Sunday afternoon, Patrick Mahomes II established himself as both the way-too-early leader for most valuable player and the best explanation for how the NFL operates in 2018 — and probably how it will work in the years to come. He is a marvel, and he is also a fascinating case study, an orchestra tuneup of NFL trends.
Mahomes threw for 326 yards and six touchdown passes in a 42-37 mincing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, giving the 22-year-old 10 touchdown passes in his first two games to set a new NFL record, one both obscure and obscene. Sunday afternoon, Mahomes mixed efficiency and amazement, completing 23 of 28 passes without throwing an interception while zipping passes that left a vapor trail.
You don’t need a full hand to count the quarterbacks with a stronger arm than Mahomes, and he is proving he possesses the intangible traits required of a top-shelf passer. Through two weeks, Mahomes has gained 10.5 yards per pass attempt for the 2-0 Kansas City Chiefs. When Mahomes came out of Texas Tech, many believed the Chiefs reached by trading up to take him 10th overall. He was a polarizing prospect, seen by detractors as a big arm without the ability to read defenses at an NFL level, another product of a pass-happy spread system. But his physical potential convinced supporters of a ceiling to dream on. In just two games as a full-time starter, Mahomes has fulfilled their wildest hopes.
His physical ability and phenomenal performances fail to encapsulate Mahomes’s place in the league. He’s too physically gifted to be seen as a prototype — good luck finding the next mobile, 6-foot-3 quarterback who can throw it 70 yards in the air. But Mahomes — a collegiate product of the “Air Raid” offense, a starting quarterback on his rookie deal, a triggerman for Andy Reid’s designs and a conductor of concepts taken from college football — is something close to an ideal of modern NFL quarterback. He fits into every way the league is leaning.
Reid’s schemes have become the model for how offense is played. Seven NFL head coaches once coached under Reid, including reigning Super Bowl winner Doug Pederson and the Chicago Bears’s Matt Nagy, whose creative play-calling would have been the talk of the league if not for Aaron Rodgers’s heroics last Sunday night in Green Bay’s comeback victory. Mahomes’s talent may have made him a star in any setting, but he landed with perhaps the best developer of quarterbacks and most influential offensive mind in the game.
The Chiefs wanted Mahomes for his long-term potential, but they will benefit from the short-term financial boon of any quarterback in his first five seasons. Playing a quarterback still on his rookie deal has become one of the biggest advantages in football — the Chiefs can build a powerful team around Mahomes because his salary, before he reaches free agency, takes up so little of the salary cap compared to other quarterbacks of his ability.
Mahomes is also proving that a college background in an extreme spread offense is no longer an impediment to immediate success in the NFL. Fast tempo, bunched wide receivers, empty backfields, run-pass option plays and spreading the field dominate NFL offenses now. Just look at the Steelers-Chiefs game — it would not have seemed out of place in the offense-crazed, defense-optional Big 12. Ben Roethlisberger threw 35 passes in the first half. In last season’s Super Bowl, the Eagles and Patriots combined for one punt.
As Mahomes takes aim at the record book, he’s doing it in the most 2018 way possible. Through two games, he has taken hold of the season. That doesn’t figure to change. The Chiefs’ suspect defense will provide ample opportunity and incentive for Mahomes to pad his stats, and their offensive weaponry will prevent opponents from solving their scheme. Sammy Watkins, playing in the shadow of the spectacular Tyreek Hill, gained 131 yards from scrimmage. Tight end Travis Kelce, an afterthought in Week 1, provided a reminder that he’s the best tight end this side of Rob Gronkowski, catching seven passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
And so Sunday may have only been a start for Mahomes. He will face stiffer challenges than Pittsburgh’s secondary, to be sure, and not every Sunday will feel like a glimpse into a fluorescent future of the sport. But through two weeks, Mahomes hasn’t only been the most impressive player in the league. He’s been a signpost of where the sport is headed.
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