In Part I, we explored how Patrick Mahomes’ imagination helped him succeed in his 2018 MVP campaign. Now, we look at how knowledge took his game to another level in 2019.
Part II: Knowledge
Facing 3rd-and-15, down 20-10 with just seven minutes to go in Super Bowl LIV, Patrick Mahomes called his shot. It was posed as a question — even in the tensest moment of his life, the 24-year old quarterback managed to feign deference to his 50-year old offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and 61-year old head coach, Andy Reid — but there was no questioning Mahomes’ call.
“You like Wasp?” Bieniemy asks. “What down and distance do you like it?”
“Any down and distance, I don’t care.”
How did a 24-year-old quarterback who, by his own admission, couldn’t read NFL defenses a year and a half earlier, have the confidence to call the biggest play of the Super Bowl?
Patrick Mahomes set the NFL on fire in his first month as a starting quarterback. He started and won his first five games; in the first four, he passed for 1,200 yards and threw 14 touchdown passes and rushed for another, without throwing a single interception. In Week 5, facing the vaunted Jacksonville Jaguars defense, he threw his first two interceptions of the year, but largely dominated in a game the Chiefs would win 30-14. Then the Chiefs, 5-0, traveled to Foxborough, Massachusetts, to face the New England Patriots.
The Patriots, coming off a Thursday Night Football win over the Colts, had 10 days to prepare for “Showtime,” the NFL’s newest sensation. For the not-insignificant number of football fans rooting for Mahomes to fall — remember, there were still plenty of people comparing him to Robert Griffin III at this point — this game was the game. “Just wait until they have tape on him!” they shouted. And in the first quarter, vindication:
New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower hovered behind the line of scrimmage just long enough to evade Mahomes’ eyes sweeping the field, then slid back into his throwing lane to Travis Kelce.
It had been the very first play of the drive — 1st-and-10 from the KC 23. A play later, the Patriots had a touchdown.
Then, again on 1st-and-10 with 17 seconds left in the first half at the Patriots’ 15-yard line — already in field goal range and with a timeout available — Mahomes threw his second interception. This time, Mahomes’ imagination got the better of him. Correctly seeing pressure and stepping up and out of the pocket, Mahomes tried to remake his iconic scrambling touchdown against the 49ers a few weeks’ prior:
Unfortunately, the Patriots’ coverage, unlike the 49ers’, was airtight. Mahomes’ pass to Travis Kelce, double covered by Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, was intercepted.
Each of these two interceptions was of a different character. On the first, Mahomes was fooled; on the second, he was the fool — but they fit into a larger pattern. Through the end of the 2018 season, including the playoffs, Mahomes had thrown 13 career interceptions. Of those 13, eight (61.5%) came on first down.
An interception is never good, but interceptions on first down are particularly un-good. On first down, even taking a sack is infinitely better than throwing the ball to the other team. It’s better to live to fight from 2nd-and-18 than to give up the football. Mahomes’ second interception against New England was inexcusable. Already in field goal range, with a timeout available, his ill-advised throw cost the Chiefs at least three points in a game they lost 43-40.
After Mahomes threw three interceptions and fumbled twice in another three-point loss to the Los Angeles Rams in November, though, his head coach was unconcerned.
“The one thing about Pat is he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. ...I want him to keep firing. Learn from his mistakes but keep firing.”
Knowledge: the facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education. Patrick Mahomes learned from his mistakes, and he kept firing.
While Mahomes’ statistical production took a step back in 2019, thanks in part to injuries to himself and key players such as Tyreek Hill, Eric Fisher, and Sammy Watkins, the evidence that he learned from his 2018 mistakes is clear as day. After throwing nine interceptions on first down in 2018 (including one in his NFL debut the previous year), 13 total, he threw just one in the 2019 season (seven total). And that one interception on first down?
That’s right — his only interception on first down in the 2019 season was on a play where Mahomes correctly believed he had a free play — until the refs decided that because they botched the call so badly initially, they couldn’t pick up the flag.
Mahomes’ improvement on first down isn’t limited to ball security, though:
Mahomes bettered his completion percentage, interception rate, sack rate, and passer rating. His yards per attempt dipped slightly, almost imperceptibly, but he was unmistakably a better quarterback on first down in 2019 than he was in 2018.
When he called for Wasp in the biggest game of his life, he knew it would work. He knew it would work because it had worked before, against perhaps the greatest defensive coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick. In the first half of the 2018 AFC Championship Game, Mahomes hooked up with Hill on Wasp for 42 yards, moving the ball from his own 35-yard line to the New England 23. Mahomes later took a sack on 3rd-and-9, the Chiefs went scoreless in the first half and lost the game in overtime without touching the ball. But Wasp worked, and Mahomes learned.
At the conclusion of his first OTAs as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, Mahomes reflected on what he had learned:
"This playbook is very complex — it’s something that you have to work on every single year. You look at the guys that are veterans in this league and they’re still trying to learn more. So as a quarterback and as a football player you want to learn more every single year, so I feel like I’ll never necessarily be a master of the playbook but I’ll try to get better and learn more and more about football every single year."
Less than two years later, Mahomes was calling for 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp Y-Funnel facing 3rd-and-15 down 10 with seven minutes left in the Super Bowl. He still may not have Andy Reid’s playbook mastered, but he is, indeed, learning more and more about football every single year. As his knowledge grows, he will only get better.
Be sure to check out Austin and Taylor on It’s Always Sunny in Kingdom, Arrowhead Report’s weekly Chiefs podcast! This week, we debate: Patrick Mahomes, or create-a-QB using every other NFL QB’s best traits?