The 2018 season of Patrick Mahomes was as great as you remember it. The no-look pass, the incredible game-saving fourth-and-nine throw under pressure across his body sprinting right to save the win over Baltimore, putting up 71 points in the two duels to the end (both losses) against Brady and Belichick, piloting the offense to 31.8 points per game after the stunning firing of Kareem Hunt. Doing it all at age 23. I saw Brett Favre recently, and he said he doesn’t watch much NFL these days—but when Mahomes is on, he does.
Kansas City is a giddy city these days, and it revolves around Mahomes and the Chiefs. The valet-parking guy at my hotel here saw me and raved about Mahomes. “He’s almost too good. What a kid,” he said. At a Royals game, a fan said to me, “I’ve never seen this place so fired up about the Chiefs. It’s Mahomes.” You just feel it.
Talk to those around the Chiefs, and they’ll tell you that Mahomes the leader, the team-influencer, has been nearly as impressive as Mahomes the player. In the long run, that stuff matters—not nearly as much as the magical stuff and pure production that Mahomes has brought to the Chiefs. But it’s important to the ethos of a championship team. It’s just another reason I’m picking the Chiefs to win their first Super Bowl in 50 years.
The prime example of Mahomes the leader came the day after the Hunt news broke. The Chiefs fired Hunt when they discovered he’d been untruthful with them about an incident when he was found to have abused a woman in Cleveland in the offseason. The next day, a Saturday, the Chiefs had to leave for a game in Oakland. Before they did, coach Andy Reid was going to address the team about the Hunt situation. That morning, before the meeting, Mahomes asked Reid if he could talk to the players. Alone. Just the players. Reid weighed it; he’d thought he’d talk to the team and that would be it.
“I thought about it,” Reid told me during camp. “This was coming from him. I could tell it was something he really wanted to do. It’s different coming from a player, and what I’ve found from Patrick is what he thinks usually is coming from the right place. I thought it’d be good.”
Mahomes spoke for maybe two minutes. It wasn’t long. He said he loved Kareem Hunt, as did everyone in the room, and Hunt would continue to be a friend. He said everyone in this room would stick together and they’d get through this, and we’ve come too far to let one thing derail this season, and we won’t let it, and we don’t know who is going to pick up the slack without Kareem, but whoever it is, we’re still going to be great.
Those words aren’t I have a dream-worthy, but in the moment, when the fifth-youngest player on the team asks to speak to the team when it might be teetering on the brink of something, and the room gets silent, it’s an important time.
“Where’d that come from?” I asked Mahomes.
“It’s just from the people that I’ve seen before me,” said Mahomes, whose dad (Pat Mahomes) and godfather (LaTroy Hawkins) had long baseball careers in the major leagues. “When I was growing up in clubhouses with my dad and my godfather LaTroy, I was around some great leaders, and I saw them speak when they had to speak. Just being in the locker room here for my first year and last year, I saw the right moment to talk. You can’t fake that stuff. It has to be genuine. Has to be when you’ve earned the respect of your teammates. There’s gotta be times when you step up, you talk to make sure everything stays on course. We have a lot of great leaders on this team. We listen to each other. Whenever I talk, I have guys that are enforcing that with me. Whenever guys like Travis Kelce, or all these guys talk too, I can kind of reiterate what they’re saying as well.”
“That’s not just one time,” Reid said. “That’s Patrick every day. He understands people. He’s great with every guy on the roster. He understands how teams work.”
This offseason, Mahomes began his first huddle at OTAs with a Brady-like, “Let’s be great today.” His offseason educations encompassed lessons learned against New England. Two things interested me with Mahomes this offseason:
What he learned in his two games against New England. Mahomes had way too many missed chances early in the two meetings with New England last year. Kansas City trailed in the regular-season meeting at Foxboro at the half, 24-9. Kansas City trailed at home in the AFC title game at the half, 14-0. In the two second halves, the Chiefs scored 62 points … but couldn’t dig out of the big halftime holes. “You can’t make mistakes against Tom Brady and coach [Bill] Belichick and the Patriots the way we did in both games, early in the game. We obviously made things happen in the second half of both those games and gave ourselves chances to win. But if we just go in with the mindset of making adjustments even quicker, making sure that you go out there with a game plan and execute at a high level just from the beginning. They’re gonna keep executing, so you better too.” I relayed what Mahomes said to Reid. “Astute observation by a smart player. It’s always a short feel-out process against a championship team, fast and furious. We better learn that.”
What he worked on this spring and summer. Decision-making, he said. “That’s the biggest thing for me—just knowing when to go for the shot and when to take the first down and move the chains, that’s something I’ve really worked on. Situationally deciding when to go for that scramble, trying to throw it all the way down the field and when to just complete the little short one and get the first down.” Perfect example from that regular-season loss to New England: Mahomes had first-and-10 from the Pats’ 25 late in the half, down 24-9. He scrambled right, Dont’a Hightower with a grip on his jersey, and launched a deep shot into the end zone, right into triple-coverage by the Patriots. Duron Harmon picked it off. Mahomes didn’t make a lot of mistakes last year, but that one was terrible. “I feel like if I can just get better at situationally knowing when to take that shot and when not to, I think that’d be a big step in my game,” he said.
Mahomes and the Chiefs will have to be good early because of a tough schedule late. Last four: at New England, Denver at home, at Chicago, Chargers at home. But it’d be surprising if Mahomes took a step back this year. The Chiefs, wary of losing Tyreek Hill last spring, reinforced the receiver corps with the second-round choice of Mecole Hardman of Georgia. That gives them three guys who have run the 40 in less than 4.35 seconds: Hill, Sammy Watkins and Hardman.
But the Patriots will be formidable, as will the Chargers and Steelers. This could be New England’s best defense in years, a defense that frustrated Mahomes and Reid in both games. If they both make it to the third Sunday in January, Mahomes-Brady IV could be the game of the year. My money’s on Mahomes to play a complete game this time, and get to the franchise’s first Super Bowl since Hank Stram rode on the shoulders of the winning Chiefs a half-century ago.