With all props to the Patrick Mahomes-smitten throngs, I’d never quite felt the future-is-now fever after the Chiefs invested heavily to make him the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Sure, I appreciated Mahomes’ arm and smarts and pure athleticism and infinite potential coming out of Texas Tech.
Same way I appreciated that he’d played in a system that hadn’t translated well into NFL performance and that he was in high school three years ago.
Certainly, there was no need for him to be rushed to play this season as he served an apprenticeship behind the underappreciated Alex Smith.
So I went to his regular-season debut against Denver on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High figuring this:
No matter how he played in what you might call a glorified exhibition game, a strong argument would remain that Smith should still be the Chiefs starter in 2018.
Safe to say the whole scenario looked a little different after Mahomes, playing largely with a backup cast against a first-team Denver defense, defied his inexperience and made a bundle of head-shaking plays to stoke the Chiefs to a 27-24 victory.
It wasn’t just his celebrated arm but his touch and maneuverability and poise and sense of the pocket and obvious feel for all that was going on around him … numb as the frigid conditions might have made him.
Especially after he had to have assumed he was done for the day when he gave way to Tyler Bray with a 24-10 lead only to be reinserted with the game tied 24-24 and 2 minutes, 45 seconds left.
On the way to guiding the Chiefs 67 yards on 11 plays to set up Harrison Butker’s game-winning 30-yard field goal as time ran out, Mahomes unleashed a pinpoint pass on the dead run to Demarcus Robinson in traffic that eclipsed other throws that left you shaking your head over his ability to deftly deliver the ball, say, against the grain or off his back foot.
Never mind that two plays later he threw one up for grabs into double coverage that easily could have been intercepted, just as his sixth NFL pass was.
Coach Andy Reid did what he could to stay measured afterward, noting that Mahomes would need to go back to the drawing board for some teaching points and playfully saying that he thought his creativity — mad libs? — “ruined a couple great plays that were called.”
But he also came off as proud of the heir apparent, uncorking some terms that seemed telling.
Mahomes, Reid said, had “complete command” out there on a day he completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards.
He was impressed, too, with his understanding of such nuances as the verbiage and ability to keep a good tempo.
And that he had the presence of mind to handle Denver throwing “the house” at him with blitzes.
“Not many people can make” a couple throws he made, Reid would say, and later add “not many guys can” throw with Von Miller on his legs … in this case for 17 yards to Albert Wilson on third and 14.
“He’s not banking on his skills that he’s been blessed with,” said Reid, who also gushed over Mahomes’ work ethic and sponge-like tendency to pick up the complicated system. “He’s trying to get himself to be the best.”
Mesmerizing as he was, a question lingers:
Is the job supposed to simply be handed to him next year now, or does Smith still have some sway and say?
If Smith plays well in the playoffs, as he typically has, and/or if the Chiefs win a couple postseason games for the first time in nearly a quarter century, how much is that something you want to mess with — especially if Smith were willing to restructure a contract that calls for $17 million against the salary cap next season?
Surrounded by a trifecta of explosive options in the form of running back Kareem Hunt, the NFL rushing leader, the warp speed and uncanny instincts of Tyreek Hill and the sheer dynamism of Travis Kelce, after all, Smith has enjoyed the best season of his career.
Should you automatically move on from a guy who threw for 4,032 yards and 26 touchdowns with only five interceptions in 15 games … and has been at the helm for 50 wins in his 76 starts … and led the Chiefs to back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history … and their only postseason victory in more than two decades with perhaps more to come starting with the Chiefs hosting the Tennessee Titans on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium?
Is this all to be taken for granted?
None of which is to say that the Chiefs best move won’t be to trade Smith, whose stock perhaps never has been higher, and move on to Mahomes.
Particularly since it’s not a strictly performance-vs.-performance decision, considering the price tag on Smith compared to the approximately $3.7 million for Mahomes next year.
Meanwhile, the threshold of what Smith needs to do in the postseason to make the case for another year here compelling seemed to change on Sunday, at least publicly, when Mahomes flashed so much of what the future will look like that even holdouts felt a seismic shift.
If the Chiefs make a deep playoff run, perhaps the scenarios could swing back in favor of Smith, who has played in 156 regular-season games, is soon to start his seventh playoff game and has all the accumulated wisdom and perspective and leadership skills that come with being ridiculed as a bust as the overall No. 1 pick and rising through that.
But in the moment, what seemed like an idealistic plan for the Chiefs appears to have worked ideally.
Mahomes has prospered greatly from a redshirt season, including the mentorship of Smith, the Chiefs are headed into the playoffs with Smith thriving, and the next few weeks will dictate more about how they deploy what looks like only good options at the most important position on the field.