Patrick Mahomes and the new normal of crazy quarterback stats

FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 14: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on before a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 14: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on before a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Lots of ink has been spilled about Patrick Mahomes’ MVP season and how he’s unlikely to put up the same numbers, but there’s every reason to believe he can.

Not everyone can be an early adopter.

It makes sense to see the sorts of columns sprouting up this NFL offseason in reflection on Patrick Mahomes and his success in his first year as a starter for the Kansas City Chiefs. If I wasn’t tasked with specifically writing about the team, I might even pen one myself.

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The columns to which I’m referring are the naysaying ones found here and here and here and, oh yeah, here. They are the ones putting the terms “Mahomes” and “decline” together. The expectation, according to each of these analysts, is that Mahomes simply must regress after putting up historic numbers last season. 50 touchdowns. 5,000 passing yards. Regression is simply normal after such an incredible year.

In fact, I’m probably being inaccurate by calling them naysayers. NFL history simply shows that Mahomes isn’t expected to be Mahomes every single season. There are two members of that 50/5,000 club and it’s not as if the other one—Peyton Manning—was a regular visitor through those 50/5,000 doors. In fact, he only arrived once, remarkably late in his career at the age of 37—a full 14 years after Mahomes.

If Manning did it once and never again, then it’s easy to project the same on Mahomes. Hats off to him for a wonderful season, they write. He completely deserved that MVP, they say. He’s likely to earn another MVP at some point even with lesser stats, they proclaim. Just don’t expect him to mimic that performance anytime soon, they predict.

Reasons for Disbelief

The writers of these columns have a lot of good reasons not to believe, and the list begins with 99 years of NFL history (if you take it back to the APFA days). Even after watching Mahomes, very few (again, the early/late adopter thing) people are actually ready to christen Mahomes as a wunderkind. He’s the next great quarterback, yes, but that means there are those who’ve gone before him and who will come after him. He is part of a lineage and no one in the lineage has done this before.

In fact, Mahomes still has peers according to many NFL analysts. Talking heads want to bang the drum for comparisons, as if Mahomes and Deshaun Watson will forever be linked in a “QB vs. QB” matchup—as if that hasn’t already been settled. Others will pit Mahomes vs. Mayfield or Mahomes vs. Goff or they’ll put together the trio of Watson, Mahomes and Mitchell Trubisky, all from the ’17 draft class. They’ll do anything to normalize him, to tether him to something understandable.

Even if we can get beyond NFL history, the Chiefs are unlikely to put up those kind of numbers again. After all, it was his first season. Wait until opposing defenses have a full offseason to study tape on Mahomes and what Andy Reid does with him. The expectation here is that Mahomes came in and surprised everyone like Stone Cold Steve Austin unexpectedly running into the ring and beating everyone up. “You can’t do that twice. We know your entrance theme and we’ll see you coming next time.”

Other columns will question the Chiefs themselves. Tyreek Hill might not play. Sammy Watkins might not be healthy. Travis Kelce might hit the wall as he nears 30-years-old. The running game will be less effective without Kareem Hunt. Mecole Hardman is only a rookie. The team will miss Chris Conley more than expected. (I made that last one up. No one has written those words.) All of those could be true. Anything is possible in the NFL.

The Flip Side

But what about the flip side to all of this? Each of these points is circumstantial and easily turned to make the case in the other direction.

The idea that Mahomes’ surprised the league is actually quite silly when you consider the opposite: Mahomes is just getting started. He had a single late-season start under his belt before he kicked the NFL’s ass over a full 16-game schedule. Mahomes has now faced every divisional opponent twice, learned hard lessons in primetime, had a full year’s worth of experience as the starter in Andy Reid’s offense, and has witnessed desperate men try anything and everything to stop him.

Nothing worked then. Why would it work now?

Mahomes is wiser. Mahomes is stronger. Mahomes will process information quicker. Mahomes will make better adjustments. Mahomes will more easily deceive his enemy. Peyton Manning entered the 50/5,000 club so late in his career because he had an entire career’s worth of experience that told him where and when to throw (or not throw) the ball. His intelligence was so off the charts that it was almost impossible to stop him. He was the most studious quarterback in NFL history and a man who was always smarter than the enemy, no matter the opponent.

That entire side of the game is learned. It’s mental and it only comes with experience. Mahomes joined the 50/5,000 on talent and moxie. Give him enough time and he’ll likely walk back through those doors—and he’ll do so on multiple occasions.

As to the idea that the Chiefs offense has so many question marks, the reality is that those scripts can also be flipped. Tyreek Hill might not miss any time at all—or it could be a limited suspension of some time. All of this is unknown but at some point, this offense can and likely will feature Hill, Kelce, Hardman, Watkins lined up wide with Damien Williams and Carlos Hyde along with a couple younger exciting prospects in the backfield. If Hardman is the sort of weapon that Brett Veach says he is, this offense added an indefensible wrinkle to an already potent core.

Here’s what’s important about the trio already in place: last season was their first with Mahomes under center as well. Each of them were forced to learn tough lessons about Mahomes’ style—namely that the play is never, ever dead. It’s different catching passes from Mahomes than it is from Alex Smith, and you’d better believe year two will featured better chemistry than year one. In their first year, Hill and Kelce set records. Why can’t they top those already impressive numbers?

By the way, the Chiefs already went through some offensive frustrations even with Mahomes under center. They dropped Kareem Hunt with five games to go. Sammy Watkins missed the second half of the season. It’s not as if Mahomes played with a full deck for all 16 games. He pushed through despite losing some of his top targets.

The bottom line

NFL history tells us that Mahomes had a hiccup of a season. That doesn’t deny his greatness, but it does deny his greatness-over-others. This is where, I think, the rest of the NFL is wrong. Mahomes shouldn’t be linked with his peers because he doesn’t have any. He could equal 50 touchdowns in this season or any other because tossing 3 touchdowns per start is likely going to be par for the course for him moving forward.

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It took the smartest kid in the Hall an entire career’s worth of hard work and film study to put together the first-ever 50/5,000 season. It took career starts 2 through 17 for the next kid to do it. The difference between the two is a head-shaking amount of God-given talent that the Chiefs were smart enough to trade up for. Ten years from now, 50/5,000 will be normal—at least for the one who was never normal all along.