not far off the No. 2 pick, Mitch Trubisky (1.3 percent). Deshaun Watson, the national champion and Texans’ No. 12 overall pick, threw 17 interceptions in 579 attempts (2.9 percent).
There remains a fear that Mahomes’ efficiency won’t translate to the NFL. No quarterback from an Air Raid system in college has had a successful pro career, and at least some of that is because the throws that are reliably open in that system don’t exist in the NFL.
There are no gimme short hitch routes, at least not consistently, which is the encouraging part of this play. Mahomes took the snap expecting that hitch route to be open. But he was aware enough to pull it back mid-throw. He didn’t finish the play, but if what’s so often said about him was true it would’ve been a pick-six.
“Just how smart those defensive backs are,” Mahomes said when asked what he’s learned in camp so far. “How much they study film, and study you, and how they break on plays off alignments. How much smarter they are with that is something I’ve learned from guys like Marcus (Peters) and (Eric Berry).”
Look, one of the dumbest things any of us can do is make judgments or grand proclamations based on the preseason. Mahomes’ development is a marathon, not a sprint.
But we know he can do the amazing. His career will depend on his ability to do the mundane, and avoid major mistakes. One game in, he’s perfect.
Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger