Sam Mellinger

Nine seconds of chaos: Inside Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes’ scrambling TD pass vs. 49ers

Chiefs’ Laurent Duvernay-Tardif on Mahomes’ scramble and TD pass to Conley

Chiefs lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif on Patrick Mahomes’ wild, scrambling 4-yard TD pass to Chris Conley in KC's 38-27 victory over the 49ers on Sept. 23, 2018 at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Chiefs lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif on Patrick Mahomes’ wild, scrambling 4-yard TD pass to Chris Conley in KC's 38-27 victory over the 49ers on Sept. 23, 2018 at Arrowhead Stadium.

Nine seconds and you can make an NFL offensive lineman laugh. You need the right lineman, obviously, and the right moment and lucky for all of us here it is — Laurent Duvernay-Tardif handed an iPhone loaded with the wildest, scrambling-est, almost-fell-down, Patrick Mahomes-iest touchdown we’ve seen so far.

Nine seconds, the black phone resting in the giant paw of the Chiefs’ right guard, playing the football equivalent of a stand-up comic.

Nine seconds and the laugh starts, a suppressed grin at first but then outright laughter, a look away, a smile, and then he hands the phone back. Wait out the laughter, and you can hear the beginning of the insiders’ breakdown of a play that as much as anything else defined the Chiefs’ 38-27 win over the 49ers Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium and the promise of what is now possible in 2018 and beyond.

“That’s crazy,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “Just crazy. How’s he know where the pressure is coming from with having his back against it? He doesn’t even see it.”

“I taught him how to do that one,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid joked.

“You can’t do nothing about that — I feel the defense’s pain on that one,” linebacker Anthony Hitchens said.

Let’s set the scene. The Chiefs are in 11 personnel: one back, one tight end, and three receivers. Mahomes is lined up in shotgun, with Spencer Ware in the backfield to his right. Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley are wide left, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins to the right.

This is in the second quarter, with 9:04 left, third-and-goal from the 4, the 49ers down just one touchdown.

Nine seconds.

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

9:04 to 9:02

Spencer Ware is the first read. At least, that’s what Mahomes said. We’re taking his word for it. Watching live, he appeared to look at Kelce first. That’s what Chris Conley thought too, but Kelce claimed he was the last read.

The idea is that Kelce and the receivers will force the linebackers and defensive backs onto their heels, then with enough time Mahomes can dump the ball to the right and Ware might have one man to beat or run through for the touchdown. The Chiefs have run this before, with success.

Mahomes is outrageously talented, but he’s also off-the-charts smart. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians called Mahomes one of the four smartest quarterbacks he’s seen on the whiteboard — Arians mentioned Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck as two of the others. This is why the Cardinals tried trading up for Mahomes last year, according to his agent, and if we’re honest it’s why the Chiefs have the NFL’s best offense. He knows when to hit the first read, and when to keep going.

“Working within the system, understanding the reads and progressions and rhythm and timing,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. “That gets lost a bit with how incredible he is on the run. But it’s his ability to be a pocket quarterback that’s driving this offense.”

Schwartz is right, but holy-mother-of-god that ability on the run is something else. Like, on this play, for instance. Within the first two seconds defensive end Arik Armstead has ducked under Schwartz’s block and turned the corner.

Mahomes spins back, and scrambles left.

Game on.

9:02 to 9:00

By this time, Hill has faked toward the middle of the field, then reversed for an out route on the left side.

That’s not why Mahomes has scrambled this way — Armstead is 6-foot-7, 292 pounds and running at top speed — but it may be what he was looking for. That doesn’t last long, though, because 49ers linebacker Cassius Marsh has beaten left tackle Eric Fisher with an inside move.

Mahomes takes seven steps sprinting to his left. He’s more comfortable and dangerous going the other way, but some of his most unforgettable throws are this way — a 50-yard for a touchdown in college that then-GM John Dorsey brought up on draft day, and a sidearm bullet where he went horizontal for a fourth-down conversion in training camp that coaches still laugh about.

Problem is, Marsh cuts the angle. There will be nothing happening here.

“I kind of realized everyone else was on the other side,” Mahomes said.

“He kind of Chris Johnson’d it, reversed field,” Hill said.

9:00 to 8:56

They say football is chaos, and that’s true, but it’s also organized chaos. Practiced chaos. Choreographed chaos. When a linebacker wipes out a running back, it’s sometimes said that he came out of nowhere, but that play has been scouted, planned, visualized. That’s how football is. At least, that’s how it is when done right.

Watch the highlights and you can get the sense that Mahomes is ad-libbing, that he’s going on feel, and maybe that’s part of it. But it’s a small part. Because as soon as Mahomes breaks his first scramble, Conley breaks with him. They’re synchronized. Adrian Colbert has Conley covered to Mahomes’ left, but the moment Mahomes spins back, Conley reverses and leaves Colbert lost in the end zone traffic.

“This is a G-move,” Hill said. “Stay with Pat in the back of the end zone, two yards from the back line.”

It’s the real-life application of the scramble drill, run by every football team at every level, but done with a particular joy and excitement when Mahomes is the quarterback. In this moment, anything is possible, including complication.

The blocking, for instance. Duvernay-Tardif was called for a hold on Sunday, and he wasn’t beat as much he was surprised. Mahomes can erase a lot of mistakes by a line, but he can also cause some when he’s in unexpected spots.

“Definitely different for the guys who’ve been here,” Fisher said. “With Alex, we knew right where he was going to be. Now, it’s like, ‘OK, where’s Pat going to be?’”

So, when Mahomes cuts the scramble left with six steps — spinning around fast enough he puts his left hand on the grass to maintain balance, circling back far enough that the umpire and referee are each backpedaling to give him room — he has officially declared chaos. But it only works if he and his teammates treat it as organized chaos.

“We see him turn around, we try to get back to protect it so he doesn’t get his head taken off,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “You never know what it’s going to be.”

This is Mahomes at his most dangerous — running right, more than half the width of the field to work with, blockers aligned and receivers with him. Conley leaves Colbert behind, then runs through a second defender’s zone.

Mahomes covers the scramble back in 13 steps — it’s around the ninth or so that he sees Conley. That’s when he taps the ball once with his right hand, steps with his right foot, and launches himself into a sidearm missile not unlike a big-league shortstop.

“Watching that one on the field, he threw that with some zip on it,” Kelce said.

“He can throw those fastballs to his right,” Conley said.

The Kansas City Chiefs went to 3-0 on the season after quarterback Patrick Mahomes led the team to a 38-27 win against the San Francisco 49ers at Arrowhead Stadium on September 23, 2018.

8:56 to 8:55

Even after this is all done, three defenders may have had a chance. That’s after everything — the broken pocket, the seven steps left, the spin back to the right, 13 more steps, linemen keeping assignments, receivers staying within the scramble drill, and now the sidearm throw with more velocity than a human should be capable.

There’s linebacker Reuben Foster rushing forward, and with a little more luck and timing maybe he could get his hands up to affect the throw. There’s linebacker Fred Warner, leaving Kelce and following Mahomes’ eyes but a step behind the fastball. There’s cornerback Richard Sherman, blanketing Ware — remember, he was the first read — but too slow to react to the improvisation.

This is an entirely Mahomes-ian touchdown. He is good enough in the pocket to make things work, and the arm is strong enough to make these plays downfield, too. But how many quarterbacks are capable of this? Russell Wilson, sure. Dak Prescott, maybe. Carson Wentz, probably. Aaron Rodgers is the best in the world, but would he have the mobility for this one?

This is where the dreams start. The Chiefs have never had a quarterback like this, never had someone capable of erasing mistakes and burying them with touchdowns. This is why the coaches and executives are so giddy, why a generation of fans trained to expect the worst are now at least open to the idea of hoping for better, and why it feels like the ground floor of a major shift in Kansas City sports.

The NFL will almost certainly have more quarterbacks who can do this play in 10 years than it does now, and in that way Mahomes is a representation of what the future might look like — with a play he’s been making for years.

“Too many to count,” said Coleman Patterson, a childhood friend and teammate of Mahomes in high school and college.

“We’re thinking, ‘Let’s make sure nothing bad happens,’ and instead, you get a touchdown,” Duvernay-Tardif said.

“It’s awesome what we’re doing right now,” Fisher said. “And we’ll enjoy that one, but then it’s, ‘Where can we get better?’”

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Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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