INDIANAPOLIS— It was the third week of this particular Texas school’s season, and the 19-year-old phenom had yet to emphatically announce his presence to the nation—even if the guys who worked with him had an idea of what was coming.
On the play, the kid must’ve reversed field three times to avoid the oncoming rushers, breaking a bunch of quarterbacking rules in the process, before somehow, inexplicably putting it in the end zone. The defensive players from South Carolina State didn’t know it then, but they’d soon find out: That was just the start.
“I’m like, ‘What is he doing? What is he doing?! He’s not even running the offense,’” said the kid’s coach, Kliff Kingsbury. “But then he puts it in the end zone. And you just high-five him, and I’m apologizing to our head coach—‘Coach, I don’t know what he’s doing out there.’ But he’s scoring every time. After that game, I’m like, ‘Alright, there’s going to be some ups and downs, but if you have a kid who has this type of ability, you gotta relinquish the reins.’”
Kingsbury then smiles and says, “And let him do his deal.”
You might think this is the former Texas Tech coach recalling the best of Patrick Mahomes from their three years together in Lubbock. But this comes from a time before Kingsbury had even met Mahomes—he only had a rough idea who he was at that point—and before he took the job his alma mater.
For this memory, he was Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator. His QB: Johnny Manziel.
Kingsbury didn’t know it at the time, but he counts that moment now as when his view of quarterbacks changed forever. Manziel threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more in that 70-14 win. Three months later, Manziel was lifting the Heisman Trophy. Along the way, how he played, and how Kingsbury coached him, set the stage for the coach to become smitten a year later with a high school quarterback with similarly unconventional ability.
That one was Mahomes. And by then, Kingsbury had learned what NFL teams took a long time to figure out—that the risk in passing on a playmaking talent like that, and missing out, was far greater than the risk of bringing one in and having to work around what he might not be. Which he first learned in coaching Manziel.
“It was one of those deals, the best athlete on the playground, he’s gonna be the best player,” said Kingsbury. “Of the highlight tapes I’ve seen, the best ones I’ve ever seen from high school were Johnny’s, Kyler [Murray]’s and Patrick Mahomes’s. They just dominated. Kyler was a little more polished than those guys, because of his dad, and growing up that way. But with Johnny and Pat, I mean, they just ran around and made plays—and they dominated. If they dominate at that level, they’re gonna have a good chance to dominate at the next.”
For our conversation, Kingsbury was sitting in a hotel lobby a half-dozen blocks from Lucas Oil Stadium, where, tonight, this year’s crop of quarterbacks will throw for scouts and coaches. Those evaluating them in the stands will all have the image of what Mahomes just did in the Super Bowl still burned into their brains. The question then will become what kind of impact it makes on these guys when we get to April.
We're at the combine for this week's GamePlan! And from here, we'll give you...
- A ranking of unrestricted free agents that will actually make it to the market.
- A look at whether the CBA will get done.
- Reasoning on why there may be pass-rusher trades this March.
But we’re starting with Kingsbury, and what the NFL might learn from him.
It was a little over three years ago that Mahomes put his name in for a grade with the NFL draft board, and it came back with a disappointing result. The panel marked him as a second- or third-round prospect. In his surprise, Kingsbury came up with a plan.
“So I fly down to Tyler (Mahomes’s hometown) and try to convince him to come back to school,” Kingsbury said. “And I’ve felt like a d--- ever since, like, ‘Pat, I promise you I wasn’t that guy, man. When they said second round, I knew you should be the first pick of the draft.’ That’s what I told him: ‘There’s no way you shouldn’t be the first pick in the draft. Come back, we’ll make you a lot of money. This is crazy that you’re saying this about you.’
“He gave me that space, but I could see it in his eyes, he knew what he was about to do.”
At the very least, Kingsbury saw Mahomes’s vision as less crazy than that draft panel’s.
“It’s nuts,” he said. “And you take that into account, Well, if it’s a 2/3, here’s the presentation, we’re getting you back to school, you should be a first-round pick, let’s earn some money, get your degree, all these things. But in hindsight? I always mess with him, ‘Dude, I promise you I wasn’t being the selfish asshole here. I want what’s best for you.’ And luckily it worked out.”
Now, it’s easy to drill the panel for their grade, given that we all have the hindsight of the historic start that Mahomes’s career is off to. But the truth is that the NFL’s committee wasn’t alone back in 2017. And even Kingsbury himself will admit that he may not have seen Mahomes the same way he did seven years ago, when he landed at Tech and first started recruiting the East Texas prep prospect in earnest.
Kingsbury had first been put on to Mahomes by his line coach at A&M, B.J. Armstrong, who was from East Texas originally and used to tell his old staffmate that Mahomes’s dad was the greatest athlete he’d ever seen—and that he had a son who Kingsbury should check out. A year later, in the fall of 2013, Kingsbury had a verbal commitment from Mahomes and went to use his, by rule, one opportunity to watch the kid live.
The Whitehouse High senior torched Carthage for seven touchdowns that night, and Kingsbury and his OC at Texas Tech, Sonny Cumbie, got nervous in those stands, thinking the recruiting radar of the college-football bluebloods might start to go off. “We were freaking out over it,” he said.
Thankfully for Tech, that didn’t happen. Oklahoma State and Rice were the two offers most competitive with Kingsbury’s, and Mahomes signed in February 2014 without incident. And that it played out that way isn’t totally unrelated to the NFL not quite getting it with Mahomes in 2017.
“It didn’t look like traditional quarterback play,” Kingsbury said. “He kind of shuffled back with the ball, he ran around, and just made play after play after play, kind of just doing his own thing. He played in a great system. They spread it out, his high school coach let him do his deal, and had a hell of an offense for him. But I think more than anything, he just didn’t look like your traditional quarterback.”
And at one point, that might’ve bothered Kingsbury. At one point, he might’ve missed what others did. But at this point, after his experience with Manziel, he wasn’t missing on Mahomes, like some would three years later.
Mike Smith was a teammate of Kingsbury’s at Tech, and assistant defensive line coach with the Chiefs during Mahomes’s final year at school, and he’d tipped his old buddy off that Andy Reid was watching the quarterback’s tape every week with a young exec named Brett Veach.
“They love this kid,” Smith said.
“Nobody else is on him like that,” Kingsbury responded.
And as the weeks passed, and Mahomes’s last season at Tech came and went, and that grade came back, that really didn’t change. The Chiefs were all over him. Few others were.
“I just think there was a lot of bias at that point—the spread offense, the Air-Raid, Texas Tech, all these things,” Kingsbury said. “He didn’t have a winning record in college because we didn’t play good defense. We led the country in scoring with him at Tech, and in yards, third downs and all these categories. And I just think people couldn’t get past that bias.”
So if it wasn’t the funky mechanics, it was the supposedly non-translatable offense. If it wasn’t the hair-on-fire, outside-of-structure style of play, it was the lack of history of any quarterbacks from Tech, Kingsbury included, making it in the pros.
And what Kingsbury told teams wasn’t enough to overcome all that.
“That was interesting. People that I’ve known in the profession forever, I’d tell them, I’ve been around Tom Brady, I’ve seen it at the highest level, and this kid, he does stuff that nobody has ever done,” said Kingsbury, once a teammate of Brady’s in New England. “Nobody comes close. But I could tell the Chiefs were the ones that kind of got it. I remember talking to Andy, and I just said, ‘Listen, I don’t know much about football, but I know about quarterbacks, and I’ve never seen anything like this.’
“If you’re gonna miss on a first-rounder, this kid has a chance to be all-time.”
There are, of course, lessons in here for NFL teams, and Kingsbury having learned them helped lead him to the quarterback he has in Arizona now. He’d trusted that Murray’s otherworldly playmaking ability would be there in the NFL, like it had been in college. So he advocated for him, and the Cardinals got him last April.
“I just think if you have that ability—and I’ve been very fortunate to be around some of these guys, that extend plays and make plays like nobody else—if they can do that, it may not look the same as being on time and things of that nature,” Kingsbury said. “But if it’s effective, there’s a good chance it’s gonna be effective at the next level.”
Kingsbury saw proof of that when he went to Miami for the Super Bowl, fulfilling a promise to Mahomes to be there with him if the quarterback ever made it that far.
Kingsbury sat in the stands with Mahomes’s high school coach, Adam Cook, nervous for his old quarterback. Cook, Kingsbury said, was considerably calmer—and confident that, even as Mahomes got knocked around by a fierce Niners rush, he’d find a way in the end. We know now, after an electric fourth quarter, that Cook was right.
And that both were right about the kid who took a little bit of a different road to get to the pinnacle of the sport than most of the greats do, getting there quicker than even Kingsbury thought he would.
“I mean, I felt really, really good about him being an All-Pro, a franchise guy, highest-paid quarterback of all-time,” Kingsbury said. “I didn’t know it would happen this quickly. I thought there’d be a little more ball security issues, because he does take chances and he does push the ball down the field. But they did such a good job, Andy’s done such a good job building it around him, that it’s just taken off quicker than anybody would’ve imagined.”
And because it has, especially this week, maybe there are a few more guys who are looking at the quarterback position a little differently than they used to.
The NFL’s tag window opened Thursday. So here are five guys who, in my opinion will be the best to get to the market without being tagged.
1) Tom Brady, QB, Patriots: He can’t be tagged, and he’s the greatest of all-time.
2) Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Seahawks: Clowney can’t be tagged either and it’s rare pass-rushers of his ilk make it to free agency.
3) Amari Cooper, WR, Cowboys: The Cowboys will have to use the tag on Dak Prescott if they can’t get a deal done by March 12, which would give Cooper open road to the market.
4) Byron Jones, CB, Cowboys: He won’t be tagged, and given the leverage Cooper and Prescott have in their negotiations, it’s hard to see Dallas matching what Jones will command out on the market.
5) Jack Conklin, OT, Titans: With the Redskins’ Brandon Scherff likely being tagged, Conklin becomes the best lineman on the market. And while I considered slotting A.J. Green here, linemen that make it to free agency always get paid.
THE BIG QUESTION
Will the CBA get done?
We’ve covered this pretty extensively over the last couple weeks. And we’re entering a critical time. The NFLPA will be electing a new president in two weeks, and that creates a real deadline for everyone—because if they get there without a ratified deal, they’ll be picking a new leader with the chance of a 2021 lockout in mind.
At this point, avoiding that, I believe, will be about fence-mending. Certain players are irate over how some of the framework of negotiations from the summer changed over the course of the season. Others aren’t happy that the 17-game schedule has become a fait accompli. I don’t know exactly what’ll fix that, but I do know that trying to hustle a new CBA through won’t do it.
So this is where executive director DeMaurice Smith’s leadership has to come it. Based on what Smith said Thursday, he knows it.
“Why would I ever be in a world where I would look at them voicing that in a negative way?” he told reporters. “I get that Aaron [Rodgers] is passionate and he expressed his opinion, other players have come out and are passionately expressing their opinion, it’s fine. I would much prefer that than for anybody to think they didn’t have a voice.”
The next step, for the union’s senior staff, should be to work on educating all of those guys, as thoroughly as they can, on why the deal they brokered was the right one. And if the players still think it isn’t, then they should vote no.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
That last year’s tag-and-trades involving Frank Clark and Dee Ford could have a serious effect on how teams use the franchise tag over the next two weeks.
In the past, the Seahawks and Chiefs might’ve approached those situations by conceding the price was too high, before letting them go to free agency with hopes that a comp pick would come back a year later. Now? Well, last year proved that teams are more willing to fork over a pick or picks and a massive contract to get a difference-maker. What’s more, it worked. Both the Chiefs (who dealt for Clark) and Niners (who got Ford) made it to the Super Bowl.
That’s why, outside of Clowney, I think there’s a chance every other high-end pass-rusher on an expiring deal—Matthew Judon, Shaq Barrett, Arik Armstead and Yannick Ngaukoe—gets tagged over the next two weeks. And why I think that will not mean that those guys are off the market altogether for other teams.
THE FINAL WORD
The NFL really needs to keep the combine in Indianapolis. This is the best place for it.
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