At this time a year ago, the NFL profile of Patrick Mahomes consisted of his promising debut in a late-season game at Denver the year before and impressive-but-inconclusive hints in his preseason performances.
Even as anticipation bubbled for the kid with a launch-pad for a right arm, caution lights flashed about how quickly he could become the sort of force that might change fortunes for the Chiefs.
For all his raw talent, this was going to be a process, after all. Conventional logic held that Mahomes would be prone to reckless gambles here and there and would sputter at times adjusting to the complexity and speed of the game at the ultimate level.
Maybe he’d throw 30-35 touchdown passes, but that would probably be offset by 18-20 interceptions and the Chiefs would sneak into the playoffs and be more capable of contending in 2019.
Instead, Mahomes flipped the fundamental dynamic as the Chiefs maneuvered closer to the Super Bowl than they had since their last appearance 49 years back before the excruciating loss to New England in overtime in the AFC Championship Game.
In the process of uncorking 10 touchdown passes in his first two games along the way to becoming just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw 50, Mahomes didn’t just emerge as a transformative presence for the Chiefs.
The infinite range of his arm, the seemingly impossible windows he can compute to exploit without actually gambling, the creative capacity to extend plays, the no-look passes (and the lefthanded changeup) that reflect an uncanny sense of awareness …
Add it all up, and it turned out the NFL was going to have to adjust to the first Chiefs’ MVP in league history more than vice versa.
“Some of the things that went on were, you know, historical,” said coach Andy Reid, quickly adding, “But that was last year.”
At the advent of a new season, of course, this is all a blank slate. Defensive coordinators around the league no doubt have gone bleary-eyed dissecting Mahomes’ game and searching for solutions, and every season, and game, is its own unique thing.
And it bears mention that the Chiefs open Sunday at Jacksonville — the only team Mahomes didn’t throw a touchdown pass against last season. Although the Chiefs won 30-14, the Jaguars held him to a season-low 62.7 passer rating and intercepted him twice.
Just the same, there are many reasons Mahomes is going to be a better quarterback this season even if he doesn’t match last season’s gaudy numbers (That could be affected by a range of factors from how much the defense does or doesn’t improve to how conservative Reid might play it in fourth quarters with a decent lead).
Start with this: No matter how much opponents might get out of breaking down a season’s worth of film on Mahomes, that’s more than made up for by the sheer value of that experience itself for Mahomes.
“You still have that little nervousness of going into the start of the season, but at the same time, just having the familiarity with what it is and what you need to go out there and accomplish is something that’s different,” he said Wednesday. “Last year, you think you know, but you don’t know until you get there.”
Specifically, Mahomes pointed to a belief that he will be better-equipped to “weather the emotions early” in games.
A few other building blocks come with that: It’s one thing to have known he’s simpatico with Reid since their first meeting and to have studied his offense in theory. It’s another to actually have seen himself playing in it when he reviewed the catalogue of last season.
“Whenever it’s you playing and you’re watching yourself playing, you understand why you made the decisions, good or bad, and then you understand how to make it better,” he said.
It doesn’t hurt his chances at improvement to be surrounded by a playmaking embarrassment of riches in the form of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Damien Williams and the recently acquired LeSean McCoy.
“Any time you add a great player to this team you just are going to keep adding depth and depth,” Mahomes said, referring to McCoy and adding “it makes my job a lot easier.”
Which also is why you can believe there is some exhilarating stuff ahead with Reid talking about having some 300 plays — with who knows how many variations within each? — as Mahomes casually mentions NOW being able to use the “full-game plan” derived from Reid’s million or so note cards.
Something else to understand about Mahomes’ makeup as it applies to what’s ahead: Much as he was engaged in other activities in the offseason, from trips to the Final Four in Minneapolis and Stanley Cup finals in St. Louis to any number of endorsement gigs that left Kelce joking about the locker room being overrun with Oakleys and Head & Shoulders and Hunt’s Ketchup, complacency isn’t in his vocabulary and he retains a laser focus on the prize.
Bobby Stroupe, who has been Mahomes’ personal trainer since fourth grade, said Mahomes did 72 customized workouts with him between the end of the season and the Chiefs’ offseason program.
The workouts were geared to making Mahomes more chiseled to brace for the way defenses were going after him. Before camp, Stroupe expected that Mahomes would be more robust but playing about eight pounds lighter than the 235 at which he entered last season and at about 9.5% body fat from 12% a year ago at this time.
While Reid says he doesn’t see Mahomes much differently now than he did a year ago at this time, it might be understood that all along he has seemed to see what was within Mahomes.
For the rest of us, though, it sure looks more clear now than a year ago: Mahomes isn’t just the face of the franchise but one of the marquee players in the NFL, and he makes everything seem possible.
Sure, it’s up to him to demonstrate that last year was the beginning, not the peak.
But it’s just as true that the competition has to prove it can somehow stop his absurd range of talents … and that it’s hard not to think advantage Mahomes, and Chiefs, at this stage.