Patrick Mahomes and the Misunderstanding of Data

Patrick Mahomes is the best, and everyone knows it. No grades can change that.
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Kansas City Chiefs fans on Twitter will not stand to hear anything even vaguely adjacent to being critical of Patrick Mahomes. For the first half of the year, Pro Football Focus had the nerve to suggest that Mahomes wasn’t the top quarterback in the league through the lens of their snap-by-snap grading system. Their system does not claim to name the most talented or even the best players. PFF grades performance, not talent.

Getting straight A's doesn’t mean you’re the smartest kid, and there are plenty of geniuses who flunked out of school. Chiefs fans have spent the season angry at PFF for giving Mahomes straight A-minuses. 

It's worth noting, after last week's bombs-away performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mahomes has vaulted up to second on PFF's season grades, just trailing Aaron Rodgers' 93.1 at 92.0.

PFF supplies their grading as a tool to build a more complete understanding of the game. They aren’t infallible, but they’re far more useful than the box score. The pushback against their system has amounted a regressive football-guy nonsense response about computer nerds knowing nothing about what it’s like to line up on the gridiron and play smashmouth football or whatever.

Now, granted, Chiefs Twitter is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. As loud and angry and endless as Twitter feels, the darkest parts of the vitriolic black hole probably accounts for less than 1% of the world’s population. And the Chiefs-specific section makes up like .001% of that 1%. Yet, here I am, talking about it and feeding into it. We all have our vices.

Patrick Mahomes really, really doesn’t need Chiefs Twitter to defend him. Everyone knows he’s the best. It’s inherent. PFF knows he’s the best, and they say as much regularly.

Even professional trolls like Skip Bayless know he’s the best. Bayless’ entire persona requires contrarianism to survive. If he’s not smacking the table and shouting purposeful nonsense at Shannon Sharpe, he has zero value as a TV persona. But the further Mahomes cements his status as the most talented football player we’ve ever seen, the more difficult it has become for him to find anything with which to build a contrarian argument.

On Tuesday, he argued Mahomes’ 75-yard rocket-launch of a touchdown throw to Tyreek Hill against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was not only unimpressive, but was a “bad throw” because Hill had to come back to it. He knows the ball traveled 60+ yards in the air, and he knows Mahomes is one of only two or three quarterbacks in the entire league who could make that throw. He also knows the second and third Mahomes-to-Hill touchdown passes against the Bucs were absolute dimes. But he has to grasp at straws, because he’s paid to be the villain.

You can even see it at the very end of the segment. When Sharpe calls him out for his standards of greatness shifting around depending on the player being discussed, Bayless just sits there and smirks. But it doesn’t come off as arrogant; it looks like someone breaking character at the sheer lunacy he’s been performing for years now. He can’t keep up with his own unintelligible leaps of logic.

In some small way, Mahomes has broken this machine. Sports talk has thrived for decades on pro wrestling-style babyfaces and heels cutting promos on each other. Analysts deliver deliberately bad takes for the sake of drawing an audience to hate-listen/watch. Now they’re watching Mahomes and there’s nothing they can conjure up to build a believable bad take with. Fortunately for them, there are still 31 other NFL teams to talk about.

The one thing they can build the ricketiest of arguments with, though, are those advanced statistics.

Any time PFF (or any advanced stat, like ESPN’s QBR) grades Mahomes out lower than his opponent in a victory, it gives a hot take maestro ammunition to troll and needle with opinions they know are false. You'll routinely see the Baylesses of the sports talk world point out that, say, Derek Carr had a higher QBR than Mahomes in the Raiders' Week 11 loss to the Chiefs.

This, of course, comes from a willful misunderstanding of what those advanced statistics represent. But I think, ultimately, it’s the misuse of those stats by talking head personalities that result in nearly every tweet by PFF or one of their analysts being flooded with troll-replies by Chiefs fans.

This is the double-edged sword of relying so much on putting athletes' performances in easy-to-digest rankable formats with numbers, letter grades, color-coded tiers, or all three. People see that, and they see the same scale of judgment they've seen since kindergarten. They don't see what the numbers mean, they'll only see a ranking from best to worst.

Mahomes is the smartest kid in school. Everyone knows it. You do, I do, the teachers and administration do. But sometimes the smartest kid in school just fills in enough right answers on the test to maintain their GPA and then goofs off for the rest of class. That’s been the Chiefs’ offense for stretches of 2020. So when the grades come back a lot of A-minuses and B-pluses when you know they’re capable of 101% with extra credit, it’s not the fault of the grader.