This article, from Issue LIII of Gridiron, originally appeared in February 2020. For individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE
As tension in the iconic Coliseum’s stands mounted to create an electrifying atmosphere that contrasted sharply with the sterile soundtrack of many Rams games since their return to Los Angeles, Patrick Mahomes looked set to write the latest remarkable chapter in the story of his first year as the Kansas City Chiefs’ starting quarterback.
There was an unmistakeable sense that all of Mahomes’ scarcely believable interventions over the preceding weeks – from no-look to left-handed passes – had been building to this point. He stood, unexpectedly after the NFL was forced to switch the venue from Mexico City, in the City of Stars, poised to continue his ascent to becoming the league’s leading man.
The scoreline – on a balmy night where supporters of both stripes felt they were bearing witness to not only a Super Bowl LIII preview but glimpsing into the futuristic all-passing, all-points NFL – was 54-51 Rams with 1:44 remaining. Mahomes retook the field at Los Angeles’ 26 with three timeouts in his pocket.
After two incompletions, he threaded the needle between the Rams’ zone coverage to hit Tyreek Hill on an out for 26, and a feeling of inevitability descended over the stands. On a night where animosity between Chiefs and Rams supporters was palpable, those in red and white looked contented despite trailing on the scoreboard. Mahomes had already led Kansas City near field-goal range, but he and everybody else was thinking only about seven. A walk-off touchdown.
Instead, it would prove a rare derailment for the runaway train careering towards the NFL’s MVP award. The ensuing play saw Mahomes fake a hand-off, take a deep drop and be forced to sidestep left quickly in the pocket. With Samson Ebukam bearing down, diving and then catching a small piece of his arm, the quarterback threw an uncharacteristic prayer that wobbled from his hand with a shadow of the usually velocity and into the grateful arms of Rams cornerback Marcus Peters.
As he stomped to the sideline, his purposefulness betraying frustration, Mahomes was approached by the only other player on the field possessing transcendent ability. Aaron Donald wasn’t gloating, but displaying respect. “You’re one helluva football player,” Donald told the quarterback. “Keep your head up.”
“He’s a special guy,” Donald tells Gridiron a little over a year later in downtown Miami, just days before Mahomes’ Super Bowl bow against the San Francisco 49ers, “There are not too many times I give respect like that. But I had to let him know. He’s going to be one of the greats.”
As Donald speaks, the tone is reverential. Which is unusual when discussing a player so young, with such little experience. Particularly in a league that, as Sean Payton once told Gridiron following an enquiry about Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore during their rookie years, “doesn’t put people in the Hall of Fame for a couple of good games”.
With Mahomes, it’s just different. He is so unique – blending Aaron Rodgers’ efficiency, Brett Favre’s gun-slinging and Russell Wilson’s scrambling – that all rules go out of the window. And to think, just three years ago, debates raged over whether he warranted a first-round pick. At least in some places.
“There are not many times I give respect like that. But i had to let him know”
The first steps towards Mahomes’ match-made-in-heaven union with Kansas City head coach Andy Reid were taken prior to the 2016 season. During the spring, Brett Veach – the Chiefs director of player personnel who would become their general manager 12 months later – called Reid into his office and explained he was watching their next quarterback.
Texas Tech’s passer, as would be the case following his senior season, was viewed as a raw prospect with some elite traits offset by not possessing the requisite experience in pro schemes to command a top-five NFL Draft selection. Veach, however, was convinced. “I can only imagine what he’d do in this offense,” the personnel maven confided in Reid.
Over the course of the next few months, Veach would routinely send Reid clips of Mahomes. The coach, meanwhile, noted in November 2016 that ESPN’s draft gurus Mel Kiper and Todd McShay didn’t even have Mahomes as a first-rounder in their mocks. To which Veach replied: “This sets up perfectly for us.”
“I remember first seeing Patrick in his sophomore year,” Veach tells Gridiron. “They were playing LSU, who were loaded with draft picks on both sides of the ball, and Tech were outmanned. But Pat had that uncanny ability to raise the level of play in his teammates; he’s shown that at every level. Coach Reid is very methodical. I was showing him clips right away but, once coach got fully into the evaluation process with him as well, it didn’t take long for him to become convinced.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Reid and Veach were so convinced Mahomes was the guy that they gave up two first-round picks and a third to move up from 27 to 10 to select the quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft. Then, he was stashed away behind Alex Smith for a season, briefly flickering in a Week 17 start against the Denver Broncos when Kansas City’s playoff berth was secured, before being unleashed on the NFL for that groundbreaking 2018 MVP campaign.
“From the moment he stepped onto the field, talent-wise, we knew he was ready,” says Veach. “He just had to learn to be a pro day in and day out. We knew the sky was the limit, but we had a plan, stuck to it and it’s paying off. It’s pretty cool that he’s our quarterback.”
Since then, Mahomes has not only made his teammates and the Chiefs better, but also his coach. As arguably the most significant offensive mind of his generation and the man sitting sixth on the NFL’s all-time wins list for a head coach, Reid was likely already bound for the Hall of Fame prior to Mahomes’ arrival. But there was always a, well, ‘but’: the absence of a ring.
“Andy Reid is awesome,” Mahomes stresses to Gridiron. “He works his tail off and is in our building until 3.30am or 4am and he works the entire day long. You know that whatever he is telling you is going to be the right thing and it will allow you to have the most success on the field. Being able to have that communication with him makes it easier on Sundays because we’re on the same page.”
As good as Reid’s schemes are, his career has lacked the transcendent quarterback talent that many other great coaches, from Paul Brown right through to Bill Belichick, have had. As such, he always took teams so far, only to fall at a hurdle where something beyond just schematic innovations was required. “To be in that position, to know you have a young talent like that is amazing for Coach Reid,” says Super Bowl-winning head coach Brian Billick. “To know you have a run at it with him is special. Every year going forward, you get to start with that.”
As Billick spoke, that tone was again present. Reverence. It, truly, had been the theme of the ensuing 10 days.
“From the minute he stepped onto the field, talentwise, we knew he was ready, we knew the sky was the limit”
Prior to heading south down the Florida turnpike towards Miami for Super Bowl LIV, Gridiron spent three days in Orlando for the Pro Bowl. It’s always a surreal occasion, where the NFL’s leading lights throw team allegiances to one side for a relaxed week among their contemporaries in the shadows of Disneyland.
It’s also, for most, a bittersweet occasion. Most players would obviously rather spend their time preparing for the ensuing Super Bowl, but that reality only exists for two teams. The rest, then, turn their attention to the offseason and are asked various questions surrounding that and, often, for opinions on the ensuing week’s game.
The answers are mostly run-of-the-mill. Interesting when it comes to schematics, but usually lacking depth if individual players are brought up. Except this year, in one very specific case. “Man… Mahomes brings a different element,” enthuses stud Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward. “He’s a mobile quarterback, but the best passer along with it! It’s a dangerous combination. I’ve never seen a guy at this stage of his career as advanced. For him not to play his rookie year, then come in his second year so guns blazing, it’s unbelievable.”
Heyward and Donald weren’t the exceptions, but the rule in being at a loss to describe Mahomes’ quality and advanced aptitude relative to experience. Elite players, particularly those who have gone against Mahomes, were queuing to throw superlatives. “He is a great quarterback,” says New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, 2019 Defensive Player of the Year. “He can do it all. If he’s scrambling, you’ve got to stay with your guy because he can buy time and throw the ball anywhere on the field. Don’t think he doesn’t have enough arm strength. He can get it anywhere.”
When discussing the forthcoming game against San Francisco, Heyward proved prescient: “He’s that equaliser. He can put them over the top. You’ve seen him really rally the team and get them out of some holes.”
That equaliser was evident throughout a playoff run which, in many ways, was a microcosm of Reid’s career. In every postseason game, things went just about as badly as possible at the beginning, from the Houston Texans taking a 24-0 lead amid multiple gaffes in the divisional round to the Tennessee Titans moving 10-0 ahead and successfully bleeding the clock in the AFC Championship Game’s early stages.
On each occasion, however, the kind of faux pas that couldn’t be overcome earlier in Reid’s career as he has shepherded good quarterbacks deep into the postseason became irrelevant. Kansas City racked up 51 points in beating Houston, then eased aside Tennessee. Because, in Mahomes, Reid – like Brown with Otto Graham, Vince Lombardi with Bart Starr, Bill Walsh with Joe Montana and Belichick with Tom Brady – has found his equaliser.
The only question, as the fourth quarter wound down in Miami with Kansas City in another hole, was whether Mahomes could deliver one more time. Under the gaze of the Super Bowl’s vast audience.
“He’s the equaliser. He can put them over the top”
As the Hard Rock Stadium lights, now fully in effect following a late afternoon kickoff, shone down seemingly brighter than ever, glistening off Mahomes’ red helmet, he knew it was now or never. The passer had just continued an off-night in the face of San Francisco’s menacing pass-rush, missing a simple pass to Hill that was originally ruled complete before being overturned on review. Troy Aikman, in the Fox Sports commentary booth, said what everybody was thinking: “He’s not played well, Joe. That should have been his easiest completion of the night.”
From reverence to ridicule.
Yet, perhaps more significant than any acclaim Mahomes has attracted from those outside of the Chiefs’ operation is the feeling that surrounds him inside the walls. Prior to the game, veteran passer Chad Henne had lifted the lid on that to Gridiron: “This early on in a career, I’ve never seen anyone better – but it’s not just what he does on the field. Off it, the way he prepares, takes notes and engages as a leader is special. I’m just happy to have been with him these last few years; it’s fun to watch.”
As such, while the rest of the NFL world contemplated a damaging off-night for Mahomes at the worst possible time, those in Chiefs colours remained as cool as ever. “It’s like watching Denzel Washington in a movie or LeBron James in the playoffs,” says Tyrann Mathieu in the locker room after the game. “He has that glow; that spark. For him to be that young, and keep his confidence in a Super Bowl against a tough defense who didn’t really give him anything, tells you a lot. He believes in himself and we believe in him.”
Crucially, it wasn’t just the players – but his veteran coach too. On one signature play in Miami, that confidence paid off and altered the course of the biggest game in their lives. As New York was reviewing the previous play, Mahomes asked offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy: “Do we have time to run ‘Wasp?’”
And so it came to pass that – on the play with so much riding on it, both in the context of that game and the careers of regular bridesmaid Reid and his transcendent talent – the veteran head coach with arguably the finest offensive mind in football let Mahomes make the call. Like earlier in the game, when Reid opted for a single-wing play on a crucial fourth down that led to Kansas City’s first touchdown, it worked only due to the genius behind it. “Their relationship is amazing,” adds Henne. “Coach Reid is always asking Patrick what kinds of things he wants.”
Wasp, known as ‘Gun Trey Right, 3 Jets Chip Wasp Y Funnel’ to Kansas City’s offensive players, sees the Chiefs deploy a three-wide-receiver set to the left side of the formation. On the far left, Sammy Watkins would run 16-yard in-cut; to his right, Hill would run a deep post corner; and Travis Kelce would run a deep slant right from tight to the formation. Mahomes’ key was to read San Francisco cornerback Emmanuel Moseley because, if he followed Watkins, Hill would be single-covered by safety Jimmie Ward.
That the play worked as designed, leaving one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL to be covered one-on-one by Ward, illustrates the brilliance of Reid; that it led to a completion was down to Mahomes’ equal skill. For the quarterback, battered and bruised after being feasted upon by the 49ers’ Nick Bosa-led pass-rush all game, took what – in total – might have been a 15-step drop. Then, showing the physical gifts that have left the NFL world purring, delivered a ball that travelled 56 yards in the air – his longest all season – to hit Hill.
Or perhaps, more simplistically, the equaliser equalised.
From there, Mahomes continued his march down the field, then delivered another one and went from goat to landing an MVP award that might well be part of his GOAT resumé a decade from now. If the fourth quarters of Super Bowls are where careers are made, Mahomes is off to a nice start. And few around the NFL are surprised.
Indeed, when Donald told Mahomes better nights lay ahead following his game-losing pick the year before, it was moments like Miami – ending with the quarterback atop a podium clutching the Lombardi Trophy – that he had in mind. The only question now is how many more there will be. “He isn’t going to do anything but keep getting better,” concludes Donald. “That’s the scary thing.”
This article, from Issue LIII of Gridiron, originally appeared in February 2020. For individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE