You've heard all of the criticisms about college spread-offense quarterbacks for years, and the multitude of reasons they don't stick in the NFL.
They put up video game numbers in simplistic offenses against defenses that are backing away all of the time. They don't call plays in the huddle. Their offensive terminology is far too simplistic and one-dimensional, and the transition to the traditional West Coast offense play call (example: "Green Right Strong Slot Spider 2 Y Banana") will be too complex. They're in shotgun all the time, and the mechanical transition to taking the ball under center and dropping back is too much. They're throwing dink-and-dunk passes underneath passive college defenders, and when they see NFL defenses, they'll fall apart. They don't call their own plays, and they aren't prepared to audible into another play from the line of scrimmage.
It's true that from Andre Ware to Tim Tebow, there's a litany of college quarterbacks whose stats were inflated in option offenses, and the NFL transition was too difficult. But the NFL has been adapting to the spread quarterback more and more over the last decade, and now isn't a bad time to come into the league from one of these offenses if the offense is multifaceted enough and the quarterback has the raw tools to succeed.
Enter Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech, who completed 857 passes in 1,349 attempts for 11,252 yards, 93 touchdowns and 29 interceptions in just three seasons. On the surface—and given the history of Tech quarterbacks who put up ridiculous numbers and bottomed out in the NFL (Graham Harrell, anyone?)—you'd be forgiven for thinking Mahomes is the latest in that line.
However, putting on the tape and talking with Mahomes about the offense created and maintained by head coach Kliff Kingsbury tells a different story. Kingsbury was himself a Texas Tech alum, selected in the sixth round of the 2003 draft by the Patriots. He completed a grand total of one pass for 17 yards in the NFL, but his coaching career—he ran the offenses at Houston and Texas A&M before taking the Texas Tech job in 2013—has been more expansive.
In 2014, Kingsbury was dealing with quite the quarterback competition. Both Mahomes and Davis Webb, two quarterbacks who are frequently projected as first-rounders in the 2017 draft, were fighting it out for the starting job. Mahomes, a true freshman, usurped Webb due to injury, and after a great 2015 spring, he took the starting job for good.
Webb transferred to Cal, found more success there, and recently broke down his own offense for Bleacher Report.
Mahomes was a bit overwhelmed at first, but settled into the position quickly, throwing 16 touchdowns and four interceptions during his freshman campaign. Not bad for a kid who hadn't started at quarterback until his junior year of high school.
"We definitely respect each other, and it was a tough situation," Mahomes recently told B/R about his current relationship with Webb. "We had two really good quarterbacks in one spot. Coach Kingsbury recruited really good quarterbacks, and I knew that when I came to Texas Tech, we were going to be in this position. I knew he had a really good chance of being in the NFL by how well he throws the ball and how hard he works. We're still friends and we still talk—this was just one of those things where two guys were in the same spot."
It helped Mahomes that his father, Patrick, was a major league pitcher for 11 seasons, and Patrick II got to see professional athletes behind the curtain.
"It helped me a ton, just seeing those great major league baseball players and how hard they worked," he said. "People don't see that. They see the talent, and how many home runs they hit, but they don't see how they get there early to take ground balls every day, or hitting off a tee early in the mornings."
Mahomes has heard it all when it comes to how his game won't translate at the next level. The two things working in his favor are the complexity of the offense Kingsbury put together and how more NFL teams are aligning college passing games with professional playbooks to ease the transition. When the Panthers selected Cam Newton first overall in 2010, they successfully took elements of the Auburn spread to mix with their own power-rushing attack and vertical passing game. The same was true for the pre-injury version of Robert Griffin III, who excelled in his rookie season when he was asked to combine the Baylor game with Mike Shanahan's West Coast passing attack and zone running system.
Mahomes likewise believes he's already done plenty that will help him with the transition to the NFL.
"The things I did that were easily transferable—the coaches would call the play into me, I had to signal to the receivers, and tell the linemen and running backs what the protection was. So, I had a lot on me to do that stuff, plus I had the freedom to change the play. So, those two things are things that NFL quarterbacks already do; to see if this play works against this coverage. Is it the coverage we wanted, and what does it look like pre-snap?"
Mahomes will have to refine his mechanics, learn to take the snap from under center—which isn't a huge issue, seeing as 28 of 32 NFL teams ran shotgun more than 50 percent of the time in 2016, per Football Outsiders—and tone down the gunslinger aspects of his play. He does have a tendency to throw deep into obviously covered receivers, which will kill him in the NFL if he keeps doing it, but he otherwise has a strong handle on the little things required for NFL success.
Will he have a problem with NFL verbiage? How about if he breaks down what he considered to be Texas Tech's most complicated play from a verbiage standpoint?
"Probably 'Green Rug Rock Pop 2 East Bill Log 95 Z Post B Will." Pop is play action, and the formation is Green Rug Rock—that's the backs behind me. Rug means that the B back [second running back] is on the line of scrimmage. We have our 'Y' receiver in the game, and our 'Z' receiver, and the H-back is out [away from the formation]. 'Pop 2 East Bill Log' means that we're going to fake our outside zone to the right, with the B-back blocking in front. We're going to fake that. 'Log' means the backside tackle is going to lock on the [backside defensive] end, and '95' is our concept of the play. We tag a Z Post [the 'Z' receiver running a post route], and for the B-back, we tag a 'Will.' [the second running back blocking the weak-side linebacker]."
There's no "Spider 2 Y Banana" in there, but it'll have to do.
If you dig into Texas Tech's offense, you'll see play action, multi-route concepts, quarterbacks hitting their third and fourth reads in stride, running back motion, quarterback audibles—many of the things you see in the NFL every Sunday.
While Mahomes did receive the plays from the sideline, he said it was his job to get to the line of scrimmage, call the protections to the offensive line, signal the routes to the receivers on either side and audible if the defense was showing something different. A huddle shouldn't be a major concern, and given the percentage of no-huddle in the NFL these days, it's less an issue than it would have been a decade ago. Mahomes also said it took 15 days of installation for everyone on the offense to be aligned with all of Kingsbury's passing concepts.
There's nothing dink-and-dunk about Mahomes' game—he has the arm to make all the throws. Per Pro Football Focus, he attempted 91 passes over 20 yards in the air in 2016, the fifth-most in the nation, completing 35 for 1,281 yards, 15 touchdowns, and four interceptions.
"Our offense is a lot more complex than the old Air Raid, because Coach Kingsbury, coming from the NFL, has made it more complex," Mahomes concluded. "And that's why it's so successful."
With that in mind, I asked Mahomes to review five plays from his 2016 season, and what those plays might mean to his NFL future.
Play 1—14:34 left in the first quarter vs. Texas
Bleacher Report: This is your first play from scrimmage against Texas, and it's a great example of how you're able to navigate pressure and still make the throw. What was the coverage here, and what were your reads? How do those reads and receiver positions change when you have to bail out of the pocket?
Patrick Mahomes: Yeah, we were in an empty set and we ran a Jet to the outside—a five-yard out. The "X" receiver ran the wrong route, so you can see two guys running to the same spot. That really threw me off, so I checked to a go route with the inside receiver and a stop route to the outside receiver to the right side. None of that was open, so I took off running with three people spying me. The coverage at first was a single-high coverage of some sort, so I knew the cornerbacks would be playing off. It messed me up with the route he ran, so I scrambled to the outside and found a guy from over the middle and threw it to him.
B/R: Are your receivers directed to break to you when you scramble out of the pocket?
Mahomes: Yeah—it's pretty much, the receivers from deep come back to you, the shallow receivers go deep. That's how we do it, but at the same time, building up the chemistry with the receivers where they know how to find the space, and they're always alive to get open when I scramble.
Play 2—7:41 left in the third quarter vs. Texas
B/R: Here's a nice boundary fade for a touchdown against Texas—it's a pretty quick throw, so it would seem that your receiver has to hit a timed landmark. What's the key to maintaining touch and arc on a quick throw?
Mahomes: If you watch Aaron Rodgers and all the stuff he does, no matter how much he scrambles and moves around, he always has great mechanics. That's why he's so accurate on the run. I mean, I can do a lot of stuff with arm talent, but you'll see that if I don't maintain my mechanics, the ball comes out a bit weird and I might overthrow it. So, it's just about getting your mechanics right—if you watch Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, the reason they're so accurate is that they get their mechanics right—they do it the same way no matter when the situation is.
B/R: What's the coverage here, and is the basic idea on a play like this to just get the ball up where your guy can catch it and the defender can't?
Mahomes: Yeah, it's kinda that thing where I have a great chemistry with the receiver [Dylan Cantrell]—I played with him in high school—and I had slants on the bottom of the play, looked up top, and there was one-on-one coverage manned up. I like that guy with a back-shoulder throw, or just over the top—I know he's going to fight for the ball. He got a step on the defender, so I threw it…not really a back-shoulder, but more of a line drive for the cornerback to turn his head and [Cantrell] could make a play on it.
B/R: Looks like you had two backs in protection here. What's the play call?
Mahomes: At first, this was a run play, and they brought that coverage down, so I changed that play from inside one to the left. Put both of those guys in protection to help out with the pressure, and I knew I was going to go to the slants at the bottom or the fade up top.
B/R: But I thought spread quarterbacks didn't call audibles, Patrick… what's going on here?
Mahomes: [Laughs] We had a ton of audibles. [Kingsbury] gave me the freedom to change all the plays, so there were a lot of audibles in our game.
B/R: One thing I wanted to ask you about the Texas game, and just in general—obviously you have a great deep arm, but in the Texas game, I counted five deep throws that should have been intercepted but weren't. At times, you were hauling it out there into clear coverage. When you're throwing deep, what is the mindset there?
Mahomes: Yeah…at the end of the season, we had a lot of eight-man coverage, because defenses were really trying to make us run the ball. But at the same time, me throwing deep—I feel that you have to stretch the defense, and you don't throw into coverage if you don't need to, but if the defense gives you the opportunity to throw deep, you can't miss those. Throw the ball deep, score those touchdowns. In the NFL, you may not throw the ball deep more than four times in a game, but when they do, it's usually a long completion or a touchdown.
B/R: Some people have called you a gunslinger. You call yourself a gunslinger. Are you conscious of having to be more careful with these throws against NFL defenses?
Mahomes: Yeah, definitely. This is a whole different football game than playing in the Big 12—when you have to score 50 points a game to win because the offenses are so good, you have to take more chances and put the ball downfield more. In the NFL, you might be facing a coverage where you don't need to score—you'd like to, but if it's 3rd-and-15, you might want to take a short pass, get better field position, punt the ball and stuff like that. That's a win, and you've got to know what the situations are, and you've got to realize that you have fewer possessions than you have in the Big 12.
B/R: What are the positives and negatives to being in such a high-volume passing game?
Mahomes: It helps out a lot when I look back—I've made every throw that's needed in the NFL. I've had the opportunity to throw the ball a ton, and NFL teams have seen how I can make every throw, so it's an advantage.
Play 3—13:32 left in the second quarter vs. TCU
B/R: Here, you're moving up in the pocket against pressure, maintaining your mechanics, and making an accurate, deep touchdown throw. What is important to remember regarding maintaining your mechanics when you're on the move and you have to re-set?
Mahomes: We saw the coverage, and I knew we were going to have a chance at the post right away. I kept my eyes downfield. The play was designed for the wide receiver, but the post was the big alert, so when I saw it was man coverage, I went to the wide receiver for the post.
Play 4—2:34 left in the first quarter vs. West Virginia
B/R: Here, you've got a late blitz, you're under pressure right from the start, and you have to roll right, making a deep boundary throw. What was the change in the read here—when the blitz was clear, how did you adjust the protections and receiver distribution at the line?
Mahomes: Yeah. I saw the blitz and changed the protection to the left, and dropped back to the left, thinking I was going to have more time. But my left tackle missed the call and went to the wrong defender, so I didn't have that guy blocked. So, both ends were free on both sides. I scrambled to the right, saw the receiver running down the middle, and thought I could make the throw on 3rd-and-14.
B/R: What was the play call before you saw the blitz, and what did you change it to?
Mahomes: Before the blitz, it was an empty backfield play we call "95," kind of like the play call I detailed before. I knew I would have a good hot [route] on that play, but I thought maybe I could hit on the big alert [deep throw] to the left, so I left it on [kept the route call] ad slid the protection to give myself time. But I couldn't hit the go route I thought I was going to hit, so I just hit the "Y" receiver who came back to me across the middle.
Play 5—0:48 left in the third quarter vs. Texas
B/R: Two plays back-to-back here—one where you miss a guy over the middle wide open, and a second play where you had to re-set outside the pocket and nailed the open receiver this time. Mechanically, it looked like you didn't get your body turned around on the first throw. What kinds of mechanical consistencies are you working on as you're preparing for the NFL?
Mahomes: The first play was one where we had a lot of footwork—a lot of pump-fakes. We were faking a screen and letting the running back in motion pop out underneath it. I just didn't get my footwork and my body fully turned around—didn't set my feet to throw—and you saw the ball sail.
The second play was not necessarily a similar concept, but it was close. That was something where we have a post/curl route combination, which is the fourth read in that progression. I got a little pressure, so I slipped to the left, and I saw him open up, so I set my feet and put it on him. He ended up making a really good catch, though he fumbled at the end of the play.
B/R: So that was your fourth read? What were your progressions on that play?
Mahomes: We had a "99" [route call] to the right side, so you have a go route to the outside guy—that's your first read, if you like it. Then you have an out by the wide receiver, and an under route by the "H" receiver—that's the third read. And then, to the left, you have the fourth read, which is the post/curl.
B/R: Final question: I'm going to assume that you think you're the best quarterback in this draft class. Why is that the case, from your perspective?
Mahomes: I feel that I can do things no other quarterback in this draft class can do. Those guys are great quarterbacks, no doubt—[Deshaun] Watson, [Mitchell] Trubisky, [DeShone] Kizer, Davis [Webb]—all those guys have talent, and they'll be great quarterbacks in the NFL, but I feel that I have the most potential and the most upside. I feel that when I get a great NFL quarterback coach and offensive coordinator to help me out, I can be one of the best quarterbacks in the league.