ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Andy Reid treats quarterbacks differently than other prospects in the pre-draft process. He wants to spend all day with them, putting the signal callers through a marathon quarterback school—whiteboard work and concepts and retention tests—that can stretch until 5 p.m. before the coach is finished with the prospect. Reid is trying to get an idea of how much a quarterback can learn and retain in Years 1 and 2.
Back before the 2017 draft, Brett Veach—then the co-director of player personnel, now the Chiefs general manager—would see when the head coach would break for lunch. At that point in the day, Reid would have a pretty good read on the quarterback, and as he walked past the windows of Veach’s office, he would look down and swipe his hand from left to right as if to say “no way.” The kid couldn’t be their guy of the future.
Then Patrick Mahomes visited to the team facilities. Veach saw Reid on his way to lunch and looked for a hand signal. He got eye contact and a thumbs-up—full approval from one of the best offensive minds in today’s NFL.
“It wasn’t just a nod or a smile, it was a thumbs up with a smile,” Veach says. “Turning that hall I remember coach looking at me like, ‘Yeah, this is the dude.’”
Now the Chiefs have entrusted the future of the franchise in the 22-year-old gunslinger. They traded away Alex Smith after the best season of his career to make room for Mahomes, whose 69-yard arm rocket to Tyreek Hill in last week’s preseason win against Atlanta wowed the entire NFL world and covered up for an otherwise bland preseason so far for Mahomes.
After 29 interceptions in 32 games at Texas Tech and averaging nearly an interception a day at camp, he gives the impression of a quarterback who will have as many 400-yard passing games and three-interception games in 2018. What’s stood out, though, is the tantalizing talent, his mental capacity and fortitude—and that he hasn’t seemed to make the same mistake twice. From Reid to Veach to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, everyone raves about the young man’s mind.
“I think ever since I’ve been little, [when] you’d play the card games where you flip the cards and match two, I’ve always had a good recall and memory.”
So we play a quick game. Mahomes, born in 1995, doesn’t remember a world where cell phones were not ubiquitous. How many phone numbers does he know by heart?
“I’ve had to remember some. Not recently. You know your mom, your dad, best friend and my girlfriend.”
Four memorized phone numbers is probably better than most other members of Generation Z.
In the first episode of this season of Hard Knocks, Browns head coach Hue Jackson suggested sternly that rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield should be getting to the team facilities as early as veteran starter Tyrod Taylor. In episode 2, we see the No. 1 pick studying the playbook in the Browns facilities at 6:16 a.m.
A similar scene played out last year in Kansas City. Initially Mahomes was arriving around 7:30 for an 8 a.m. quarterbacks meeting, while Smith was arriving at 5:30 or 6 a.m. most days. By October, Mahomes was getting in by 7 a.m., and that shifted to 6:30 a.m. in November. As the Chiefs did secured the AFC West crown and cruised into week 17, Smith and Mahomes were basically walking into the meeting room together.
The No. 10 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft hadn’t played a snap all season long until that week. With Smith resting, Mahomes got the start against a 5–10 Denver team playing for pride, at home, in 17-degree weather. Stepping onto the field, Mahomes says he hadn’t felt that nervous energy since his first game at Texas Tech.
Three minutes into the game the Chiefs led 7-0 and were marching again. The Broncos showed man coverage with a single-high safety, and Mahomes fired a pass to De’Anthony Thomas so wayward that Thomas was turning to play defense while the ball was still five yards from being intercepted by Darian Stewart.
“I remember the first two drives, I was throwing the ball so hard. Every single pass I was ripping it,” Mahomes says. “Then that interception happened and honestly, that settled me down. Now you can just play your game and go out there and have fun.”
Mahomes guided Kansas City to a 24-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter and his night was done with the game seemingly in hand. Reid put in third-string quarterback Tyler Bray, who on his first play of the game promptly fumbled the handoff exchange that was recovered by Denver and returned 42 yards for a touchdown. Then he went three-and-out, allowing the Broncos to score again, and before the Chiefs realized, it was 24-24 with 2:45 left in the game.
Kansas City trusted Mahomes’s arm on seven straight plays to start the drive, and he got them into field goal range after 91 game seconds had elapsed. Harrison Butker’s game-winning 30-yard field goal gave Mahomes his first win and the Chiefs a franchise-altering victory—had Mahomes not played well here, would Smith still be on the team?—that was a culmination of a season’s worth of work.
“Really throughout the week of practice you saw the mental progression from the preseason to practice and how far he had come,” says All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. “It was smooth for him and it wasn’t really choppy. There weren’t any missed play calls. [It was] a smooth operation that didn’t really feel too different. I think that’s when everything solidified for me personally.”
Says Veach: “Obviously you could point to that game, but if there was nothing else other than that game, like if Pat didn’t have the preseason he had and didn’t make the plays in rookie minicamp and training camp and it was just that game, it’s a different story. That could have been the last bit of information that we needed.”
Reid had never seen a ball thrown 69 yards in a game. Mahomes thought that if he had thrown a spiral it would have gone even longer. NFL research found the pass would have bested the longest completed pass in the air from the entire 2017 season.
Mahomes’s cannon to Hill at the end of the first half of last week’s exhibition against Atlanta is the offensive highlight of the preseason. Mahomes hit Hill in stride on a pass that traveled 68.6 yards in the air.
Up to that point, Mahomes’s preseason play had been less than inspiring, completing 12 of 18 attempts for 102 yards and one interception through the Chiefs’ two combined exhibitions. His five drives had ended in three punts, one field goal and one regrettable interception on the series just before the touchdown pass. The misfirings are going to happen with a gunslinger like Mahomes, and Reid hoped to get most of those out of his system in July and August.
“I told you at the beginning of camp I don’t care about all that stuff. I want him to test the offense. That’s so important,” Reid told reporters earlier in camp. “We give him a ton of plays, I want him testing it. If you don’t have the intestinal fortitude to go and test it, you’re going to be one of these quarterbacks that checks it down every time, and that’s not what it’s all about."
What may have been perceived as a slight toward Smith was anything but that. Reid is installing the entire offense at training camp, and the offensive staff and Mahomes need to see what concepts the quarterback is capable of handling. Checking down in practice won’t accomplish that.
That means picks are inevitable, and Mahomes has tried to put blinders on this preseason.
“You’re never OK with them,” Mahomes says. “As a quarterback you want to be perfect. But the realty is mistakes are going to happen. They overblow everything in this league. I know everyone has a job so I don’t try to pay attention to it.”
Indeed, Mahomes’s miscues have come in all shapes and sizes. When The MMQB visited earlier this month, he had already thrown seven interceptions in six practices, including three in one day.
Once he called the wrong play in the huddle. Another time he forced a throw at the goal line when he should have ran it in. Another time, the interception came on a fourth-down free play after Mahomes had gotten the defense to jump offside. And another time, a red-zone pass was tipped at the line and retuned for a pick-six.
“I’m getting beat out there and you don’t read about Mitchell Schwartz in these articles,” Schwartz says. “You’re trying new techniques to see what works for you and what doesn’t. Yesterday I gave up a pressure, and he’s trying to avoid it and throws a pick. That’s my fault, but it gets reported that it’s Pat’s fault.”
So far it doesn’t seem to bother Mahomes. Maybe the NFL hasn’t jaded the young man yet, or maybe that’s just his personality. For a guy with such a great memory, he seems to forget about things rather quickly.
“I tell the receivers, if y’all drop a ball you better expect a ball coming back quick. I’m going to try to come back to you to get y’all back going,” Mahomes says. “One time this camp we had an O lineman getting first-string reps for the first time and his guy got through. He would have tackled me and I threw the ball and got it out of my hands. He said, ‘Hey that’s my bad.’
“All I said I was I don’t want you saying my bad just go out there and fight. If you fight I don’t care if you win or lose, as long as you’re fighting. That’s the type of team I want to have.”