Sam Mellinger

Examining the blissful football marriage of Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid

Every one of Patrick Mahomes 50 touchdown passes in 2018

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback has taken the NFL by storm in his first year as a starter, and his numbers back it up. Here is every one of his touchdown passes so far this season. Music from KillerTracks.
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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback has taken the NFL by storm in his first year as a starter, and his numbers back it up. Here is every one of his touchdown passes so far this season. Music from KillerTracks.

The marriage is something like a football fairytale.

Mustachioed old line coach becomes preeminent quarterback master, proving his chops over two decades by building playoff teams with quarterbacks as different as Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia, Michael Vick and Alex Smith.

The old coach finds true love with a curly haired former baseball player, who throws behind his back in warmups and left-handed when he needs to and 50 yards downfield off-balance so regularly that it’s hard to keep them straight.

A match made, quite literally, in Chiefs fans’ dreams.

There is no question that each side is benefiting from the other. Andy Reid spent two decades working toward an offense like this. One that could score this many points, and alternate so viciously between intricate screens and unapologetic shots downfield. Nineteen years he spent racing with cars varying from Accords to Corvettes. Now he has a Lambo.

Patrick Mahomes is better off for it, too. He told friends before the draft that he thought and hoped the Chiefs would select him.

Please come up with a better way to start a career: spend a year backing up a friendly and abnormally smart veteran, then become the starter with the league’s best tight end to attack the middle, fastest receiver to make that arm pop, and among the most innovative coaches to make it all work together.

So, yeah. This is marital bliss.

But which is the better half?

“Quarterbacks are either the victim or beneficiary of the people who coach them, and Mahomes is the beneficiary,” said Dick Vermeil, the former Chiefs coach and a longtime friend of Reid’s.

“I lean toward most of it being the player,” said Dan Orlovsky, a former 12-year NFL quarterback and now an analyst for ESPN.

“I’m a big, big, big — and you can put that in bold letters — big believer in coaching,” said Ron Jaworski, the former Chiefs and Eagles quarterback and longtime analyst.

Let’s debate!

Stronger together

Before we get into picking sides it’s worth exploring just why Reid and Mahomes are such a good match.

Because this is about more than the most eligible bachelor finding a suitable mate. This is two men whose specific traits and skills are a diabolical pairing that both cover weaknesses and amplify strengths.

Let’s start with how Mahomes benefits. His talent is obvious, but even now he is only in his fourth season as a full-time quarterback. He needed guidance.

While much of the pre-draft concern about his interceptions was uninformed — his 1.7 interception percentage as a junior was excellent — his default mode is to try for the exceptional even at the risk of the disastrous. Refinement was welcomed.

Mahomes has thrown one interception every 48 throws, which is 36 percent better than the league average. Fellow first-year starters like Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen are far worse.

Reid has given Mahomes the answers to the test, in that way, setting him up with passes that are often easy or comfortably close to what he did in college, or both. That includes run-pass options, screens, and other plays where receivers are often said to be “schemed” open.

On halfback screens, for instance, Mahomes is 26 of 27 for 324 yards and three touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus.

Orlovsky made an amazing analogy. He had a friend who took in a pit bull while the dog’s owner served in the military. Orlovsky saw video of that dog “attacking these wild pigs,” but it was also so well-behaved that the dog-watcher allowed his kids to “literally shove their heads in his mouth.”

“The dog was so special he knew how to turn it on and off,” Orlovsky said. “(Reid) lets Mahomes be Mahomes. He’s got a great grasp of it.”

This is the Reid Effect. He’s allowed Mahomes’ natural talent and instinct to shine while soothing the rough edges quicker than anyone could have expected. The trick here is that much of the benefit Mahomes has from Reid is by definition impossible to see. You can’t see the interceptions Reid helped Mahomes avoid because they, um, well they didn’t happen.

But they matter. Interceptions don’t just kill drives, and surrender field position. They have a way of stacking up, and even when they don’t they can diminish aggression and thus production. Mahomes hasn’t had to deal with that.

“He might be a pain in the ass to discipline (in) another program,” Vermeil said. “He’s got so much spontaneous talent. You can ask him to do so many things, and Andy is asking him to do the things he’s ready to do now.”

Now let’s do Reid.

Wanted: Elite QB talent

Reid is a widely respected coach, with an insatiable desire to learn and universally praised for his ability to evaluate and develop quarterbacks. But he is not a magician.

In seven of his 14 seasons in Philadelphia, the team’s passer rating was lower than the league average. He is likely a better coach now than before — the Chiefs’ passer rating has surpassed the league average every year under Reid — but the point remains he needs talent to make it work.

And he’s never coached a talent like this. Orlovsky notices a bit more downfield push, not just in Mahomes’ arm, but in the plays being called. Watch the direction of the deep passes. There’s more going down the seams, not just the sidelines.

Those particular throws require effective eyes and an arm capable of both distance and velocity. Check, check, and check.

“When (Mahomes) uses his eyes as a weapon the most it’s in between the hashes,” Orlovsky said. “There are certain quarterbacks with certain parts of the field or scheme that just fit them and their eyes. And I don’t know if he sees a seam ball that he doesn’t like.”

That gives Reid’s offense more space. He’s always wanted to attack downfield — last year, Alex Smith was the NFL’s best statistical deep passer.

Mahomes has also been efficient, using the cues and concepts Reid prefers, and led the league in yards on deep passes. The biggest difference is how often he takes those shots: a league-high 92 this season, compared with 62 for Smith last year.

“Andy Reid ran a different offense with Alex Smith,” Jaworski said. “It was not a down-the-field, challenge-the-defense sort of scheme. We know it was a dink-and-dunk, quick passing scheme. Because that’s what Alex was, and that’s OK.

“But now you’ve got a different kind of guy, with a big arm and the ability to go vertical. So Andy’s got, like, a new toy.”

The biggest benefit that Mahomes provides Reid may be in erasing mistakes. For all of his well-earned reputation as a strong offensive coach, Reid’s teams are prone to slumps.

A familiar pattern developed his first five years with the Chiefs: start fast, fade late.

That was often true in games (big leads becoming close wins or blown opportunities) and in seasons (with the notable exception of 2015 he was never better over the last half of the season than the first).

The most dramatic example of both patterns can be found in the historic playoff collapses in 2013 (up 38-10 in Indianapolis) and 2017 (up 21-3 at home against the Titans).

Mahomes has changed all of that. Remember the Chiefs’ slump last year, so bad that Reid gave up play-calling and some broader game-planning duties? The Chiefs scored a combined 19 points in consecutive games against the Giants and Bills.

They haven’t had any of that in 2018 — they scored at least 26 points every game, the first team in NFL history to do that.

Mahomes isn’t the only reason, but he is the biggest. The rest of the offense is largely the same, except for Kareem Hunt’s release after 11 games and Sammy Watkins’ eight games as the No. 2 receiver.

“Andy Reid doesn’t scheme fourth and 9, scramble out to the right and throw back across the body stuff,” Orlovsky said. “I don’t know if Andy Reid is drastically different. They’ve just got a guy where it doesn’t really matter what the defense does playing quarterback.”

OK, let’s make a decision.

Who’s the better half?

And the survey says?

The panel is somewhat split, with a lean toward Mahomes.

Vermeil: “(Mahomes) may not be nearly what he is in somebody else’s program. Look what (Reid) did with Smith. Nobody’s done that with Smith. Made him a multimillionaire by superior coaching.”

Jaworski: “I think Pat would be successful in any system. He’s a freakish talent. It would be hard for someone to screw him up, in my opinion.”

Orlovsky: “If you took out Mahomes put in, say, someone like Matt Ryan or Matthew Stafford or Kirk Cousins — guys anywhere from eight to 12 or 13 in the NFL — they wouldn’t be trending for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns. But if you took out Mahomes and put him in New Orleans or Chicago or New England or the Chargers or Rams, he’d be doing what those quarterbacks are doing if not more, at least. That’s the way I look at it.”

That’s all so well said. Reid has made a lot of guys a lot of money, now he has a talent nobody could screw up, and Mahomes would be good anywhere.

But in the interest of this manufactured debate as we await the Chiefs’ first playoff game, one truth stands above all:

We’ve seen Reid without Mahomes for two decades. We’ve never seen a quarterback quite like Mahomes, who now has his first chance to create his new history and change that of his coach and franchise.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.