What about those six interceptions in the first five games? And Kansas City’s unusual 2-3 record? The Chiefs visit Washington on Sunday after getting smashed, 38-20, by Buffalo last week. It felt like power shifted in the AFC that night. And for Mahomes, who is accustomed to his NFL seasons starting with victories, highlights and excessive praise, he’s now left to reflect and adjust while experiencing the downside of NFL overreaction.
The Chiefs, though still plenty dangerous, aren’t in space and waving at the Earthlings anymore. Either the league is catching up, or they are falling back. That’s life in the NFL, where the only thing harder than becoming elite is staying there. Mahomes is still a cheat-code talent directing a top-five offense. But after 51 regular season starts and eight playoff games that include two Super Bowl appearances, he faces film-watching competition that has accumulated nearly four seasons’ worth of material to binge. And there exists the really bad tape of Tampa Bay taking apart Kansas City’s offense in Super Bowl LV, which should serve as a primer for how to fluster the Chiefs (if you have the personnel).
Still, the Chiefs have averaged 30.8 points and 420.4 yards against a difficult schedule. But their defense has been awful and full of injuries, and they’re falling behind in games too much, and there’s more pressure than ever for the offense to exceed its high-scoring capabilities. And so Coach Andy Reid’s masterpiece creation has been impatient and sloppy. The Chiefs have turned the ball over 11 times, which ties them with Jacksonville for the most in the NFL.
For the first time, Mahomes must answer questions about a period of inefficiency. While his personal numbers look fine, his situational command has been off, at least by his standard. Typical of exaggerated NFL conversation, some have made too much of his first hint of a slump, but considering the effusive praise he received his first three seasons as a starter, it was inevitable that this would happen.
That’s just how stardom teeters and balances itself. It’s sad, but that’s the game. Kansas City’s three losses have come to a trio of young AFC quarterbacks looking to keep pace with Mahomes: Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert. But their performances against Kansas City — and their overall outstanding play — say more about their potential greatness than they do about Mahomes.
There is a bigger picture to consider, however.
In today’s game, precocious quarterbacks develop in reverse. We highlight how much easier it is to unlock a young QB now because the coaching is more adaptive, the players throw more at earlier ages and exceptional athletes at the position aren’t as stigmatized. But here’s the second part: Just because quarterbacks shine sooner doesn’t mean the process to become a complete player is any easier.
Coaches have done a better job of meeting players where they are. Still, there comes a time when defenses adjust, and this is when the true franchise players separate from the shooting stars. I think often about the Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson Class of 2012. All three had good rookie years; Griffin and Wilson were fantastic. But because of injuries, an inability to adapt and all-around Washington franchise dysfunction, Griffin wasn’t the same again. Luck had a very good but injury-filled career before retiring at 29. Wilson has turned out to be the lasting impact player.
Like Mahomes, Wilson won a Super Bowl and played in two championship games within his first three years as a starter. He has never had a losing season, and the Seattle Seahawks have gone 100-48-1 during his career. But since losing Super Bowl XLIV to New England, Wilson hasn’t even returned to the NFC championship game. He’s growing impatient, and now he’s recovering from finger surgery and will miss games for the first time in his career.
This era of fast-starting quarterbacks has lasted for 10 years, and Wilson stands as the model for sustained success. Nevertheless, his journey shows that difficulties will occur. Wilson hasn’t led an offense as explosive as Kansas City’s, but Wilson is comparable to Mahomes because he took a team from good to great upon arrival, then had to show persistence as the competition learned more about containing him.
The days of initial hard knocks aren’t as common. They have been replaced with something that’s just as difficult to survive: rapid ascension. Many rise fast and then fall hard. At 26, Cam Newton was an MVP on a Hall of Fame track. Then came the injuries. And when he returned, he didn’t show enough as a drop-back passer to have a successful second act. Now he’s trying to get back in the league. It’s still so hard to become a long-term franchise quarterback, even with what seems like a head start.
Mahomes will be fine. He’s introspective and accountable. He’s not afraid to admit his shortcomings.
“You don’t want to lose yourself,” Mahomes said after the loss to the Bills. “You don’t want to lose things that you’ve done so well so long. But at the same time I’ve got to make sure I’m firm with the fundamentals and make sure I stay within the pocket. It’s the same thing every year when you kind of see me get a little off. You’ve got to go back to the basics and make sure I perfect those things, and then I think everything else will come along with it.”
He has to trust Reid’s system. He has to do the simple thing that Tom Brady, Joe Montana and many legendary quarterbacks perfected: take what’s there. Recognize little things add up to big things. Don’t become obsessed with the extraordinary highlight play. For as sophisticated as defenses are, the strategy to corral Kansas City is basic at its core. Teams refuse to let the speed kill them. They are adamant about not giving up the big play to Tyreek Hill and others. They are challenging Mahomes to stay patient and beat them by remaining committed to the short game. He must feast on those chances.
It’s not just boring simplicity. There is excellence in restraint. He played with this level of control last season and won 14 of the 15 games he started. Now, even with the Chiefs’ defense flailing, the assignment still demands patience and good decision-making.
Sometimes, it seems Mahomes can do anything with the football. As defenses figure out how to agitate him, the challenge is to do the right thing, and with fewer good options, there’s less room for error.
The hard part looks like the easy part. The revolutionary part is the fundamental part. For Mahomes, there is also longevity in restraint.