The best quarterback in football watched the worst game of his career twice.
He was looking for something to learn from, because that’s sorta just what he does, and he found it. “Sometimes,” Patrick Mahomes told me, “when I get hit early, I don’t trust staying in the pocket and going through my reads.”
“I kind of get back to that backyard-style football a little bit too much. And you could definitely see that in the Super Bowl. I mean, there were times that pockets were clean and I was still scrambling,” Mahomes continued.
It’s been six months since the Super Bowl, a 31-9 Buccaneers win, and Mahomes and I are standing on the side of a practice field on a ludicrously hot Missouri afternoon to talk about what he’s gleaned since that night. The short answer is a lot. I came to St. Joseph, Missouri, to find out what comes next for the Chiefs. The answer is everything.
No serious person thinks the Chiefs lost the Super Bowl because of Mahomes. But that is almost the point: He’s learning from it anyway. He is an MVP, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and a Super Bowl champion whose team has made two Super Bowls and an AFC title game in his three seasons as a starter. He has united with coach Andy Reid to build one of the most impressive and sustainable offenses in league history. Part of what was so startling about the final game of the season was that in three years, Mahomes had developed a style of play that was almost always perfect. He was John Wick with a pencil or Kevin Durant with a burner Twitter account. All he needed for his entire career was a football and he could make magic happen. Statistically, the Super Bowl was the worst game of his career; it was the first game in his NFL life he lost by more than one score. But the story of the game was the Bucs’ fast defense speeding past a banged-up, makeshift Chiefs offensive line. The enduring image of February’s loss was Mahomes parallel to the ground, throwing a pretty good pass after getting tripped up in the backfield. In short, he wasn’t himself because he didn’t have the time to be. Mahomes was pressured 29 times—a Super Bowl record—and ran a total of 497 yards behind the line of scrimmage to avoid the Bucs’ pass rush. Todd Bowles’s defense accomplished that despite blitzing far less than usual, and it worked because the Bucs front was able to put near constant pressure on Mahomes while the defensive backs and linebackers did their jobs behind them.
“I think it’s pretty obvious to say how we needed to get better and the path we needed to take to get better. It was probably pretty clear to most football fans, even if you don’t work for the Chiefs,” general manager Brett Veach told me of the offseason. “You’re literally on the bus on the way back from the Super Bowl thinking ‘How are we going to get this done?’” The path, obviously, was fixing the offensive line. In the Super Bowl, the team was without longtime starters Eric Fisher (tore his Achilles in the AFC title game), Mitchell Schwartz (back injury), and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (a medical school graduate who opted out of the season and returned to the medical field). Veach, one of the best problem solvers in the sport, solved this one quickly once Fisher and Schwartz were both released. Veach traded for Ravens tackle Orlando Brown, signed Joe Thuney, drafted Creed Humphrey in the second round, and lured Kyle Long out of retirement. Mahomes will be playing behind an entirely different line this year. This is the story of how the 2021 Chiefs have spent the past six months learning the lessons of that night in Tampa.
Those next steps, obviously, extend to the August practice after which I met with Mahomes, and he detailed exactly how he’s building off of what he saw on tape. He continued his thought on playing too much “backyard football” that night. “So,” Mahomes said, “I’ve been going back [working] on that. Making sure that I trust the guys around me and trust the pocket, make the read within the pocket and not try to make the big play happen.”
This tendency to, as Mahomes puts it, stop trusting his reads after hits, is something he’s said he’s always focused on fixing, but he said he noticed it particularly in that February game. Now comes fixing it. “Days like today,” he said, “we have long drive drills. We’re going 15 and 16 plays in a row of stepping up in the pocket and making the right reads and not just relying on scrambling and making all these different throws. That’s just stuff that comes with repetition and a lot of hard work that I’ve tried to put in every single year.”
One interesting part of Mahomes’s constant education process is his close study of other quarterbacks. (He mentioned this habit to the NFL Network’s Kurt Warner earlier in camp.) When we chatted, I wanted to get as nerdy as possible with Mahomes and figure out exactly what he’s watching—and borrowing—from the league’s other quarterbacks. I was not disappointed. One thing that impresses me about Mahomes is his willingness to borrow from anything. He once told me that his warmup routine is borrowed from baseball. Mahomes told me this week he watches a combination of All-22 and other types of film to study. In other eras, such game film would be harder to access whenever you want it. “The best thing about today is that you can find all the different sources that you need and then I talk to those guys,” he said.
I went through the list. Aaron Rodgers? “I think the biggest thing with Aaron is you see how he’s evolved throughout his game. It’s kind of like what I’m talking about, where he used to scramble a lot more, make all the different throws, and now he can just completely dice you up through the pocket,” Mahomes said. “And then when those opportunities come and he starts scrambling, he makes the throws, and he can still do all that stuff. So I really watch that.”
And Tom Brady? “Brady, same thing. I mean, dicing them up within the pocket. But the way he’s able to move within the pocket and find those lanes and still make those big-time throws downfield is something that I think I need to get better at and something that I need to continue to grow with,” Mahomes said. “And so that’s definitely one thing I take from him.”
What about Josh Allen? “I think the biggest thing with Josh is, I mean, he does a lot of stuff similar to what I do as far as being able to work throughout the pocket and be able to make plays with his legs, but be able to scramble and kind of elongate plays and make different throws,” Mahomes said. “That whole offense in general is a great, great offense to watch and all the different schemes that they do and how they have success. It was definitely a good game to watch.”
Mahomes said he seeks out advice from Rodgers and Brady, among others. “I think people don’t realize all us guys talk. I talk to Aaron, I talk to Tom and they’re willing to give me advice,” he said. “I’m still a young guy in this league. I’m still trying to learn how to continue to have success every single year and so being able to talk like that with the guys is definitely a good thing.”
Mahomes is 25 years old. Last year, he signed a 10-year deal worth $450 million. There are very few future scenarios in which he is not the game’s best passer so long as he’s healthy and protected. I asked Mahomes about the mental side of it, how long it took him to start moving forward from last season. He said the loss stayed with him for a “week or two. And you kind of just move on, and that’s just the beauty of football is every single year, the year starts over no matter if you win or lose the Super Bowl. So we got a brand-new year, brand-new team, and we’re ready to go out there and make a run at it.” You hear that sort of thing a lot around Chiefs camp.
Veach said he did not learn anything about Mahomes that night he did not already know: He knew, for instance, that Mahomes would be a ferocious competitor even when getting chased in the backfield of a game that was out of reach in the fourth quarter. Mahomes, mind you, was playing with a turf toe injury. “I don’t think people realized how bad that toe was,” Veach said, noting that after Mahomes had surgery to fix the injury, doctors marveled that he played in the type of pain he must have had. “So it was the combination of knowing he was playing hurt, with the fact that we were shorthanded. It was tough to watch. Tough to stomach. Like a scene in a movie where the car is going off a cliff.”
Veach is one of the best GMs in football, in large part because he is the perfect general manager to pair with a franchise quarterback: He knows how to be “all in” every year and get the quarterback exactly what he needs. If you think all 32 GMs would have been able to overhaul that offensive line that quickly, then you haven’t met every NFL GM. Veach, Reid, and Mahomes play an equal role in the next steps for the franchise and so far, everyone’s doing their job.
Veach has become obsessed with Formula 1 racing. He supports Red Bull Racing and its main driver, Max Verstappen, because he was impressed with him during the Netflix series, Formula 1: Drive to Survive, and because the team reminded him of something. “I was up late one night and I put it on and I got hooked. It’s amazing. And I tell all the guys who don’t follow it: ‘Lewis Hamilton: Tom Brady. Max Verstappen: Pat Mahomes.’ And that’s how I kind of look at it.” For the uninitiated, Hamilton is a seven-time champion and a global icon, while Verstappen is the young king of the sport. Both are unquestionably the two best drivers at the moment and are fighting for the 2021 championship. Veach talked about why he liked the sport: All of the small edges combine to make big differences. It is quite easy to see why a detail-oriented general manager like Veach fell for Formula 1.
But in the case of the Chiefs, this was not about fixing 0.01 seconds of speed, this was about fixing a problem everyone with a television could see. Terrible injury luck led to an uncharacteristic performance and a sinking feeling in the stomach of basically everyone in the organization. “It was such a unique experience—the magnitude of the game, the Super Bowl, and not just that we lost, but how we lost,” Veach said. “We’ve lost games over the years. But we’ve always had a chance to win those games, and we always would’ve liked to have a play back here and there. Whether it be the AFC championship game that we lost to New England, or the Rams game that was a shootout, or, I mean, all types of scenarios. That was probably the first time and I don’t know how long—years—that we just weren’t in the game.”
Veach said it was hard to get the game out of his mind “not just from an evaluation standpoint, but an emotional standpoint.”
He jokes that if someone had told him before the season that the team would go 14-2, have the best record in franchise history, and win the AFC title game, there’s no way he wouldn’t find it an unbelievable accomplishment. “But the way we lost, you had this feeling that … ” Veach said before pausing. “You felt like you were the worst team in the league after that.”
Veach thinks that no matter how you evaluate the season—whether through the prism of that one game or through the entire year—the answer is to get younger on the offensive line. The team has a chance to start two rookies opening week in Humphrey, a second-round pick, and Trey Smith, a sixth-rounder. Veach and I have talked before about how they maximize their roster, which Veach has built since he became general manager in 2017 working alongside Reid. Part of the thing that impressed me in my time around the Chiefs is the chemistry within all facets of the organization. “I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to just look in the mirror,” Veach said. “And I think that’s why we’re successful. I think we’re all real with each other. And we all understand that we’re in this to get better. After a game like that, it’s easy to point fingers. But that wasn’t our mindset, our mindset was ‘Let’s work together to get better.’ And whether that be Pat and his play, the players, the coaches, game planning and the personnel department, we’re always on the same page and work together to figure this out.” Building a roster a year after signing Mahomes to the biggest deal in history comes with “the stuff that I think you would assume,” Veach said. That means less aggression in free agency, more patience to find the exact right fit for a player, making sure everyone you bring in fits “schematically and culturally,” and of course using the draft, in which players are on significantly smaller contracts for at least four years.
I asked Mahomes a similar question: Are you scouting yourself from the 2020 season or the Super Bowl? “I look at every game pretty much the same,” he said. “I go through the whole entire season, we go through the whole entire scheme eval[uation], and we just figure out what we did good and what we did bad. And I mean, we did a lot of good last year, I think we get lost in that with how we played in the Super Bowl. And so we take from that and try to learn ways to get better and try to find a way to win at this next year.”
The topic turned, of course, to golf, which Mahomes loves because, well, he’s an NFL quarterback. He played when he was younger, and his dad played, of course, being an MLB pitcher. In his first NFL offseason, he realized how much free time he had and he didn’t want to “sit around playing video games. So I started golfing a lot and kind of fell in love with the grind of trying to get better.”
That last part sounds familiar. The 2021 Chiefs are getting better, and that started six months ago.