Sam Mellinger

Patrick Mahomes, flukes and the spectacular: Chiefs QB’s next challenge is a biggie

Patrick Mahomes is precisely one start into his life as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, and the best part isn’t that he threw four touchdowns and no interceptions, or that he’s the AFC’s player of the week, or that he did all of this in what might have been the most difficult division game of the season.

No, the best part for the Chiefs is that it is all entirely sustainable.

Matter of fact, Mahomes can be even better.

“Plenty of room to improve and he knows it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.

Reid will always say this, no matter what. Mahomes could throw 12 touchdowns and no interceptions and cook the perfect cheeseburger at halftime and Reid would still talk about room for improvement (what, no fries?).

But here, somehow, it’s accurate.

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Mahomes even tells on himself. Fourth quarter, third and long, he flushed the pocket too soon — not realizing running back Spencer Ware would take care of the blitzing cornerback. This ruined Mahomes’ timing, and his vision.

Sammy Watkins — lined up as the middle of three receivers on the right side — was wide open past the stick. Mahomes saw Watkins, but his view was blocked by the chaos in front of him, so he broke to his right and threw it away. The Chiefs punted.

“Stuff like that I have to make sure I know every single play,” Mahomes said. “So I can hit that play and keep the defense off the field and keep a drive going.”

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To be fair, Mahomes is giving himself a high-level criticism here. The Chiefs were up 10 with less than 4 minutes left on their own side of the field. If he wasn’t certain, burning the down is not just the right call — it’s precisely the type of decision that avoids the killer turnovers some are worried about.

But, still. Mahomes is correct. He could’ve extended a drive and essentially ended the game there. It’s not the only moment Mahomes didn’t get everything out of a play, either.

With about 4:30 left in the first half, the line gave him plenty of time against a four-man rush and zone coverage. Travis Kelce was wide to the left, and ran a corner route that would’ve been a big gain with an excellent throw — but no better than the Anthony Sherman touchdown later in the game.

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There are other relative nits available for picking. He underthrew Tyreek Hill, causing the receiver to come back for a leaping catch that cut the gain and ended with him landing on his head. He handed off on a run-pass option that looked set up for a better gain on a pass. He threw deep to a covered receiver instead of a wide open teammate short.

So, yes. Mahomes can be even better, and not just because he was something other than perfect in his first meaningful start — he’s unlikely to ever reach perfection.

The bigger point here is that nothing he did in a start worthy of player of the week honors is non-replicable.

The touch throw to Sherman was perfectly placed — same as that rope to Demetrius Harris for his first completion last year in Denver.

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The scramble and throw to Hill on third and long was cold — but not quite as impressive as the ball to Demarcus Robinson against the sideline in Denver.

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The sidearm fastball to Hill for the 58-yard touchdown was remarkable — and reminiscent of a bullet to Albert Wilson thrown with a blister around his legs in Denver.

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Watch what happens if Mahomes throws it 70 yards in Pittsburgh this weekend.

In other words, all the stuff the wider football world spent much of the week gushing over is a mere portion of what Chiefs fans have already seen. Others are losing their minds over what is essentially a rerun to Chiefs fans.

Mahomes will have his struggles. He was relatively risk-averse against the Chargers, but still took some, and every snap he took came with the comfort of a lead. As the collection of film grows, so too will the ways he will be attacked.

For instance, he took a sack and threw three incomplete passes against four Chargers blitzes, according to Pro Football Focus. In that way, facing the Steelers will be an interesting test — the Steelers blitzed 21 times last week.

So, the warts will come. Coverages will be disguised, and blitzes will scream without warning. He will play from behind, and the risk calculus will change, and we will see more areas for Mahomes to catch up on his peers around the league who have generally been playing quarterback since they were preteens.

“Step, step, step, step, step, step,” is how Reid put it on Sunday.

One of the secrets of sports writing is to know when to write what. There is no such thing as a Sports Illustrated jinx — there is such a thing as Sports Illustrated knowing when a story is about to reach its apex.

So, writing about Mahomes at this moment might not be the smartest thing. The Steelers will be angry after an embarrassing tie against the Browns, T.J. Watt looks like a superstar, and this has always been a brutal matchup for the Chiefs.

If you wanted to create a game for Mahomes’ comeuppance, you could do worse than an angry and blitz-heavy team ready to see what the new kid does after getting knocked on his (back). The only challenge more difficult will be Bill Belichick next month — after three easy games for the Patriots, half a bye week, and five games of film to pick apart.

But Mahomes is not a pumpkin. If you are waiting for him to turn into a fluke, or to live down to the most superficial and misguided knocks on him — Air Raid product, turnover machine, Just An Arm — you could be waiting for a very long time.

Because the reality of his creation is bent to his prodigious talent, fueled by diligent work, and bettered by a photographic memory. At some point, we will do inventory of his made-you-scream moments and realize they happen more weeks than not — and often more than once.

One of the best things about sports are the possibilities, and most of them never materialize, so expecting something different is usually an exercise for fools. But Mahomes is uniquely positioned when compared to young quarterbacks before him. He is blessed in both arm and mind, surrounded by a gluttony of playmakers who complement his strengths and a head coach and front office hellbent on making the most of him.

Seen through that prism, the probabilities flip. This is different. Mahomes is different. The struggles will come, perhaps as early as Sunday.

But with Mahomes, the fluke is not the spectacular. The fluke will be when the spectacular stops.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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