If you simply watched Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes play without paying attention to where the ball ended up, you would wonder how he made it to the NFL playing so recklessly. The way he dances around the pocket with gusto, the sidearm angles at which he passes, the across-his-body throws, the no-look bullets –- these are not things most NFL quarterbacks are supposed to even think about trying.
Yet Mahomes, who faces the 49ers' No. 2-ranked defense in the Super Bowl on Sunday, has produced at a historically dominant level playing with this street-ball mentality. Week after week, the top-10 highlight packages are peppered with moments of Mahomes magic -- bombs thrown to Tyreek Hill while scrambling, precisely placed corner routes to Travis Kelce, pinpoint strikes under pressure to Mecole Hardman.
The gunslinger from Texas Tech is an elite quarterback. There is absolutely zero way to craft a solid argument suggesting otherwise. However, the real question is, How great is Mahomes? With an excellent play-caller at head coach, a star-studded receiving corps, and a standout offensive line, has he benefited from a terrific supporting cast more than most realize? Or is Mahomes, who threw for 4,031 yards and 26 TDs this season, truly the best quarterback in the world?
Those are questions I set out to answer in analyzing the All-22 angles of every play from Mahomes’ 2019 season. I graded each play (excluding handoffs, of course) to get a gauge on his true overall performance level. By taking into account drops, pressure, throw difficulty, ball placement, down/distance, game situation and decision-making (did the quarterback choose the best option available?), we can get a more accurate evaluation of a quarterback’s performance. A box score does not account for these important factors.
I scored each Mahomes play on a 0-to-10 scale. An average play (screen passes, throwaways) received a 5, an inexcusably brutal play (awful turnovers or should-be turnovers) earned a 0, and the perfect play (flawlessly placed throws into tight windows under heavy pressure) warranted a 10. Most plays fall somewhere in the middle, with “plus” efforts scoring above 5 and “minus” efforts below. Each game’s final score was scaled from 0-100, with 50 being average.
Let’s dig into Mahomes’ 2019 season.
BEST GAME: Week 2 at Raiders (93.2 grade)
Mahomes put up stellar numbers, completing 30 of 44 passes for 443 yards (10.1 per attempt), three touchdowns and no interception and generating a 131.2 passer rating (90.4 is league average). Stat lines often tell the wrong story about how well the quarterback actually played, which we will get into plenty later on. In this case, Mahomes’ performance matched up with his outstanding numbers.
The Raiders were awful defensively in 2019, ranking 31st in DVOA. Mahomes beat them down as brutally as you would expect. In the second quarter, he had a seven-play stretch that might stand against any in the history of the league. He completed each of his final seven passes in the quarter for 210 yards and three touchdowns, with six of those completions being elite-level plays.
Mahomes was as Mahomes-ian as ever during this stretch, anticipating pressure and sliding away before it arrived to buy himself space. He completed tight-window deep throws on the move with wonderful precision. When the pocket was clean, he set himself and patiently dropped vertical throws down the sideline right into the bucket.
On this 3rd-and-20 play late in the second quarter, Mahomes begins sliding to the outside the instant it is clear pressure will come up the middle. This is an innate feel that Mahomes has at a level few quarterbacks ever have -– it’s Aaron Rodgers-esque. By doing this, Mahomes buys himself room to throw in a situation where most other quarterbacks would have been sacked or hit while throwing. It is still a highly pressured, off-balance throw, but Mahomes has the gift of an arm that can deliver accurate throws off a non-traditional base with ease. Mahomes effortlessly drops the ball over two defenders into the waiting arms of Mecole Hardman, who does not break stride.
Mahomes’ performance in the divisional round against Houston was a close second, grading 91.7. The Chiefs' offense made life tough on Mahomes early, dropping passes and allowing heavy pressure, but he remained poised and made play after play outside the pocket to help erase Houston’s 24-0 lead. He was particularly good in the red zone, producing classic Mahomes moments with a laser-beam touchdown up the seam to Damien Williams and a leaping flick to Travis Kelce for another score.
WORST GAME: Week 6 vs. Texans (36.9 grade)
Mahomes is highly consistent, as I only graded two of his 16 games below an average grade of 50. His worst game was in a 31-24 loss at home to the Texans in Week 6.
Mahomes put up solid numbers, completing 19 of 35 passes for 273 yards (7.8 per attempt), three touchdowns and one interception and generating a 96.5 passer rating. But those numbers don't reflect how poorly he played. Houston did an excellent job keeping Mahomes from escaping the pocket.
Thanks to his sublime accuracy and football IQ, Mahomes rarely makes costly mistakes, but the Houston game was one of the few instances in which his aggressive mentality produced negative results. In addition to an interception and a lost fumble, Mahomes threw two other passes that should have been intercepted, one of those seen below. Mahomes foolishly tries to squeeze this ball to Hill into an air-tight window between the corner and safety, and it is caught by Texans safety Justin Reid. Fortunately for Mahomes’ fantasy owners, Reid does not get two feet in bounds.
Mahomes’ only other sub-50 game was a 47.5 performance in New England, a game the Chiefs won, 23-16. The Patriots were so dominant defensively that Mahomes’ mediocre outing was one of the few decent quarterback performances they allowed all season.
Against New England, Mahomes played conservatively, a rare event, doing a nice job avoiding costly mistakes and keeping the chains moving. Those may seem like two simple tasks, but most quarterbacks could not come close to fulfilling them against the Patriots in 2019.
On the downside, Mahomes’ conservative approach led to him passing up open targets in the 20-plus yard range. A lack of big plays outside of the pocket was a common thread in Mahomes’ worst games.
MOST UNDERRATED GAME BY BOX SCORE: Week 5 vs. Colts
In a nationally televised game against the Colts in Week 5, the Chiefs, 4-0 at the time, lost 19-13. It marked the fewest points scored by Kansas City in a game started by Mahomes. The face of the Chiefs' franchise face threw for 321 yards (8.2 per attempt), one touchdown, no picks and generated a 91.9 passer rating.
After the loss, the national narrative was the Colts “shut down” Mahomes and “got the best” of him. Did Indy discover Mahomes’ kryptonite? Hardly. The reality was this was Mahomes fifth consecutive strong game to start the season, but he was let down by his supporting cast.
I scored Mahomes with a 91.2 grade against Indianapolis, his third-best game of the season. He was as dialed in as ever, delivering some of his most beautiful deep throws of 2019.
Why did K.C. score only 13 points? Blame everyone on offense not named Mahomes. The following deep shot to running back Damien Williams is a great encapsulation of how things went for Mahomes that night. This is an amazing throw, landing right in the bucket over tight coverage, but the ball slips through Williams’ hands.
The offensive line was terrible, taking five penalties and yielding a pressure rate of 42.2 percent (eighth highest of the week). Mahomes still threw for a 114.2 passer rating under that pressure, fourth best of the week. Down the field, the receiving corps gave Mahomes few options on many dropbacks due to a lack of separation, and they failed to haul in well-placed throws in contested situations.
The Indianapolis game is the leader in this category, but there are other strong candidates. In Weeks 11-12, Mahomes threw for 5.7 and 6.0 yards per attempt against the Chargers and Raiders, respectively, the two worst marks of his career. However, I graded him at 63.3 and 74.1 in those games.
Despite the lackluster statistical production, Mahomes’ unproductive plays were rarely his fault over that two-game stretch. The screen game faltered, limiting his yardage. On several plays, Mahomes had nowhere to go with the ball, either because of a lack of separation or a poor play call. Drops were a common issue against Oakland, including two by Kelce and one by Hill.
Many of Mahomes’ best plays over this stretch resulted in limited yardage after the catch, capping his numbers and masking how well he actually performed. He commonly made some big-time intermediate completions under heavy duress, turning should-be sacks or throwaways into short first-down completions. Always keep in mind how much a box score can lie, especially in the sample size of a single game.
MOST OVERRATED GAME BY BOX SCORE: Week 1 at Jaguars
Mahomes’ best 2019 passer rating was in Week 1 in a 40-26 win in Jacksonville. He completed 25 of 33 passes for 378 yards (season-best 11.5 per attempt), three touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 143.2.
This was indeed a strong performance by Mahomes, but it was nowhere near as stellar as the numbers suggest. Mahomes executed his role effectively, but circumstances made his job extremely easy. The offensive line was excellent, and the Jaguars busted numerous coverages, opening some of the biggest deep throwing windows you will see in the NFL.
Mahomes took advantage of those mistakes to rack up big numbers. On the downside, Mahomes missed on a handful of easy opportunities: misfiring on a short out route, airmailing an open Kelce in the end zone on a scramble drill, and failing to see an open Demarcus Robinson running a post route with a free lane into the end zone.
Do not get it twisted. Mahomes was excellent in Jacksonville. Completing throws downfield is difficult no matter how open the windows are, and it also takes some headiness to consistently recognize busted coverages. Quarterbacks often leave easy deep shots on the field. Mahomes converted the gift-wrapped deep opportunities presented to him at an elite level against the Jaguars (as he usually does).
However, given the ease of his role that afternoon, it simply is not close to Mahomes’ best performance of the season.
BEST PLAY OF SEASON
My pick for Mahomes’ best play of the season probably does not show up on any highlight video. That's because it wasn't even a completed pass.
I love everything about this throw from Mahomes at Tennessee in Week 10. Pressure comes immediately as nobody blocks the outside linebacker to Mahomes’ right. Mahomes processes it so quickly, appearing to understand this pressure would be coming before the ball even reaches his hands. He knows exactly where he is going with the football, winding up to throw to Sammy Watkins on a wheel route to the right side. When Mahomes begins his throwing motion, Watkins has barely begun to turn upfield.
The pass is perfect. With the rusher in his grill and Watkins suffocated by Logan Ryan, Mahomes drops it right in the breadbasket. Watkins loses it following a nice play by Ryan, but it does not take away from the incredible effort by Mahomes on this rep.
Tennessee dialed up a play that beat what Kansas City had called, generating instant uncontested pressure and blanketing the first read. Yet Mahomes was so prepared for the situation and executed the throw so perfectly that he gave his offense a golden opportunity at a huge pickup on a snap in which they were left for dead. This is what makes Mahomes so difficult to stop. No matter how well the defense executes, he is always capable of finding a way to get the football into a receiver’s hands.
WORST PLAY OF SEASON
Mahomes can afford to play the way he does because he's an excellent decision-maker who processes information quickly. However, there are rare occasions where his aggressive mindset results in a boneheaded throw, such as the following play against the Raiders.
This is one of the most egregious plays of Mahomes’ career. It is 3rd and 14, so Mahomes is in attack mode as he looks to move the chains, but nothing opens up as he extends the play and nears the sideline. He needs to admit defeat in this situation and throw the ball away. Usually Mahomes does not need to throw footballs into the stands because he can complete any pass from any angle, but this play is an exception. There is nothing here. Recklessly, he throws across his body toward the middle of the field, hitting Raiders cornerback Nevin Lawson on the numbers.
Mahomes was trying to lead Watkins, who was trailing behind Lawson, but the angle from which he throws makes it nearly impossible to put enough air under the ball to get it deep enough. Lawson drops the ball, but this should have been a Raiders touchdown. This play is a major outlier, though. Mahomes is usually smart about his risk-taking, doing a nice job avoiding shots that are accompanied by a high turnover risk like the one shown above.
Q&A: Is Mahomes a product of skill-position talent around him?
Hill and Kelce are elite players and wide receivers Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson and Sammy Watkins provide top-end speed, but I think Mahomes makes his receivers look good more than the other way around. Mahomes’ ability to extend plays is what provides Kelce and Hill with ample time to make multiple moves and separate from the defense. Mahomes also does an excellent job placing the ball in the right spot to allow his receivers to maximize yardage after the catch.
Kansas City has one of the best pass-catching groups in the league. That unit is the driving force that allows Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense to produce at a high level. Regardless, Mahomes’ greatness is definitely not merely a product of having those players at his disposal. When you watch him closely, it is clear that he could probably get it done at a high level with any team’s skill-position players. Probably not quite as high a level, because few (if any) teams have as much offensive talent as the Chiefs do. But Mahomes would do damage in any scheme with any talent.
How much is Mahomes buoyed by his offensive line?
The Chiefs have an elite offensive line, but Mahomes is perhaps the best quarterback in the league at mitigating pressure. He was sacked just 11.4 percent of the time when taking pressure in 2019, the third-lowest rate among qualifiers. In 2018, Mahomes ranked second in the same category (11.6 percent). He is a master at evading pressure, keeping the odds of success alive even when protection breaks down. This ability would likely make Mahomes a consistent threat even on a team with a brutal offensive front.
Although Mahomes is elite at making up for allowed pressure, the Chiefs' offensive line still raises the ceiling of the offense. The unit’s high-level pass protection sets the tone for the speedy receivers to win on vertical routes and for Mahomes to set and fire from cushy pockets. Mahomes led the NFL with an average of 18.1 yards per attempt on throws over 20 yards downfield.
Imagine trying to concoct a game plan that can contain an offense with the most efficient deep passer in football throwing to the trio of Hill (40-yard time of 4.25 seconds), Hardman (4.33), and Watkins (4.43) behind an elite line.
What is Mahomes’ best trait?
Mahomes' innate feel for pressure sets him apart from other QBs. He is expert at making his own job easier, naturally sliding away from rushers before they can come close to impeding him. Seemingly the instant a defender beats his blocker and has a lane to Mahomes’ position, Mahomes drifts away to safety. He uses his spatial awareness at an exceptional level on every long-developing passing play, avoiding hits and creating comfortable throwing opportunities for himself.
Most quarterbacks simply drop back, go through their reads, and then scramble, attempting to evade rushers only when they are dangerously near. This approach leads to unnecessarily hindered throwing attempts due to late reactions, and time taken away from analyzing the field due to reckless scrambling. Conversely, Mahomes is always two steps ahead, steadily shifting away from areas pressure could potentially be coming from before defenders can even begin pursuit. By doing this, Mahomes is able to create un-pressured throws in situations where other quarterbacks would take hits, and scan the field at times where others would be focusing on running away from defenders.
It is almost as if Mahomes is always in a perfectly clean pocket. His lightning-quick reaction time is what sets him up for many of his greatest moments, as he buys himself extra time and space no other quarterback could. While on the move, Mahomes always has his eyes downfield and is ready to fire at any given moment.
Is Mahomes the NFL's best QB?
Ravens QB Lamar Jackson deserves to win the 2019 MVP award, but Mahomes is easily the best QB in the league. He uses his special gifts to make positive things happen in situations where no other player could, and he does it consistently.