The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Patrick Mahomes could have been a system QB. Now he is the system.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes lost his top target in Tyreek Hill during the offseason. He hasn't missed a beat. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

If there was any Patrick Mahomes fatigue entering this season, it should be gone now. What the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback is doing without Tyreek Hill — without the wide receiver’s supreme speed creating all that space for Mahomes to operate — hasn’t just solidified his greatness. It has lifted him to another tier of football divinity, an unthinkable feat for a man who already has been hailed as the NFL’s best player for most of the past five seasons.

As the most overpraised player at the most overanalyzed position in sports, Mahomes is supposed to reach a point of public annoyance and second-guessing. It’s something every transcendent superstar experiences. It’s natural for people to start rolling their eyes at the glorification. And Mahomes, still human and flawed, has weaknesses that teams and skeptics target.

At this time a year ago, “What’s wrong with Mahomes?” became a hot topic as defenses adjusted and goaded him into more mistakes. He simplified his game for a while, found a way to keep producing and helped guide Kansas City to the AFC championship game. Then, with a third Super Bowl appearance at stake, he struggled in a 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Two months later, the Chiefs traded Hill to the Miami Dolphins instead of making him the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history. And that was the point at which the Mahomes lovefest was supposed to diminish a bit.

Instead, he has gotten better.

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And when considering he has done it despite Hill’s absence, you can’t think about it in a binary or superficial way. The success Mahomes has had this season does not lead to the conclusion that he propped up Hill. Look at what Hill is doing in Miami. He leads the NFL with 87 receptions and 1,233 yards. He’s on pace for 134 catches and 1,905 yards.

We flipped out, appropriately, last season when Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp posted 145 receptions, 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns. Hill, with four touchdowns so far, won’t be able to match the end zone celebrations, but his numbers are comparable. He has had an MVP impact, boosting Tua Tagovailoa to stardom and making the game easier for fellow speedster Jaylen Waddle, who is on pace for nearly a 1,500-yard receiving season. Mahomes lost that kind of game changer. Still, he’s thriving.

The Chiefs (9-2) again have the AFC’s best record. Their offense does not seem as dangerous because they’re not a 60-yard Hill touchdown waiting to happen anymore. But they lead the league in points, total yards and yards per play. They convert 51.2 percent of their third downs, which is also best in the NFL. Mahomes leads the league in passing yards (3,585) and touchdowns (29), and he’s fourth in passer rating (105.3). As great as Mahomes and Hill were together in an offense led by Coach Andy Reid, taught by offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and blessed with elite tight end Travis Kelce, Kansas City has maintained its offensive standard through reinvention.

When he became the starter in 2018, Mahomes took control of a loaded offense tailor-made for his stunning talent. Hill and Kelce were already stars. Kareem Hunt, before he was released for a domestic violence incident caught on video, was a top-level running back. Kansas City had all the complementary pieces as well, including a great offensive line. Mahomes was mesmerizing and supported. Four years later, Mahomes still has Kelce, but there is change all around them.

Mahomes is no longer the final, extraordinary piece commanding an offense that will go down in history. He is the system now. As it manages the salary cap, Kansas City will be forced to keep making difficult decisions and asking Mahomes to tweak his game to accentuate the talent it finds. This season, the Chiefs may not have a wide receiver finish with 1,000 yards; JuJu Smith-Schuster is on the bubble.

But Kelce remains an unguardable pass-catching tight end who substitutes for elite wideout productivity. And Mahomes has attacked the entire field instead of being fixated on throwing deep to Hill. As a result, the Chiefs have five players who have caught at least 25 passes. Four others have at least 12 receptions. Mahomes isn’t as greedy for the play as he seemed last season. He’s creating big plays now because teams are starting to fear he can beat them with all the little decisions he makes.

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In the evolution of a star quarterback, it is an important epiphany. Many great ones never come to the realization that proper game management is the key to prolonged greatness. In between the highlight-reel plays, Mahomes is more efficient than ever. After that January loss to Cincinnati, he spent the offseason fine-tuning his fundamentals. He didn’t enter this season seeking revenge or wanting to prove himself without Hill. He cared mostly about improvement.

“You have to keep it in perspective,” said Mahomes, whose wife, Brittany, gave birth to their second child Monday. They named their son Patrick “Bronze” Mahomes III. “It’s a brand new season.”

Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow has tracked Mahomes’s progress. As a superstar also aiming to refine every small detail, he has been impressed.

“He’s been playing the best all year,” Burrow told reporters ahead of Sunday’s AFC championship game rematch. “There really hasn’t been a lot of people like him come through the game.”

And that’s coming from a player who looks like a historic figure as well. Burrow is the only of Mahomes’s peers — quarterbacks who came into the league during or after 2017, the year Mahomes was drafted — to have a winning head-to-head record. Burrow is 2-0 against Mahomes. The others are 5-29. Now, let’s remove Josh Allen, who is 2-3 against Mahomes and makes their matchup akin to the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry. That leaves all those other youngish quarterbacks with a 3-26 record against the NFL’s standard-bearer. The remaining three who have beaten Mahomes once: Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Deshaun Watson.

That’s a core with several potential Hall of Famers early in their primes, all of them flashing rarely seen styles of play, and Mahomes stands out as a singular icon.

With a strong finish, Mahomes, just 27, could win his second MVP. Or maybe Jalen Hurts, who is worthy and a fresh face, beats him out if the Philadelphia Eagles have the league’s best record. It doesn’t matter, really. Mahomes is more than a single-season award. He is the sport’s most important player, and even as a humbling game works to limit him, he is getting stronger.