If you tune in to one of those “hot take” sports shows, you’re likely to see the same two or three questions recycled regarding Patrick Mahomes and his disappointing season thus far: Has the NFL figured out Mahomes? Is Mahomes overrated? Why is he in so many commercials?
To some degree, those kinds of questions and narratives are inevitable. Unfortunately, when a team as dominant as the Chiefs falter, juicy, reductive reports emerge as a way to explain what’s going wrong. It stinks when it’s your team or your favorite player that’s getting that kind of treatment, but again, it’s just how it goes when a superstar athlete struggles.
Saying “Mahomes has struggled because he is in too many commercials” is an arrogant, unhelpful way to approach a discussion about Mahomes’ season. Those “hot takes” feed on our craving for certainty in the face of ambiguity. An honest discussion about Mahomes’ play will involve a lot more subtlety and nuance than that.
An honest discussion about Patrick Mahomes’ play will involve a lot more subtlety and nuance than what hot takes will provide.
With that qualifier out of the way, it is clear that Mahomes is struggling this season. He currently has his career-low yards per attempt (7.3). In addition, he’s thrown 10 INTs with a career-high interception rate of 3.1%. Of course, a handful of these interceptions were awful luck. However, a few of them were also terrible decisions, the likes of which we haven’t really seen from him. In addition, Mahomes’ pocket presence—his usual wizard-like ability to sense pressure, navigate the pocket, and step up to find a receiver—is off-kilter. Mahomes’ red-zone INT against the Giants showcases this idea pretty well.
Mahomes steps up in the pocket correctly, and right as he does so, Josh Gordon appears open in the end zone—just to Mahomes’ right. Mahomes sees two defenders closing in on him and chooses to jump before delivering the throw, probably out of concern for them tipping the ball. However, the throw hits Jerick McKinnon in the helmet, who’s standing to the left of Gordon. Gordon made a move for the ball before it hit McKinnon, which suggests some confusion about who the target was.
This play sums up what has gone wrong for Mahomes this season. Reviewing the interception, it seems that if Mahomes had pump-faked and just moved to his right, he would’ve had a wide-open Gordon. Instead, Mahomes chose to jump, dramatically decreasing his accuracy and overcomplicating the whole play.
Now, Mahomes has always been doing this; it’s what makes him great. But part of what made his first three seasons so magical was that he knew when the tricky stuff (left-handed throw) was needed but he didn’t sacrifice the intelligent, easy stuff at the expense of the wild types of plays. It’s what makes Mahomes so marvelously unique, he can beat you in a boring way and in his own “Mahomesian” way.
Now, it seems, we see the scale shift a bit. Mahomes is defaulting more to the off-platform, unorthodox methods of delivery. In the example above, Mahomes’ jump at the expense of a simple pump fake or shift to his right made the play riskier than it needed to have been.
Coming out of Texas Tech, the player comp often passed around was Jay Cutler, a truly rare arm talent with poor fundamentals. Mahomes quickly squashed this comparison via his play: he made the flash plays, but his decision-making and awareness were excellent. When you combine those two facets, you have the genius of Mahomes. At his best, he is a wizard well-trained in the “boring” parts of football. Unfortunately, this season, and especially the past few games, we’ve seen an uptick in careless decisions along with increased reliance on improv. Mahomes isn’t at his best since his brilliance lies in how he’s able to balance off-script wonder with methodical, by-the-book decision-making.
Last year’s Super Bowl supposedly taught us that the Chiefs were “an offensive line away” from returning as champions. The massive offensive line overhaul has, it seems, been successful. The Chiefs’ offensive line is currently ranked 8th in DVOA by Football Outsiders. While Orlando Brown Jr. started the season slowly, the collective unit has been solid, certainly eons better than the starting line from the Super Bowl. Yet the Mahomes we have seen for most of this season look closer to the Mahomes we saw in that championship game. The difference is that the offensive line is no longer a sufficient explanation for some of this season’s offensive difficulties.
Now is when that “hot take” tendency—the need for a resolute explanation for a phenomenon—becomes appealing. The question at hand is, “Why does it seem like Mahomes has taken a step back this season?” There are a bunch of reasonable theories (none of which involve commercials).
One answer might be that defenses are better at scheming for him, and he’s not yet fully adjusted to that. Another might be that he’s pressing in response to the increased turnovers. For example, Mahomes had a pass intercepted against Buffalo in Week 5 that deflected off of a defensive lineman. His choice to jump on his red-zone interception could’ve been out of concern for something like that happening again, and ironically, that jump to avoid the defender led to another interception. Maybe this team misses having a third viable receiving option, and Mahomes is still working on chemistry with receivers, or perhaps the chemistry with his tackles isn’t where they want it to be yet.
I’d imagine that each of those hypotheses is partly true. But here’s another answer, one that, I daresay, is rooted in fact: It happens.
- Consider the following stat lines:
Player 1 (Year 4): 4131 yards, 26 TDS, 23 Ints, Passer Rating 84.1
- Player 2 (Year 4): 3576 yards, 24 TDS, 15 INT, Passer Rating 89.2
Player 1 is Peyton Manning. He followed up a rough 4th season with a Pro Bowl season in his fifth and then three straight first-team All-Pro selections. Player 2 is Drew Brees. He followed up his fourth season with a first-team All-Pro season.
I’m not saying there’s some hex on a QB’s fourth year in the league. What I am suggesting is that whatever caused Manning and Brees to have mediocre fourth seasons was fixable. There’s no lying that Mahomes has struggled this season and that many of his mistakes are his own doing. But the Mahomes we know isn’t a mirage. He has shown he’s capable of sustained excellence, it’s just about getting back to that balance that makes him great.