Patrick Mahomes will be making his first career start against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, and if you talk to his Chiefs teammates, it doesn’t take long to see that many of them cannot wait to brag about the rookie quarterback’s natural gifts.
Take inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, for instance. Johnson is 35, a 13-year NFL veteran. He’s seen many quarterbacks suit up in red and gold over the years. But in the four months Mahomes has served as the Chiefs’ scout-team quarterback, Johnson has gotten a chance to experience, first-hand, some of the youngster’s special traits as he’s attempted to complete passes against the Chiefs’ first-string defense on a weekly basis.
“He has a great knack for being very accurate in tough situations,” Johnson said. “It’s super rare. I haven’t seen many people like it. You don’t want to brag on a rookie too early, but he’s got something to him that’s different than any other quarterback.”
That comment has less to do with Alex Smith, who Johnson supports 100 percent as Chiefs’ the starter, and more to do with the flashes Mahomes has shown as Smith’s apprentice.
As the scout-team quarterback, Mahomes runs plays the first-string defense knows are coming. He also must try to complete throws, and give the defense a good look, while targeting less experienced players. Such drills are essentially set up for the defense to win and the scout-team quarterback to fail.
Nevertheless, multiple teammates and coaches had the same refrain this week: While Mahomes is still working on his command of the offense and comfort within the pocket — things that will ultimately decide how well he fares against the Broncos on Sunday — he regularly completes throws he shouldn’t be able to against the first-stringers due to his overall talent
“All the time,” Johnson said. “He throws some balls that only the receivers are going to catch.”
“Patrick’s had some, just some ... darts,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s made some great, great, great throws.
“I tell him all the time, ‘I want you to complete as many passes as you can,’ because that’s the best way these guys can appreciate how tight these windows are and how tight we’ve got to have them if we’re gonna stop them. We’re not looking for the gimme throws; we want to earn (interceptions).”
One of the ways Mahomes challenges the first-string defense is with an advanced trick that coaches say only a few quarterbacks in the entire league have in their repertoire — the no-look throw.
Usually, a quarterback’s front shoulder points to where he’s throwing the ball. But Mahomes has a way of throwing defenders off-balance by turning his shoulder where he wants them to go, instead of where he actually wants to throw. He then delivers the ball, with accuracy, without looking at the target.
“He might be scrambling out to the right, for instance, and looking to the right side, and all of a sudden (he throws) a no-look to the left,” offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. “It’s just natural. It’s not easy to do, and not everybody can do that. (He’s on point) pretty often.”
Even Johnson, the Chiefs’ best coverage linebacker, has fallen victim to this tactic, one also used by star quarterbacks like Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Hall of Famer Brett Favre.
“I’m pretty good at reading the quarterback, but there’s times out there where I’m like trying to bait him, and he’s clearly baiting me,” Johnson said with a hearty laugh. “And I’m like, ‘This isn’t even your offense.’”
“It (ticks me) off,” Johnson added, with another laugh. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. Because right after, he’s laughing.
“He does some things where you say, ‘Wow.’”
In an effort to give the first-string defense the best look possible for upcoming games, Mahomes has had to dial back on such throws. Most of the quarterbacks the Chiefs play can’t replicate the tactic.
It would be a surprise if he didn’t break out one or two on Sunday, though.
“We haven’t seen one recently,” Nagy said. “But he’s got it in his reportoire. We rein him in a little bit once he thinks he does it a little too well, but we have fun with it.”
Add in Mahomes’ impressive field vision, and you get a quarterback that teammates and coaches say can hurt you in multiple ways. When some quarterbacks scramble to the right, defenses know they won’t throw to the left side of the field — most lack the ability to put enough zip on it, deliver it with accuracy or even see who is open over there. That allows defenses to cheat to the side of the field the quarterback is drifting.
The coordinator who faces Mahomes weekly in practice says you can’t do this with the rookie.
“This guy, he can see it and go,” Sutton said. “Big Ben (Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) can also see the entire field and throw it. That’s an inherent trait, that’s part of him. He sees it, and I don’t know if there’s that many drills you can do for that. ...
“He’s got a chance to be a really good quarterback. But he’s got to go out and prove it like anybody who is trying to get a position.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has downplayed talk of Mahomes’ start being an audition for 2018, framing it instead as an opportunity for the 22-year old to gain invaluable experience. But two of the men Mahomes regularly throws to on the scout team — practice-squad receivers Gehrig Dieter and Marcus Kemp — are excited to see how their friend fares.
“I’ve seen exactly what he can do,” Dieter said.
Kemp had just one thing to tell Mahomes when he found out his fellow rookie was starting on Sunday.
“I said ‘Congrats,’” Kemp said, “and, ‘Go out there and do what we do every week.’”