KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The regression was almost inevitable after Patrick Mahomes put up record-setting numbers during his first season as the Kansas City Chiefs' starting quarterback, highlighted by nearly 5,100 yards passing and 50 touchdown throws.
At least, a regression in raw statistics.
Much to the chagrin of fantasy football fans, though, games are not won and lost purely on numbers. And there are plenty of reasons to believe that Mahomes has actually progressed since his second year in the league, and taken an especially big jump since last season, when he merely led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl championship in five decades.
He's making better decisions, throwing just one interception through their first six games. He is trusting his instincts rather than his arm, running for a bunch of first downs when his wide receivers are covered. And he's shown the maturity needed to check down to secondary targets when the big, downfield throws to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce that had been the early hallmark of his career are taken away by defenses playing well off the line of scrimmage.
“You look at the quarterback rating and that, it's always high for him. He's doing a great job there,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said this week, "and I'm really proud of the progress he's made in so many areas. I don't think he worries about all that. He is OK if the run game works. I'm sure he'll end up with numbers — that takes place — and it helps us win games.
“I would just tell you he just keeps doing what he's doing, he'll be fine. He has a great attitude about it.”
That was never more evident than last Monday night in Buffalo, when the Chiefs ran the ball 46 times, the most since Reid arrived in Kansas City prior to the 2013 season. Naturally, that limited Mahomes to just 26 pass attempts and 225 yards, yet he was perhaps the most ebullient player in the locker room when the Chiefs finished off their 26-17 victory.
“It seems like every year we're getting a new scheme or a new way defenses are going about playing us,” Mahomes said. “I think for us, it's about being patient. Be patient with the run game. Be patient with the short pass game. If we do these 10- or 12-play drives and we're still scoring touchdowns, that's OK with us.”
Indeed, one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL has at times looked like a modern version of 3 yards-and-a-cloud of dust. The run game has been complemented by screen passes and underneath routes that have taken advantage of defenses that are unwilling to allow Mahomes and his vast array of pass-catchers to beat them deep.
The Chiefs have just one touchdown of at least 50 yards through six games this season; they had six on offense last season, when Mahomes also finished with 11 touchdown passes of at least 40 yards.
“It kind of goes in different phases,” Mahomes explained. “At the beginning of my career there was a lot of zone coverage, then it became a lot of pressure to get the ball out of my hands and see if I could get it off. Then last year, it was a lot of press-man coverage. This year it's a lot of deeper zone. But our team does a great job making adjustments.”
Or rather, Mahomes does a great job of making adjustments. That may be the biggest area of his progress — his ability to read defenses, change plays on the fly and eventually find a soft spot in a defense.
“The definition of a great quarterback to me — one of the definitions — is that there's no way to play them,” said Broncos coach Vic Fangio, who nevertheless gets the unenviable task Sunday. “You can't go pressure-heavy. You can't just void yourself of pressure. You can't play all man. You can't play all zone. You've got to mix it up because the great quarterbacks are too good, and this quarterback is definitely great.”
NOTES: DE Alex Okafor (hamstring), RT Mitch Schwartz (back), WR Sammy Watkins (hamstring) and DT Taco Charlton (knee) remained out of practice Thursday. ... RB Le'Veon Bell practiced for the second time and should be available for the Broncos. "He's had an opportunity to sit in on some zoom meetings (while going through COVID-19 testing)," Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “Le'Veon is a sharp kid. He picks up football well. The thing we don't want to do is overwhelm him. We want to play it out and see what he can adapt to and fit in with.”
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