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Chiefs Provide Perfect Environment for Patrick Mahomes' Development

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutJune 5, 2017

May 6, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II (15) gets the ball during the rookie mini camp at the University of Kansas Hospital Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Kansas City Chiefs went 12-4 and won the AFC West with a great defense, a sound running game, and the disciplined, relatively unspectacular quarterback play of Alex Smith. However, they were unable to progress past the divisional round of the playoffs, losing 18-16 to the Pittsburgh Steelers despite keeping Pittsburgh out of the end zone. It took six Chris Boswell field goals and a failed two-point conversion with less than three minutes left in the game for the Steelers to escape with the win. 

Smith threw a touchdown pass to receiver Albert Wilson in the first quarter, but his stats were otherwise underwhelming—20 completions on 34 attempts for just 172 yards, that touchdown and an interception. It was par for the course for Smith, who threw for more than 300 yards just once last season (the season opener against the Chargers) and never managed more than two touchdowns in a game.

After four years with Smith at the helm, head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey recognized the need for more from the game's most important position. In the 2017 draft, they moved from 27th overall to 10th by giving up one of their two 2017 third-round picks and their 2018 first-rounder to select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a freewheeling gunslinger who couldn't be more different than Smith.

"He's got that core strength like Ben Roethlisberger," Reid said of Mahomes to Fox Sports 1's Colin Cowherd on May 1. "He's got a little bit of the craziness like Brett Favre had, where he can kind of throw from every different angle you can imagine. He's got arm strength like a few of the quarterbacks I've had, including Brett. And he's got a nice little feel in the pocket."

Reid also said Smith will be the team's starter to begin the 2017 season, because Mahomes, coming from Kliff Kingsbury's version of the Air Raid offense at Texas Tech, will need some time to settle into the NFL way of doing things.

"He's coming from an offense that isn't real similar to what we do, so there's going to be some learning here," Reid continued. "We don't expect him to play this year; we've got Alex. But we sure want him to prepare that way and to learn that way. You've got to have that urgency to do that and that little kick to the tail that you need to make sure you keep your nose to the grinder on the playbook and the different operations that we roll with."

The shorthand version of this story is that the Chiefs were tired of the reliable, so they drafted a spread offense kid with a big arm in hopes he can adapt. It's a story we've heard regarding many NFL teams in the past. What makes the Chiefs different is that they've been proactively mainstreaming these kinds of transitions. They may just have been waiting for the right guy to come along the fit the suit they've already tailored.

The Chiefs hired Brad Childress in 2013 as their "Spread Game Analyst" in part to analyze how college offenses differ than those in the NFL and how best to ease the transition. In 2013, they also hired former Nevada head coach Chris Ault, inventor of the Pistol offense and Colin Kaepernick's college coach, as an offensive consultant, a position Ault held for two seasons.

"Anyone who pays attention sees [its influence on lower levels of football] and you have to understand the nuances to understand the sport," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey told The Ringer's Kevin Clark in August 2016. "When I used to see high school or even youth football, they were just running the ball, or running the Wing-T. Now they are running the spread option, and that has an impact on the professional game."

So, Reid and his staff have been preparing for years to take a spread-experienced quarterback and mold him to their offense. Mahomes is their ideal for the future.

The fit already works in the concept of ball distribution in the Chiefs' offense. Reid is a disciple of the West Coast offense, and while he has deployed deep threats to take the top off a defense when he's had quarterbacks with better arms than Smith's, he's adapted to his quarterback's limitations similarly to how Jim Harbaugh did in San Francisco. With Smith, the idea is to keep drives going with a shorter passing game in which receivers are tasked with getting yards after the catch. If Smith doesn't have an easy open read, especially deep, he can either bail out of the pocket or take a sack, but both the Harbaugh and Reid offenses directed him to avoid making crucial mistakes at all costs.

May 23, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) runs drills as quarterback Alex Smith (11) looks on during the organized team activities at the University of Kansas Hospital Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Denny
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

As a result, the Chiefs have had a reliable but limited quarterback situation. They can trust Smith to do what he does and nothing more. Through his four years in Kansas City, he's averaged 312 completions on 483 attempts for 3,392 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions per season, with little variance from year to year.

The system isn't exciting and has a clear ceiling, but it works for the most part. Still, you can't blame a coach for wanting to bust out of that predictable set of results, especially when they put disproportionate pressure on the defense and the running game to make up for the explosive plays Smith can't create.

Just as Harbaugh stuck with the tantalizing upside of Colin Kaepernick after Smith suffered a concussion halfway through the 2012 season, the Chiefs' need for more dynamic plays informed the decision to move up and take Mahomes, despite him having played in a college offense that hasn't produced anything close to an NFL-level quarterback.

Smith completed 15 passes of 20 or more yards in the air last season, according to Pro Football Focus, ranking 25th in the NFL. Mahomes, meanwhile, threw 15 touchdowns on passes 20 or more yards in the air for Texas Tech last year, per PFF, with 35 completions. That's why the Chiefs wanted him, and that's why they're smart to let Smith hold down the fort until Mahomes is ready to seize control.

Though the systems differ from school to school, most spread quarterbacks are accustomed to thin playbooks with simple play verbiage, stuff that's easy to spit out when you're in a no-huddle offense.

"[College spread quarterbacks] never had to say, 'Red Switch Right Closed End Right Split Z Halfback Flat' — they don't know who to talk to when and when to take a breath," Childress told Clark.

That's the common issue, but based on Mahomes' conversation with Bleacher Report in mid-April, Chiefs fans shouldn't fret too much about his ability to pick up the verbiage of Reid's offense from a complexity standpoint. When asked for the most complicated play call he had in college, he gave this back in rapid-fire fashion—not just the call, but the concept:

"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]."

Mahomes will have to learn an NFL playbook, and he'll have to adjust to defenses that are far better and more complex than anything he had to deal with in college, but that's par for the course with college quarterbacks. He's coming from a no-huddle system in which he didn't go under center, and the nature of the offense he played in forced defenses to blitz infrequently and drop to cover areas of the field far more often. Mahomes seems aware of the differences, and in this environment, he's en route to the development he'll need.

But Mahomes will need to move past the tendency to freelance far too much with deep passes if he's going to be a consistent distributor in Reid's offense. His four interceptions on deep passes in 2016 tell a far more positive story than what the tape shows. Against Texas, he threw seven deep balls that could have been picked. Some almost were to varying degrees, and they certainly could have been against NFL defenders who are far more efficient and practiced at closing to (and catching) the ball.

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For the denouement, here's the actual interception that stopped Texas Tech's last-second attempt to win the game.  

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These wasted and busted plays arise from different issues—whether Mahomes is not throwing from a solid base, not reading the coverage correctly or he's just trying to make things happen that aren't going to work, the desire to play this far outside of structure is worrisome. If he doesn't correct this, little else will matter—he'll either keep throwing deep interceptions and wash out as a complete NFL quarterback, or his coaches will have to put him in a restrictive suit, making him a less consistent version of Smith.

Fortunately, Mahomes seems to have a handle on the realities of the transition.

"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," he told B/R in April. "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."

That randomness is where the Brett Favre comparisons arise. Mahomes will create plays other quarterbacks can't because he has superior physical attributes and a high level of confidence in his abilities, but he'll also create problems other quarterbacks won't because that belief can morph into a lack of situational awareness. It took a long time for Green Bay's coaching staff to break Favre of his more erroneous gunslinger tendencies and mold him into a near-perfect model of athleticism and efficiency, and Favre would still go off-script at times with less than optimal results.

Favre recently spoke with BJ Kissel of Chiefs.com about the lessons Reid taught him when Reid was an offensive coach for the Packers from 1992 through 1998.

"Andy was great at simplifying it. That's what he does.

"'You see this? This is what is coming," Favre recalled regarding what Reid would tell him in film sessions. "This [defender] will tell you right now, so have a plan when you see this. If they come with a strong blitz, you need to come with this play, or any of these three plays in your toolbox.

"Don't have 25 plays. If you have 25, you're just going to pick one to the hell of it."

Simplification of the process will be a big part of Mahomes' early development. While he does have random and dangerous elements to his playing style, he also puts together chunks of drive-extending plays that perpetuate an offense.

Mahomes attempted a ridiculous 88 passes against Oklahoma last season, completing 52 of those for 734 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. He was tasked to create entire drives with the passing game in Texas Tech's 66-59 loss, and he did so successfully. Yes, the Red Raiders lost, but it's not Mahomes' fault that his team's defense was hot garbage. He did everything he could to keep his offense on the field—Texas Tech had 14 drives against the Sooners, and eight of those drives lasted at least eight plays.

As was the case in any game last season, Mahomes showed elements of velocity and accuracy against Oklhaoma that would excite any NFL talent evaluator. This 31-yard completion to Cameron Batson early in the first quarter tells you what kind of quarterback Mahomes can be.

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This is no noodle-armed hothouse flower who needs a spread offense to survive. He timed the throw perfectly to the route, put the right amount of arc on it and dropped it in a place where Batson could catch it in stride.

Mahomes has plenty of work to do before he can supplant Smith as the Chiefs' starting quarterback. But he's ahead of the game in terms of arm talent, he's smart enough to know what he doesn't know and he has a coaching staff that has paved the way for his eventual arrival.

The rest will be up to him.

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