Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

AT (MA)HOMES ON THE BIG STAGE

Neil Reynolds

AT (MA)HOMES ON THE BIG STAGE

Neil Reynolds NFL

Moments after their heartbreaking overtime loss to the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, the Kansas City Chiefs’ players were wearily getting dressed and preparing for months of pondering what might have been. The locker room floor at Arrowhead Stadium was littered with discarded tape and clumps of dirt, with battle-worn uniforms – caked with stains of mud, blood and grass – strewn in every conceivable direction.

The few remaining journalists were collecting postgame quotes, speaking in hushed tones for fear of breaking the near silence of a losing locker room. The NFL machine, of course, kept grinding and there was still work to be done as anonymous equipment staff scurried around in the background, loading giant wheelie bins with towels, discarded socks, pants and other items of clothing.

And then there was the stench.

Very few places on earth smell as foul as an NFL locker room after more than three-and-a-half hours spent battling it out on the gridiron. And, on this frigid January evening, the Chiefs were dealing with much more than the odour of sweat – they were choking on the foul reek of defeat.

In short, such a miserable place was not where you wanted to be. Unless you are Tom Brady. Having just booked his ticket to a ninth Super Bowl, Brady was keen to step aside from New England’s celebrations for a moment or two. The GOAT slipped away from the raucous scene and quietly approached a security guard stationed outside the Chiefs’ locker room, making the rare request to enter enemy territory. The reason for Brady’s visit? To pay tribute to the hottest property in the NFL and the league’s soon-to-be-announced Most Valuable Player.

Brady’s desire to seek a private audience with Patrick Mahomes was another indication of how quickly the Texas Tech product had taken the NFL by storm. In his first full season as a starter, Mahomes was an absolute sensation as he completed 66 per cent of his passes for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns. The quarterbacks at opposite ends of the age spectrum spoke for just a few minutes, but it was enough time for the 41-year-old Brady, en route to a sixth Super Bowl win, to tell Mahomes, 23, that he loved the way he played and to “keep grinding”.

“It was definitely cool,” Mahomes tells Gridiron Annual Bookazine. “When I look back on it, that was something he didn’t have to do. He had just enjoyed a big win and, for him to do that, it showed what a class guy he is. It was an awesome experience to be in that game in general – we didn’t get the result we wanted but we got really far. And now we have to find a way to win those tougher games this season.”

And therein lies the motivation for Mahomes and the Chiefs, who were on the wrong end of that 37-31 overtime scoreline with the Patriots in January. “That is definitely serving as motivation” he admits. “What has been carrying us for this entire offseason and summer is the fact that we were that close. We were a couple of plays away from being in the Super Bowl – we need to make sure that we really go after it in this offseason and get better in every little aspect of the game. We cannot take a single day for granted, we have to keep getting better and we have to find a way to win that game next year.”

***

With Mahomes at the helm, the Chiefs are a good bet to compete for Super Bowl glory in 2019. And they are a team that will garner a great deal of attention. As Brady nears the end of his Hall of Fame career, Mahomes is taking centre stage as the new face of the NFL.

Endorsement deals are coming in thick and fast for the quarterback, who is on the cover of the latest edition of the Madden computer game and the poster boy for Oakley sunglasses, Hunt’s ketchup, Essentia Water, Goodcents Deli Fresh Subs and Adidas, as well as making promotional videos for the Call of Duty computer game series.

That lot alone should lead to worries that a young head might be turned away from football, even for just the occasional moment. But Mahomes is well mentored by super-agent Leigh Steinberg and has an old head on those youthful shoulders.

The new face of the NFL? No problem. “I don’t think that brings any added pressure,” Mahomes insists. “For me, it’s about playing football and playing a sport I have loved for a long, long time. Every day is about getting better. I come out every single day and make sure that football comes first.

“It’s awesome to have these partnerships with all these great brands, but they all know that football is first in my life. I have to make sure I handle my business on the field before I can do anything off of it.”

While Mahomes’ numbers alone make him special, it is his style of play that has so many excited about the future. Growing up in Tyler, Texas, Mahomes was drawn to a certain type of quarterback and that is evident in the way he plays on Sundays. “Brett Favre was definitely a big one for me and I watched a lot of him growing up,” Mahomes reveals. “Tony Romo was another being that I was from Texas and we watched the Cowboys play on Sundays. And I have also watched a lot of Aaron Rodgers. Those guys played or play a similar style to me and I have taken things from their games.”

That said, Mahomes is pretty unique and otherworldly. Force him out of the pocket to his right and he can unleash a jet-fuelled football 50 yards downfield in a split second, as he did on one memorable fourth-down play during a Week 14 victory over Baltimore. Make him roll to his left – as Denver’s Von Miller did during a Week 4 loss to the Chiefs – and Mahomes will transfer the ball to his left hand and throw for a first down. That thwarting of Miller’s attempted sack remains one of the iconic plays of the 2018 season.

And, if you want more noteworthy than that, how about Mahomes’ no-look pass in that memorable 27-24 overtime win against the Ravens? It was described on CBS television by the aforementioned Romo as “the quarterback play of the year”. “I’m a competitor and I want to go out and win any way possible, whether that be from the pocket, scrambling or whatever it is,” the 2017 first-round pick stresses. “I just want to find a way to win. I feel like that is something that is huge when it comes to my success on the field.

“Not everything has to be perfect. I go out with the mindset that I am going to make something positive happen every single play and, if it doesn’t, I’m going to come to it on the next one.”

But does he run the risk of incurring the wrath of head coach Andy Reid when he attempts the unconventional, such as that no-look pass to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson? “As long as I complete it, I’m usually pretty good,” Mahomes laughs. “I know if I don’t complete those throws or I throw an interception or do something bad, they’re going to get on me for sure. So I’ll have to make sure I keep completing them.

“But improvisation is part of being an NFL quarterback. The guys on the other side gameplan, do a lot of things and try to stop the stuff that we’re good at. It’s not only improvisation for me but also for the receivers, the offensive linemen and the running backs – we all have to be on the same page. And we have to make it work some way or another.”

It is clear from watching Mahomes that he doesn’t shrink when the lights are shining bright. He went toe-to-toe with Brady in that AFC Championship Game loss, throwing for 295 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. After a slow start, Mahomes was virtually unstoppable as the stakes grew higher and higher with each passing minute.

He was only robbed of a chance to level the scores one more time by the league’s unsatisfactory overtime rules. For neutrals, seeing Mahomes powerless on the sidelines as Brady marched to a game-winning touchdown on the first possession of overtime was one of the more frustrating sights of the year.

Where we view such moments as potentially career-defining, Mahomes simply spots further opportunities to succeed. “I feel pretty much the same every single game,” says the All-Pro gunslinger. “I’m just trying to find a way to win. That’s the beauty of football and being a competitor – you’re never going to be out of any game and you can find a way to win at the end.”

***

From the outside, it is hard to see how Mahomes can improve on an MVP season in which he joined Brady and Peyton Manning as the only players in NFL history to throw for 50 touchdown passes in a single campaign. Yet the man himself sees it differently; his gunslinger approach can, at times, be overly aggressive and striking the balance is the next frontier.

“It’s not about taking away anything that we did last year in terms of scrambling and some of that other stuff,” he explains. “At the same time, whenever there are shorter plays that can get you first downs and move the chains, I have to make those. It’s not all about going for those home-run touchdowns. There are plays where you just have to move the chains. I need to know when I can scramble and make a play or when I need to check it down, take the first down and move the chains.”

Mahomes’ desire to improve is to be commended, but he sees it as nothing more than the duty of an elite franchise quarterback. “I’m not satisfied with where I’m at right now,” Mahomes stresses. “I want to keep getting better and I push myself to get better. You see with all the great ones that they’re never satisfied being at the top. They push themselves to get to the next level.

“Tom Brady is a huge example of that. To this day, he still thinks he can get better even though he has won all those Super Bowls. When you have that mentality, it spreads around the entire team and you get better together.”

Mahomes will hope his desire to get even better in 2019 rubs off on the Chiefs. As they hurtle towards the new campaign, the superstar quarterback is setting the highest of bars for his teammates. “The next step is to win the Super Bowl,” Mahomes concludes. “We need to make sure we get there. First off, we need to win our division and then win that AFC Championship Game. Then we need to find a way to win the Super Bowl. That’s everybody’s goal when you come into a season, but especially when we were that close last year. It’s about emphasising the things that we weren’t as good at and going out and getting better in those areas.”

The spotlight will undoubtedly shine on the NFL’s brightest star once again in 2019. Mahomes can handle the attention and boasts the talent to make the Chiefs locker room a much happier place at the end of this coming season.

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