Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes set an impossible standard even he can't replicate during the 2019 campaign.
Very few players earn the designation of must-see television. Mahomes did last season after becoming the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000-plus yards and 50 or more touchdowns on his way to winning the league's MVP award.
Mahomes obliterated multiple single-season Chiefs records with 383 completions, 5,097 passing yards, 50 touchdowns, a 113.8 quarterback rating and an 82 QBR. In September, he became the 10th quarterback in NFL history to throw 10 touchdown passes during a two-game stretch. And then, two months later, the first to ever do so twice.
"He's in a position where he can make everybody better around him and he's doing that," head coach Andy Reid said of his 23-year-old quarterback after he set the team record for touchdown passes, per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher.
Mahomes mesmerized onlookers during his first season with a level of prestidigitation that would make America's Got Talent grand champion Shin Lim jealous. The first-year starter displayed unbelievable arm strength and absurd escapability while making throws other quarterbacks simply can't—like a no-look completion and a left-handed pass, or his wraparound tosses and majestic, off-balance bombs.
According to Pro Football Focus, the first-team All-Pro ranked first with a 134.2 quarterback rating from the pocket, a 94.4 grade working outside the pocket and 24 big-time throws under pressure.
Every week, Mahomes trended on social media thanks to another amazing play or performance. His natural talent isn't in question here; his surrounding cast is. The schedule won't help the quarterback replicate his previous seasons, either.
Reid's point about Mahomes making his teammates better is vital to elite quarterback play, and the third-year quarterback should naturally grow during his third season.
"I just listen to him at the line of scrimmage and the calls he's making and how he's protecting himself and the snap counts he's putting on and he really is, like, the master at the piano," former Chiefs assistant head coach Brad Childress told Yahoo Sports' Terez Paylor before January's AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. "Even though he's gonna get better, you [already] see him on the keyboard hitting the far left note and far right note."
But the Chiefs offense doesn't present the same surrounding cast now as it did at the start of the 2018 campaign. Significant changes at running back, the offensive line and possibly wide receiver—depending on Tyreek Hill's status—portend a regression to the mean for Mahomes' production.
History doesn't side with the Kansas City quarterback. Every passer who has eclipsed 5,000 passing yards experienced some level of regression the following season.
|Top-11 Passing Seasons, Following Year Differential|
|Pro Football Reference|
Many factors contribute to these declines, but only one signal-caller, the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, successfully logged multiple 5,000-yard campaigns. Yet Brees experienced wide variances in successive seasons. Even he, the NFL's all-time leading passer, who posted three straight 5,000-yard seasons from 2011-13, saw slight dropoffs in yardage and touchdown passes.
Mahomes posted only the third 50-touchdown campaign in NFL history, which doesn't provide much in terms of statistical relevance. However, 12 different 40-or-more-touchdown seasons have occurred, not including Mahomes' 2018 performance. As it did for 5,000-yard passers, production declined the following year.
Generally, regression is viewed negatively. In this case, the term is used as a return to expected, instead of superhuman, levels. Mahomes remains one of the NFL's best. He'll be forced to deal with certain inevitabilities, though.
"We lost some guys, some guys we've counted on here for a few years," Reid told reporters during his opening offseason press conference. "They're good football players, and we wish them the best, on both sides of the ball, but [wide receiver Chris Conley and center Mitch Morse] for sure."
Morse opened and ended last season as the Chiefs' starting center. He then became the highest-paid center in league history (in annual salary) when he signed a four-year, $44.5 million free-agent deal with the Buffalo Bills.
Austin Reiter steps in as the starting center after signing a two-year, $4.5 million contract extension. The 27-year-old blocker started four games last season after Morse suffered a concussion. Reiter's experience working with the unit will help ease the transition, but the responsibilities of making calls and snapping will not be quite the same.
The Chiefs already overcame last year's release of Kareem Hunt. Damien Williams averaged 114.4 total yards from scrimmage over the team's final five games (including the playoffs). Kansas City rewarded Williams with a two-year, $5.1 million contract extension.
But Williams isn't Hunt, who led the league with 1,327 rushing yards during the 2017 campaign and the Chiefs last season with 824.
General manager Brett Veach brought in reinforcements. Carlos Hyde signed a one-year, $2.8 million deal, while Kansas City drafted Utah State's Darwin Thompson in the sixth round.
Wide receiver is a far bigger issue.
Conley signed a two-year, $4.59 million deal to serve as the Jacksonville Jaguars' vertical threat. Meanwhile, as the Chiefs await Hill's fate, the organization doesn't know if it will have the three-time Pro Bowler at its disposal.
Currently, Hill is banned from the Chiefs facilities after a recording surfaced which seemingly implicates the wide receiver of mental and physical abuse of his three-year-old child and fiancee, Crystal Espinal. The league has yet to intervene, but a potential suspension looms. The NFL can use the Commissioner's Exempt List and previous suspensions to validate a long-term dismissal even if Hill isn't found guilty of any crimes.
Greg Hardy's case established a precedent since the defensive end missed all but one game of the 2014 campaign while allegations of domestic violence worked their way through the court system.
Right now, the Chiefs have two options: release Hill to show the franchise doesn't condone such actions, or wait. Either way, the Chiefs offense won't be nearly as dynamic, even with the addition of second-round rookie Mecole Hardman.
According to Fantrax's Nate Hamilton, Hunt and Hill alone accounted for 36.4 percent of Mahomes' passing yardage and 38 percent of his touchdown tosses.
A lesser talent level while facing a tougher schedule doesn't bode well. According to ESPN.com's Mike Clay, 12 of the Chiefs' 16 games will "be against defenses projected to be better than average."
Furthermore, Veach attempted to overhaul last year's 31st-ranked defense. Kansas City's season came to an end because the defense allowed 524 total yards and couldn't stop the Patriots in overtime. Dee Ford, Justin Houston, Steven Nelson and Eric Berry are gone. Insert Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu, Emmanuel Ogbah and rookie Juan Thornhill.
If there's no significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball, Mahomes will be forced to carry the offense and may not be bailed out as many times since he won't have the same complement of skill-position performers.
Mahomes is still growing and learning. He very well could be a better player next year as his understanding of the game expands, but due to factors beyond his control, no one should expect the star to replicate last season's stats.