What if Patrick Mahomes would have been the Kansas City Chiefs' starting quarterback during his rookie season? With Alex Smith at the helm of the 2017 Chiefs, with Mahomes sitting on the bench, the Chiefs went 9-6 (with a Week 17 victory led by Mahomes) before losing to the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the playoffs. In 2018, Mahomes took over and became the NFL's MVP.
But how seriously did the Chiefs consider moving Mahomes into the starting role as a rookie? According to Louis Riddick of ESPN, closer than most knew.
Riddick joined Pablo Torre on the ESPN Daily podcast to discuss how the Chicago Bears will handle their dynamic rookie quarterback, Justin Fields. With Bears head coach Matt Nagy under the spotlight in Chicago, the connection to the Chiefs' choices with Mahomes are clear, as Nagy was KC's offensive coordinator in 2017.
Torre noted that Riddick and Nagy "go back" after working together in Philadelphia, where Riddick worked from 2008-13 and where Nagy worked from 2008-12, while Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was at the helm in Philadelphia as head coach from 1999-2012.
Riddick acknowledged that he and Nagy remain close and Torre asked Riddick how much Fields will play in 2021 with Andy Dalton ahead of him on the depth chart. Riddick explained his assumption about how the season will pan out for Chicago, then drew a parallel to Mahomes's start in Kansas City.
"[Nagy]'s been through this before, although the situation was different in Kansas City with Patrick and Alex Smith, and I'm telling you this: when he watches Justin, do you think for a minute he's not sitting there going, 'Damn, I just wanna put him in there and let him—' of course he is," Riddick said. "He wants to see him as much as all of us do!"
"But he knows he's got a bigger responsibility than that," Riddick continued. "But I'll just say this too: there was a point in time, early in Patrick's rookie year — they thought about putting him in there. 'Should we just go ahead and put him in there?'"
"Just bench Alex Smith because Mahomes is just this sort of dual-threat good," Torre interjected.
"Exactly," Riddick said. "Because he was doing stuff from out the gate that they were looking at each other like, 'Oh my god.' I know that for a fact. I know! I know, and they had to sit on their hands because they were still winning, Alex was having a career year, but they also knew, 'Man, this 15, boy, woo, my god!' And they had to forcibly keep themselves from putting him in the game."
Would Mahomes have been the instant-MVP he became in 2018 if his career had started early in his rookie year, as Riddick said the Chiefs considered? It's hard to know. But considering his Week 17 performance with second-stringers in a victory over the Denver Broncos and how his 2018 campaign went, it's tough not to wonder how Mahomes would have fared. Conversely, Mahomes has frequently praised Smith for his mentorship as Mahomes sat for his rookie year.
With Smith, the Chiefs started 5-0 before losing back-to-back games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. They then beat the Broncos before losing four in a row, creating a 1-6 midseason stretch that largely took them out of contention for a first-round bye and set them up for their eventual first-round exit.