Win or lose, Patrick Mahomes represents the future of the NFL
No one was talking much about Patrick Mahomes the first time he went to what’s now known as Empower Field at Mile High, back in Week 17 of the 2017 season.
It was Mahomes’ debut as an NFL starting quarterback, and while his potential for excellence was suspected by a small collection of Kansas City Chiefs employees, it was yet to be unleashed on the wider public.
It was Denver-style chilly — 17 degrees at the peak — and frankly, not a lot of people were paying attention. There wasn’t much reason to. The Chiefs had clinched the AFC West with enough ease that Andy Reid was resting several starters, including Alex Smith. The Broncos were rounding out a forgettable campaign.
And even when Mahomes uncorked a beautiful deep throw to Demetrius Harris for 51 yards on the opening drive and helped the team hang on for a 27-24 victory, it was low in the storyline pecking order for the day.
Fast forward to the Chiefs’ Thursday Night Football visit to the Broncos (FOX, kickoff at 8.20 p.m. ET), and Mahomes is arguably the most exciting QB in the league, seen by many as moving the position — along with Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans — into a new era.
“These are two new school guys who act like old school guys in the best possible way,” FOX analyst Jay Glazer told me via telephone this week. “Some players come into the league and want this and that, and want to be famous.
“Mahomes and Watson want nothing more than to work hard and to play hard. They give it their all and they understand that approach is the best way to be successful. Let all the other stuff take care of itself. That’s why they are the quarterbacking future of the league. It all comes from the old school dedication and effort.”
Mahomes will need to implement every bit of that work ethic to play through what has turned into the first real struggle of his pro career. The Chiefs have (gasp!) lost two straight games and the 24-year-old is seeking to avoid losing three in a row for the first time ever.
While everything Mahomes touched turned to gold last season, this time around there have been significant challenges. Mahomes has battled his own ankle injury, while his offensive line has been decimated by key injuries. Meanwhile, teams have shown far more willingness to challenge the Chiefs with man-to-man defense.
After losing to Watson and the Houston Texans last weekend, Mahomes was replaced by Russell Wilson as the FOX Bet favorite to win the MVP award, with Watson (also 24 years old) not far behind. When Mahomes burst through to become the hottest QB in the business last season, he perhaps didn’t expect such heated competition for that status so quickly.
“If you told me I had to pick one for the next 10 years, I would take Mahomes,” FS1’s Colin Cowherd said. “Because he doesn’t have any injuries and Deshaun has two. Kansas City is going to be fine. Mahomes is going to be first-ballot Hall of Fame. My takeaway is this: when you look at the weapons and the running game and the O lines, it’s a coin flip.”
The Chiefs are a favorite on the road, despite losing to the Texans and the Indianapolis Colts consecutively to derail their perfect start. The Broncos, meanwhile, have bounced back from a dismal start to the season and have won two straight.
Kansas City knows all about Mahomes’ physical capabilities and penchant for exhilarating plays. What it is hoping to see now is resiliency under duress.
“I’ve definitely been through adverse times when I was in college of not winning the game I felt like we could have won,” Mahomes told reporters. “It’s a long season. You can figure it out. There are difficult times in the NFL.”
According to NFL.com, the Chiefs dipped to 18.5 points per game over the past two weeks, having led the league with 35.0 over the previous 20 games. Since Week 4, Mahomes’ passer rating has fallen from 134.9 to 89.3 — 16th in the NFL.
Despite this, he is still the QB everyone wants to watch. USA TODAY’s Lorenzo Reyes, in comparing today’s young quarterbacks with some of the all-time greats, likened Mahomes to Aaron Rodgers ... with a caveat.
“Objectively speaking, Mahomes may be in his own category,” Reyes wrote. “He won the NFL MVP last season after just turning 23. While Rodgers has more experience and a proven track record, Mahomes is gifted with more arm strength, and he consistently churns out plays that defy the norms. Perhaps the scariest thing for the rest of the NFL? The kid is still learning the position.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how much the NFL world thinks of Mahomes is this: despite his tender years and with only one full season of starting experience to his name, this current two-game mini-blip is seen as a noteworthy surprise.
It’s not just the thin air of Colorado he’s breathing this week; Mahomes’ career is already in true rarefied territory. And now? A nationally-televised opportunity to put his season back on track, which could scarcely have come at a better time.