After sitting behind Alex Smith until week 17 of his rookie year, Patrick Mahomes became the Chiefs full time starter in week 1 of the 2018 season. What Mahomes did in 2018 was unprecedented for a young quarterback (or any quarterback). After recently going back and analysing his game at Texas Tech, this article will look at how he was able to improve his performance so rapidly, Andy Reid and the rest of the Chiefs’ offensive coaching staff’s role in his improvement, and the lessons that can be learned when it comes to evaluating future quarterbacks.
If you haven’t already, make sure to read my retrospective draft profile on Mahomes-https://profootballmag.com/nfl-draft/patrick-mahomes-retrospective-film-breakdown/
Games watched- 2018 season
Where Mahomes improved
Structure to his creativity
Mahomes’ creativity and natural feel for the game was apparent at Texas Tech but more often than not it didn’t translate to success as it either wasn’t necessary or there wasn’t any purpose to it. With the Chiefs, however, his creativity became structured and purposeful. This allowed him to execute the Chiefs scheme in a way Alex Smith, or really any other quarterback could.
It would have been easy for a coach to try and remove his creativity and execute his system the way most quarterbacks would, but Reid recognised the potential value of Mahomes’ creativity, while also recognising that it would have to become more structured in the NFL.
This was mostly evident in his numerous examples of elite level eye manipulation very early on his career. This is very rare for a second year quarterback, and even the best quarterbacks in the NFL struggle to manipulate defenders as well as Mahomes can.
Something that Reid did well was allow Mahomes to hold onto the ball longer on RPO’s. In order to give Mahomes more time he usually had at least one of the backside offensive linemen lock on his defender. This more often than not forced Mahomes to throw from awkward angles and platforms, but this is clearly something Mahomes excelled at. By holding onto the ball longer, the defense usually flowed more than they usually would in the direction of the run, opening up more space for receivers like Tyreek Hill. A lot of Mahomes’ production came on these RPO’s.
Another benefit of this that I noticed is that the defenders on the backside of runs sometimes played very conservatively in anticipation of a throw. This sometimes allowed the Chiefs to outnumber the defense on the frontside of runs.
The Chiefs used a lot of RPO’s, but this was the only real carry over between their offense and the one Mahomes played with at Texas Tech.
More decisive from the pocket
One of the things that surprised me when I watched Mahomes at Texas Tech was that he was relatively conservative from the pocket, which often lead to him backing out of throws at the last second. There were still a few examples of Mahomes backing out of throws but for the most part he was more confident and decisive in his reads.
Likely the main reason for this is that his progressions were a lot more defined with the Chiefs than with Texas Tech and he knew where he wanted to go with the ball. As mentioned above, Mahomes consistently showed great eye manipulation, which I believe shows a concrete understanding of the plays that the Chiefs are running as you have to know where the receiver you’re throwing to is going to be and when he will get there.
Consistent footwork and mechanics
Mahomes’ inconsistent footwork and mechanics were one of the biggest concerns that draft analysts had when Mahomes was coming out. However, he was much more consistent with the Chiefs in these areas. Likely the main reason for this is that he was more comfortable playing from within the pocket and also Reid’s scheme placed a heavier emphasis on timing than Kingsbury’s.
This improvement improved his accuracy a lot and also his timing. As a result, there were a lot more examples of ‘rhythm throws’, which are simply when the quarterback throws the ball right after completing his drop. As most NFL concepts require precise timing, quarterbacks need their drops to be consistent in duration as otherwise they’ll likely be late on the throw (or sometimes early).
Better decision making
Mahomes still made a ton of spectacular plays in 2018 but the terrible decisions that were too prevalent on his college film were for the most part non-existent. This lead to him having a good bit more throwaways but some times an incompletion is the best possible result on a play.
Being able to make explosive plays as much as Mahomes was able to in 2018, while making very few bad decisions is something that the game had never seen before. I think part of the reason for this reduction in bad decisions, and thus turnover worthy plays, is that there was less pressure on him to make plays with the Chiefs than there was with Texas Tech as pretty much all of their success revolved around him, while he could rely on his receivers more with the Chiefs to make plays.
Areas that are still a concern
An area of weakness that I brought up in his draft profile was that he struggled to recognise heavy blitzes from the defense. Bill Belichick and the Patriots clearly noticed this as they brought a lot of cover 0 blitzes in their week six matchup, while also bluffing a good few too. A cover 0 blitz is when the defense rushes one more defender than the offense can block. This makes the quarterback ‘hot’ and thus has to get the ball out quickly. Because of this, recognition of the blitz pre-snap is critical as usually it’s the difference between a sack and potentially a big play.
Not taking the check down
This was a big problem I noticed that he had in college and for the most part he didn’t improve at it as more often than not he would look to scramble rather than throwing the check down. Checkdowns are a big part of west coast offenses, so I have no doubt that it was a point of emphasis for Andy Reid, who is predominantly a west coast coach. This is certainly not to say that he should focus on throwing to his checkdown but he would be more efficient if he availed of it after completing his progression, and really it should be treated as part of the progression.
It didn’t result in as much negative plays as it did at Texas Tech as he made smarter decisions outside of the pocket but it did result in more sacks than he should have taken as it’s harder to evade NFL defensive linemen than big 12 ones.
Lessons that can be learned to improve quarterback evaluation
The best way to learn anything will always be through trial and error. Mahomes having success in the NFL was definitely an error on the part of traditional draft scouts and analysts who didn’t think Mahomes’ skillset would be conducive to success in the NFL .
Mahomes’ success, in my opinion, has (or at least should) fundamentally changed the way future quarterbacks will be evaluated. Rather than looking for prototypical size, arm strength, footwork, and mechanics, evaluators will (or should) look for things like understanding of the game and creativity as these things translate to what I consider key traits for a quarterback: anticipation, understanding of ball placement, playmaking, eye manipulation and processing. While the traits I mentioned above only matter when it comes to quarterbacks ‘passing the eye test’.
In my opinion, the main reason Mahomes’ skillset was under appreciated by a lot of draft scouts and analysts was that they did not understand the scheme he was asked to execute at Texas Tech. As I discussed earlier, Mahomes wasn’t asked to have consistent footwork and timing as the offense was not built around this, and thus this concern was greatly overblown. If Mahomes had played in a west coast or ‘pro style offense’ and had had the same issues with footwork and timing then it would have rightfully been a major concern as his coaches would have emphasized it.
For next year’s quarterback class PFM will have in-depth schematic breakdowns of the offense’s that the top tier quarterbacks play in. This will hopefully help you understand what the quarterback you’re evaluating was asked to do, and thus you can better tell whether he executed what he was asked to do and adjust the importance you place on different traits.
Another criticism I see too often of air raid quarterbacks is that they stare down their receivers. While I don’t think air raid quarterbacks I’ve analyzed (Love, Gordon, Mahomes) have done this often, they should be excused for doing so as their intended receivers usually have route adjustments and different areas to sit down in, and thus they need to be reading him.
An area where quarterbacks that play in an air raid scheme need to excel at is processing all of the route adjustments and how they relate to the coverage. This is why Mike Leach once said that his quarterbacks need to be able to see the forest through the trees. I feel that it’s much harder to learn to be able to process the field accurately and quickly than it is to learn how to have consistent and effective footwork and mechanics. Thus, when you’re evaluating a quarterback you should place greater emphasis on the traits that are harder to learn, as, as Mahomes has shown, you can learn footwork and mechanics. While, there have been technically sound quarterbacks that have struggled to learn the more natural aspects of playing quarterback.
When it comes to the quarterbacks recently drafted I think Anthony Gordon, Joe Burrow, and Tua Tagovailoa are the best in the traits I mentioned above. While, Justin Herbert was the only quarterback that I feel was drafted too high based on ‘looking the part’. Their upcoming seasons in the NFL will provide some more valuable insights on how to best evaluate quarterbacks.