Patrick Mahomes survived the first slump of his career last season. Now, he and the Chiefs are trying to reinvent their offense while the rest of the AFC West is racing to catch up.
Patrick Mahomes’s football problems are typically good problems to have. We were talking on a rainy training camp day last week about the worst stretch of his career—the first 10 weeks of last season and how it changed him. “My whole career up until that point, we had a ton of specialty plays called, and that guy was usually wide open,” he said. “I was making those throws. Well, defenses were saying [last year], ‘We’ll let you take that 15-yard completion all day long.’ And I wasn’t doing that.”
There’s an old saying that you can judge a player by his slumps. (I just made that up but it seems right.) And Mahomes, in his worst statistical season as a professional starting quarterback, still had a higher quarterback rating than Tom Brady’s career rating. His interception percentage last year—2 percent—would, if he maintained that pace his whole career, be the ninth-best percentage in history. (He’s tied for second all time in the stat, by the way.) “If it was a slump,” said Andy Reid, who clarified that’s a big if, “it was a good slump.”
Slump is probably not exactly the word for the best in the game spending a month or two playing like the fourth or fifth best in the game, but the fact is that Mahomes had his weirdest and most unpredictable season as a pro last year and it ended with, by far, his most uncharacteristic playoff performance, throwing for just 275 yards and two devastating interceptions in a 27-24 overtime loss to the Bengals. Unlike his previous playoff losses, this one wasn’t to Brady and, unlike that Super Bowl, his team didn’t have an obvious flaw, such as the offensive line injuries against Tampa Bay. After taking a 21-3 lead against the Bengals last January, and looking like they’d cruise to a third consecutive Super Bowl, things went sideways. The Chiefs scored just three points after halftime, and Mahomes threw two interceptions. Nearly two months later, the Chiefs dealt one of their most important pieces of the Mahomes era.
In March, the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins, and the offense will have to change because of that. In place of Hill will be former Packers wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling, former Steelers pass catcher JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Skyy Moore. None of them will be a one-to-one replacement for Hill—the Chiefs won’t try to replace Hill’s unique skill set exactly—but Mahomes’s and Reid’s ability to problem-solve will be as important as it’s been in the past four years. If Mahomes was “figured out” by teams dropping eight into coverage or putting two safeties deeper, then there’s no such thing as figuring Mahomes out. He is still on track to be one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He is locked into a long-term contract that is already starting to look like a bargain. His average annual value is now fourth in the NFL, behind a gentleman who initially had a homework clause in his deal.
But one thing Mahomes is great at is learning lessons and applying them to the next game or the next year. And through the triumvirate of Mahomes’s talent and processing, Andy Reid’s concepts, and general manager Brett Veach’s roster building, the Chiefs fill holes better than any other franchise. So I went to Kansas City wanting to know how the Chiefs turned things around in the middle of last season, how that informed the moves they’ve made this summer, and how Mahomes’s offseason work will shape the 2022 season. I wanted to go inside the Chiefs’ robust self-scouting.
The biggest thing, Mahomes said, was doing a deep dive on his own fundamentals. Studying the way he carried the ball. Ball placement. How to make his throwing base better. “Whenever you get in kind of a slump like that, I guess you would say it’s about, ‘How can I go back and just make it easier?’ This position is already so hard, why make it even harder?” he said. “For me I started being more patient, started taking the underneath stuff, and then started opening it up.”
Mahomes needed, he said, to hold the ball higher so he could get it out faster. He needed to have a better lower-body base when making his second or third read on a play. He said he tended to bring his feet too close together and have long strides while moving, and he worked on getting his feet in the exact right spot while throwing as the play extended. “Once I started doing that, and taking those completions, taking that stuff over the middle, and to the flats, I think it made defenses come up. And that allowed me to take that big shot that we always love doing,” he said. “Getting the ball out faster, making the right decision, not hanging on that one read.”
The heart of the matter last year is that for much of last season, defenses were taking away the deep shot, something Mahomes is better at than all but a handful of quarterbacks in NFL history. In his first three years as a starter, Mahomes was first or tied for first in deep touchdown passes (20-plus yards) each year. Last season, he tied for eighth place with seven, about half of his typical output. Defenses did this by putting a lid on deep passing, dropping two deep safeties, which leaves holes in coverage for shorter passes, or allows for an easier run game, while adding an extra defender on deep passes.
“He was able to see some different coverages a little bit, more zone than what he’s seen in the first few years,” Reid said of Mahomes’s 2021 season. “And so he worked through all that, and now he’s got a whole package of things in his head to counter.” He is, Reid said, “working his tail off.”
“It was variations [of Cover 2] and it was important he saw those and as a professional—they’ll help him down the road. … There’s not a whole lot left people can show you,” he said of NFL defenses.
So, I asked Mahomes, what was the process of helping counter those deep safety looks Reid describes?
“First you watch the tape and figure out what defenses are doing to you, and then you kind of coach up the scout team,” he said. “Tell them, ‘Hey, let’s do this and make me make the right decision. Instead of getting that touchdown that we think we’re gonna get, take that away and make sure I get back down to my read.’”
Mahomes listed off a few games from last November when he was trying to emerge from the first real slump of his career: the Giants, the Packers, and the Cowboys. “We were winning, but I wasn’t playing my best football, and the defense was helping us out,” Mahomes said. “Then I kind of got in that groove again, I’m getting the ball out and stuff started getting better and better.” The groove consisted of five games starting on December 12: Twelve touchdowns, one interception, a 114.5 rating, and a 70.6 percent completion percentage.
“You saw me get the ball out faster,” Mahomes said. “And then once I started to ball fast and people realized I would do that, they came up and I was able to hit some of the deep shots.”
By January, Mahomes was nearly perfect, and he threw for 782 yards, eight touchdowns, and just one interception in playoff wins against Pittsburgh and Buffalo. In that win over the Bills, one of the best quarterback duels of all time, Mahomes didn’t even attempt a pass longer than 20 yards.
What, I asked Reid, did he learn when Mahomes wasn’t throwing the deep ball?
“He can do all that stuff,” Reid said of being able to throw deep or short, in the understatement of the year. “It’s just a matter of seeing it and doing it.”
The separate issue is the AFC title game, in which the Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead to lose to Joe Burrow and the Bengals. What did Mahomes learn from that half? “It’s just that you find a way to succeed. The second half of that game: I don’t want to say we relaxed, but I mean when you lead like you did, you want to make sure you win the game, but you don’t want to play like you’re playing not to lose. And I feel like that’s what we did. As a team, we were playing not to lose, we were playing just to get to the Super Bowl. If you look, they didn’t do much different from the first half to the second half. We just didn’t execute at a high enough level. They were playing the same coverages and we weren’t executing. Then momentum gets in the other team’s favor and when you’re playing a good football team, bad stuff happens.”
There is no way to practice harnessing momentum, of course, but Mahomes has tried a few avenues to make sure the title game does not ever repeat itself. “What I’m working on now is finishing practice,” he said. “If it’s going good or bad, make sure you finish practice the right way. Get every rep out of it and keep pushing guys to do that. … You get to a point where there’s some days when you have these long days or practices that are going well, people relax and you just kinda keep going. Well, I want to make sure that we have that same intensity at the end we do at the beginning. I think that’s something you can work on every single day.”
The night before Veach and I talked, the GM was in a discussion with a handful of coaches about rough spots in a season, and said he talked with a former Patriots assistant—Brendan Daly, now coaching linebackers for the Chiefs—about Bill Belichick’s famous “On to Cincinnati” mantra after a 41-14 loss to Kansas City in 2014 when Tom Brady had two picks in a stunningly ugly loss. The Patriots, of course, won the Super Bowl that season. “The great ones work through it,” Veach said. “No one is immune from having some obstacles, and he went through that. And listen, there’s going to be more obstacles because defenses will always come up with ways to slow them down or stop them, but I think it’s going to get harder and harder as the years go on. Because the one matchup we’ll take every day is Pat’s mind and Coach Reid’s mind versus other teams. And that’s only going to get better and better as the years go on.
“Maybe we had gotten spoiled thinking we would never go through a road bump like that. Reality kicked in from our standpoint and I don’t think it was anything that we learned, because the one thing [Mahomes has] always shown is he’s the ultimate competitor and he’s extremely resilient.”
There is, of course, an AFC personnel arms race that the Chiefs started because, well, everyone’s trying to clear the bar they’ve set. “We are not wired in the sense that ‘we’re all in,’ because we feel like we’re all in every year,” Veach said on the side of a practice field. “And to have an approach as if we’re going to be in this year, but also want to be in in ’23, ’24, ’25, you have to make smart, sound offseason decisions and I think that requires a great deal of discipline in this competitive environment.”
The offense will have to change without Hill, another obstacle for Mahomes. Veach said he wasn’t trying to replace Hill one-for-one via free agency or trade. “Coach does a great job, we’re going to run the same concepts and maybe it was a situation the last three or four years with Tyreek running all of these feature routes. Now it may be a combination of MVS and Mecole [Hardman] might be similar on this route and then we’re going to have JuJu do some of the more inside stuff. The beauty of training camp is to find out these guys’ strengths and weaknesses and for Coach and Pat to work together. … It’ll be a committee deal, but I do think we have talent from top to bottom.” Veach saw replacing Hill as a puzzle because the three-time All-Pro receiver could do so many things. So Valdes-Scantling’s ability to stretch coverages and open up the field for someone like Travis Kelce is important, Veach said, and so too is Smith-Schuster’s physical presence closer to the line of scrimmage.
Still, when I ask rival GMs what they are building toward, it’s usually to compete with the Chiefs. The conference is ludicrously deep, and the AFC West alone added Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, and Khalil Mack in the offseason. Mahomes in our interview said the division will be a “dogfight,” though the division’s depth won’t change his approach. But that’s usually a better question for the general manager. Because he’s spent the past four years trying to maximize Mahomes’s window every year—remaking the offensive line last year, for instance, after the quarterback took too much damage in the Super Bowl—Veach doesn’t think his approach will change even with the additions in his division.
I did ask him, from a team-building standpoint, how the loss to the Bengals (he said there’s still a “sour taste”) informed his offseason. He said it reinforced the idea that there will be teams getting better every year and trying to rise to the Chiefs’ level. The Chiefs’ success in the Mahomes era has left Kansas City picking very late in the draft (if they have first-round picks at all), while dealing with the financial challenges that come after awarding large contracts to star players like Mahomes, Kelce, and defensive lineman Chris Jones.
“Ultimately, or inevitably, the teams around you are gonna get better and better and better,” Veach said. The Chiefs have already seen it happen, and Veach earlier in our conversation mentioned Buffalo specifically as a top competitor. He also brought up the two tough games his team played against the Chargers last year, pointed to the improvements the Raiders and Broncos had made this offseason, and, of course, remembers the Bengals.
“I think we’ve seen that from just a few years ago in ’18, we had some money to spend and we had some picks to utilize, and then all of a sudden, you have a quarterback contract here, and a D-line contract here, and a tight end contract here,” Veach said. “And now all of a sudden other teams have other resources to spend and the league is only going to get tougher, and it’s harder for us to maintain that level of success. So that level of focus has to be there week in and week out. It’s also true that we have a target on our back, as opposed to three, four years ago, when we were chasing teams. They’re coming after us. So just that mindset, it starts from the top down, it starts with Coach and Pat. And they set the tone.”
Veach then brought it back to the Bengals loss: “I think it was certainly a tough lesson last year to never take your eye off the prize and stay locked in for four quarters. Because these teams are all good, they’re all talented, you’re only a bad series or two away from getting bounced in any round in any year.”
That may never be more true this year. Mahomes has never faced a deeper conference or deeper division, but he’s armed with a talented roster and something you can’t overlook: the lessons from a frustrating year.