At Stroupe’s Athlete Performance Enhancement Center, Mahomes did not discuss his MVP award, never mentioned his 50 touchdown passes and 5,000 yards. He only talked about what came next. He wanted to design an offseason plan spun from a simple objective.
“There’s only one goal,” Mahomes told Stroupe. “And it’s the Super Bowl.”
“He was p----- about losing to the Patriots, period,” Stroupe said this week in a telephone interview. “That was it. We didn’t hold some special dinner. It was work, man. He’s got a goal. He feels like they got what it takes. He feels like they shouldn’t have lost last year.”
Mahomes has returned to this season’s AFC championship game without the gaudy statistics or accolades of 2018, his first season as the Kansas City Chiefs’ starting quarterback. He watched the NFL’s attention shift elsewhere this fall. A dislocated kneecap sidelined him for two games. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson replaced him as a talisman of the NFL’s future and will almost certainly snatch his MVP honor.
But Mahomes may use these playoffs as a reminder of whom the league belongs to. Sunday afternoon, after his team bumbled through the first 20 minutes, he took the field at Arrowhead Stadium down 24-0 to the Houston Texans. Mahomes proceeded to lead seven consecutive touchdown drives, five of them capped with touchdown passes. By game’s end, Mahomes had thrown for 321 yards and the Chiefs had won, 51-31, which advanced them to a showdown at home this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans for a trip to the Super Bowl.
“He knows exactly who he is,” Chiefs backup quarterback Matt Moore said. “He’s a unique guy. It’s not by chance. He works at it. He is who he is for a reason. It’s just how he’s programmed, man.”
Mahomes’s offseason work means he is not just the same quarterback he was last season, not just the best player in the league. This week could provide a showcase for the blueprint he hatched 11 months ago at the outset of the offseason, when he began reviewing one of the most statistically astounding years in NFL history and hunted for inefficiencies and imperfections.
In the months after Mahomes won the MVP award and his team came within an offside penalty of the Super Bowl, he remade his body for reasons few people knew and bought into the reorientation of how his team played. The result, as summarized succinctly by Kansas City offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, has been clear.
“He’s definitely better,” Schwartz said.
Mahomes improved his ability to decipher defenses, but he first set about refining his body. He aimed to make himself lighter and more durable, a response to the latter portion of the 2018 season. Teams never totally solved Mahomes, but the strategy most defenses landed on was to press his receivers in man-to-man coverage and punish him with as many hits as possible.
“With the contacts in the league that we might have and just seeing what happened in the playoffs, we kind of knew what we needed to get ready for,” Stroupe said. “The obvious things were this: His body’s got to be in better condition to move in the playoffs.”
The hits Mahomes took late last season affected him — and, subsequently, his weight — in the postseason. Mahomes dealt with ailments in his legs that limited his conditioning during the week. Listed at 225 pounds entering the league, Mahomes weighed in the mid-230s by the time the Chiefs played the Patriots, making him less mobile than at the outset of the season.
“What can happen in the winter if you’re in Kansas City and you can’t move, and you’re practicing but you’re not doing the things you normally do, you can gain some weight,” Stroupe said. “In the playoffs last year, he was heavier than when he came in. I think we recognized that when they start pressing [his receivers] and he can’t move, it makes it harder.”
As Mahomes shed pounds this offseason, he also sought enhanced durability. With Stroupe, Mahomes had always trained to make himself flexible and stable in unorthodox positions, to emphasize his natural athletic talent. It gave him more options to beat a defense, but as he wore down and gained weight, he lost some of those. “We wanted to preserve his creativity,” Stroupe said.
Stroupe bases many of his workouts on the concept of proprioception, which is what allows people to instinctively understand how their body is moving through an environment. When you walk on a beach, you don’t concentrate on the difference in navigating a concrete sidewalk and soft sand; your body just makes all those calculations on its own and reacts the right way.
Stroupe wants his clients, Mahomes included, to achieve advanced proprioception. He wants Mahomes’s body to make dodging a linebacker while winging a sidearm pass feel as natural to his body’s underlying systems as, say, stepping from a train platform onto a subway. Mahomes can only be so aware of his surroundings because all of his focus is on the field, not on what he is asking his body to do.
When Mahomes performed squats this offseason, he did so from nine different positions. He heaved a medicine ball against a wall in 36 different ways. He trained to make his body comfortable in uncomfortable positions.
“The more attuned you are to being in different positions and being subjected to different stimulus, the more likely you are to be resilient and also to perform better in those situations,” Stroupe said. “… It is unique. It is a little different than what most people would see at a training facility for a football player, especially a quarterback.”
It may have helped save his season. Late in the first half of Week 1, three Jacksonville Jaguars crunched Mahomes, and one of them rolled over and twisted his ankle at an ugly angle. Mahomes limped off but returned to the game. Stroupe said it would be wrong to solely credit Mahomes’s training regimen for preventing an injury, adding that he believes the Chiefs have perhaps the best training staff in the NFL. But his philosophy includes prepping muscles and joints to be moved and stressed in unusual ways.
Mahomes suffered a scarier injury in Week 7, when he dislocated his kneecap during a sneak against the Denver Broncos. It could have cost him months, or even the rest of the season, but Chiefs trainers recognized the injury immediately and popped the kneecap back into place. “Literally every second it takes you to put that kneecap back in can translate into weeks,” Stroupe said. “They were so on top of it.”
Mahomes missed only two weeks, a testament to both the Chiefs’ training staff and Mahomes’s condition. Stroupe pointed to a secret weapon in Mahomes’s healing ability: his affinity for, and dedication to, rest.
“Patrick is the most prolific sleeper in professional sports,” Stroupe said. “He gets 10 hours of sleep a night and naps all day. There’s not even another species that does that, outside of lions, I think. … If sleeping was on a video game, he’d be rated 100.”
The sum outcome of Mahomes’s plan has led to this week, to another chance at making the Super Bowl. Stroupe said the effects of his Week 1 ankle injury are only now fully gone. Mahomes said after the Chiefs’ victory Sunday that he has been moving around better the past couple of weeks — against the Texans, he consistently extended plays and finished as the Chiefs’ leading rusher, with 53 yards. Stroupe did not divulge Mahomes’s exact weight. “But he’s not 235,” Stroupe said. “I can tell you that.”
Mahomes’s primary stats may have dropped, to 4,031 yards and 26 touchdowns, but other indicators hint at subtle improvement. He sliced his interception rate in half. He took about a half-sack less per game, even with left tackle Eric Fisher missing eight games to injury. Teammates saw him reading the defense better, his experience allowing him to recognize schemes and coverages faster.
“It’s probably unrealistic to think he’s going to do 50 and 5,000 again anyway,” Schwartz said. “I think if you look at his mastery of knowing where to go, knowing who to go to, doing it correctly, he’s improved. And it’s kind of scary to think he’s going to keep getting better.”
Mahomes’s statistics have also been deflated by what his team requires of him this season compared to last. The Chiefs overhauled their defense, hiring Steve Spagnuolo as coordinator and acquiring safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive ends Frank Clark and Alex Okafor, rookie safety Juan Thornhill (who is now out for the season) and others. Those pieces meshed late in the season as the Chiefs held six consecutive opponents to 21 or fewer points.
The defensive improvement, which roughly coincided with Mahomes’s return from his knee injury, led him to take a different, more cautious approach. Sunday’s disastrous start against the Texans, when special teams and defensive gaffes led to a 24-0 deficit early in the second quarter, allowed Mahomes to reprise his role from last season. In response, he shredded Houston’s man-to-man coverage.
“It’s just about the flow of the game,” Mahomes said. “You have to read how the game is going. We knew we had to score points. That meant more scrambling around, taking more chances, taking more shots.”
When needed, Mahomes can still thrive the way he did last season, with pure shock and awe. He can also, as the product of careful design this offseason, lead an offense that carves up a sophisticated scheme while providing cover to his own defense. The Titans, coached by former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel and built by former New England scout Jon Robinson, deploy many defensive structures Mahomes succumbed to in an empty first half last postseason against the Patriots. It will provide a fitting test of how he refitted his game.
Mahomes’s teammates will follow him eagerly. When the Chiefs fell into a deep hole Sunday, Coach Andy Reid turned and saw Mahomes walking down the bench, imploring and encouraging teammates. “As a head coach, you can’t ask for better than that,” Reid said. “He’s just going: ‘Hey, listen, we’re going to be fine. Let’s go. I mean, let’s not wait until the fourth quarter. Let’s go.’ He did that.”
After the Chiefs scored, Mahomes sprinted along the sideline, revving the crowd and bouncing up and down, with the look of a man who has only one thing on his mind.