Maybe the Chiefs didn’t quite need to see rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes perform in his first NFL start — take his first official snaps, in fact — at Denver last New Year’s Eve for an out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new scheme to unfold from there.
If it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Mahomes would take over for Alex Smith after a one-year apprenticeship, the front office already had an inclination that way between the mere economics of the radical differences in their contracts and its exhilarated conviction about Mahomes’ future.
“We saw a lot (in him), and I think the Denver game didn’t do anything other than reaffirm our position,” general manager Brett Veach said.
Even so, the game doubtless shifted all sorts of meaningful dynamics.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
That included perception, reflected in the giddy reaction of many Chiefs fans, deftly encapsulated in the Seinfeldian headline conjured by my dear colleague Sam Mellinger (“He’s real, and he’s spectacular”) and in the stirring of corporate sales.
“I think one of the things that really helped us (in marketing the team) … was the game last year,” said Chiefs President Mark Donovan. “I know it helped him, I know it helped the team (and) it helped us with the transition, because that’s a tough transition.
“You’re going from one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League (in Smith), and you’re making a young guy your guy.”
With some legitimate evidence instead of just a vague notion of promise.
While Donovan suggested that the air of anticipation is also about other changes, nothing stood out more than Mahomes when he added that the shift has “really ignited the fan base. It has ignited the media.”
Beyond perception, though, the game had at least some influential role in the reality ahead.
“I wasn’t sure how (the Smith-Mahomes question) was all going to work out,” coach Andy Reid said.
Until that night, was the implication.
Until the 27-24 victory in frigid conditions, in which Mahomes completed 22 of 35 passes for 232 yards (albeit with no touchdowns, one interception and another that could well have been picked when he chucked one up for grabs on the final drive).
He led the Chiefs to the game-winning field goal after being reinserted in the game, a circumstance that would almost certainly not come up again but one that was telling nonetheless.
Whether he needed it or not, the game primed Mahomes’ confidence going into this season.
“It (gave) me a lot of positive energy, a lot of confidence going into this season that you know that you can have success against a really good defense,” he said. “And so for me to know that and know what it took to have success on that game day is something I can build upon and keep getting better and better with.”
Meanwhile, the game seemed clarifying for Reid.
The blips notwithstanding, Reid was unusually animated afterward when he spoke of Mahomes’ performance. In the process, he served up some morsels that left veteran Reid-watchers sensing he had seen that the future was about to be now.
Reid spoke of how Mahomes had “complete command” and demonstrated his understanding of nuances such as verbiage, his ability to keep tempo and to process and counter Denver throwing “the house” at him with blitzes.
But maybe the real tell was this:
“Not many people can make” a couple throws he made, Reid would say, later adding “not many guys can” throw with a blitzing would-be tackler around his legs (for 17 yards to Albert Wilson on third and 14).
For a guy who plays it close to the vest, this was almost like Reid flinging his cards on the table.
Seeing this play out in a game made for something almost tangibly different than just knowing they had invested heavily to trade up for Mahomes at No. 10 overall in the 2017 draft and that he’d performed well in rookie camp, organized team activities and in the preseason.
While this was what they believed they had, now it was shaded in and upgraded to a different tier of credibility.
Yes, the Broncos were 5-10 entering the last game of a lost season. But consider the other sides of that equation, including that Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce didn’t play.
“People say, ‘Well, Denver wasn’t playing for anything and this and that,’ ” Veach said. “Well, look, look: The guy didn’t play for four months. He played with a backup offensive line, backup skills guys. And he goes out there and plays really well, on the road, 18 degrees.
“It wasn’t like we threw him out there and it was basically a glorified exhibition game where we were in a climate-controlled environment and the talent was equal on both sides. I mean, Denver still had a pretty good defense last year and some players, and he played against their starters.”
Played in a way that surely raised the threshold on what it would take for the Chiefs to retain Smith, who was having a tremendous season.
Certainly good enough that if the dollars had been the same for each there would have been a fine case for keeping him and making more preparation time for Mahomes, who came out of Texas Tech after his junior year and had not redshirted.
If the Chiefs had been able to muster two playoff wins in one postseason for the first time since the 1993 season, perhaps they would have been compelled to work with the $17 million against the salary cap Smith’s contract called for this season vs. the approximately $3.7 million price tag for Mahomes.
But yet another ridiculous playoff collapse, the 22-21 loss to Tennessee, virtually assured the change ahead.
Smith played pretty well, completing 24 of 33 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, but the case for the status quo was shredded. And that meant changing the face of the team and its most influential player.
Having a better feel for where Mahomes was also enabled the Chiefs to address ample other needs that money saved on Smith and his trade value could help reconcile.
So they dealt him to Washington for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick they later used in a trade to help secure the No. 46 pick overall, outside linebacker Breeland Speaks, and could spend more liberally in the free-agent market.
Ripples of the night that made them feel ready to bank their immediate future on Mahomes.
“It gave us all confidence,” Kelce said. “Obviously, the moves we made in the offseason (are) a testament to that. I think just him going out there and being comfortable gave everybody the awareness that, yeah he can do this. He can do this at this level just like he did in college.”
Even knowing there will be gaps in his game and some maddening lapses to go with the awe-inspiring moments.
“I don’t think any of us thinks he’s going to go out there and throw for 5,000 yards and 60 touchdowns,” Veach said.
Veach laughed when it was jokingly suggested he add the words “this year” as a qualifier. The truth is they know it will be a while until Mahomes becomes who he will be.
Not that Veach is expecting this part, either, but as he spoke on the topic he wondered aloud, “Didn’t Peyton Manning lead the league in interceptions his rookie year?” (Indeed he did, with 28 for a 3-13 Indianapolis team. He also threw for rookie-record passing yards, 3,739, and touchdowns, 26.)
Of course, this is a far more stable and established team than the one Manning joined as the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft.
Veach likes to think the Chiefs have a lot more talent around Mahomes than Manning had around him at the time, and that’s part of why this is a process they welcome so much.
All the more so with a jump-start.
No matter how much faith they had in him before Denver, Veach said, you always wonder how someone going from college to the pros will make the jump. For instance, would there be a “deer in the headlights” phase?
In incremental stages toward that night, they had seen Mahomes handle everything ideally — including embracing the tutelage of Smith and demonstrating not entitlement but a diligent work ethic.
That night, they saw all of the key indicators come to life in reality.
They saw him make impossible throws, none more so than hitting Demarcus Robinson in traffic off the dead run and off-balance with defenders in his grill on the game-winning drive.
They — and we — saw the talent and resilience and fearlessness we hear so much about translated intact to this new universe.
“Is it just one game? Yes, so it’s not the be-all, end-all,” Veach said. “But it wasn’t just that game. … It was an accumulation.”
One that took a living form that night and helped usher in the next generation for the Chiefs.