The ability to evolve and thrive is what separates the all-time great athletes in sports. Take Michael Jordan for example. One of the ways he beat "The Jordan Rules," besides Phil Jackson's triangle offense and the emergence of Scottie Pippen, was getting stronger and developing his post game. It helped him get past the biggest obstacle early in his career: the Pistons.
In a similar way, Mahomes has neutralized the blueprint against him last season – keep as many defenders in coverage as possible, with two high safeties, designed to take away his big plays and bait him into forcing throws. The blueprint was effective at times last year. Mahomes threw zero or one touchdown pass five times in a six-game stretch from Weeks 7-13 in 2021. The Chiefs scored 22 or fewer points in five of those six games. Then there was an extra hurdle this offseason. The Tyreek Hill trade, robbing Mahomes of the best deep threat in the game.
Based on the results in 2022, it's safe to say Mahomes and the Chiefs offense successfully countered the blueprint resulting in the 2021 mini-slump, while adapting to life without Hill. The Chiefs offense led the NFL in points per game, yards per game, yards per play and EPA per play in the 2022 regular season. The difference between the best (Chiefs) and second-best offense (Bills) in terms of efficiency (as measured by EPA per play) was the largest gap between the top two teams since 2007. That year, the 16-0 Patriots were light years ahead of the competition.
Mahomes set an NFL record for total yards this season while leading the NFL in touchdown passes, passing yards, EPA per dropback and ESPN's Total QBR. The difference between the best (Mahomes) and second-best QB (Josh Allen) in terms of efficiency (as measured by EPA per dropback) was the largest gap between the top two QBs since 2011. That year, Aaron Rodgers led the NFL in that category and won his first MVP with 45 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
That's a lot of numbers to say that Kansas City had the best offense and Mahomes was the best quarterback this year, and it wasn't even close.
They had no business being this good, this season. Not second MVP and Super Bowl trip good. Let's not downplay how big of a deal the Hill trade was. There were four blockbuster wide receiver deals last offseason. Mahomes was the only QB to take a step forward. All the other QBs and offenses experienced a decline in 2022, and some were quite the drop off. Rodgers had probably the worst season of his career without Davante Adams. The Titans offense was among the worst in the NFL after trading A.J. Brown (and we saw the impact on the Eagles on the flip side) while Baltimore's offense remained in neutral after moving on from Hollywood Brown.
EPA per dropback before/after WR trade (includes NFL rank)
The Chiefs were the first team to lead the NFL in scoring after losing a Pro Bowl wide receiver since the 1981 Chargers. They didn't have a 1,000-yard running back or a 1,000-yard wide receiver, yet here they are.
You can literally see the impact of the Hill trade on Mahomes' game. Check out the heat map of his touchdown pass locations by seasons, provided by TruMedia. Incredibly, he had just one touchdown pass this season traveling 20-plus yards downfield, the same number of Christian McCaffrey, and a few others you'd be surprised to see in Mahomes' company (Joshua Dobbs, David Blough, Davis Webb and Taysom Hill). Mahomes' total of one was a far cry from his average over the previous four seasons (11) and the average MVP QB in the last 15 years (nine).
Patrick Mahomes' location of pass TD by season in NFL career
Warren Moon, the only Black QB in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, described Mahomes' evolution last week in an interview with ESPN's Jason Reid and 'Andscape'.
"What I see from him [Mahomes] is a much more patient quarterback, and a lot of this comes from what he went through last year," Moon told Andscape on the phone Wednesday. "[Opponents] tried to slow them down last year by playing a lot more 'umbrella' coverage.
"Teams wanted to see if he would keep taking the underneath routes, not get impatient and try to force it downfield. In the beginning last year, he was impatient. He did force it, because he was used to having all those big plays with Tyreek and the other guys. He got used to it. But he finally settled in and figured out that this was the best way to go about it.
"Now, this year, you can see he's being much more patient. He's taking his time to take his shots down the field. And what they're doing now is getting the ball out quickly. They're really giving guys a chance to run after the catch. It's clearly their approach. So, it's not the big strikes down the field like they used to get in his first few years, but it's working."
The numbers support Moon's analysis. He still threw an effective deep ball (albeit less often and resulting in fewer scores) but he has shortened his game up every season since he won an MVP in his first year as the starter in 2018. That year, his average pass length was the sixth-longest in the NFL. This year it ranked 23rd. His percent of deep balls went from the fourth-highest to 28th.
Patrick Mahomes' passing depth in career (with NFL rank)
Average Pass Length
Pct of Att 20+ Yards Downfield
Dialing back to deep ball has gone hand-in-hand with efficiency in the short-passing game in 2022. He led the NFL in efficiency (measured by EPA per dropback) in all of the following categories this year.
- Under 2.5 seconds to throw
- Passing 5 or fewer air yards
- Inside the pocket
- Not blitzed
- vs. two+ high safeties
The results were 28 touchdown passes to running backs and tight ends, tying an NFL-record set by Y.A. Tittle. Credit goes to Mahomes but also Andy Reid and OC Eric Bienemy for designing plays that create space for the Chiefs' playmakers to do what they do best.
The AFC Championship Game was a testament to Mahomes' evolution. He finished 29 of 43 passing for 326 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, outplaying Joe Burrow on a bad ankle with the Chiefs down four of their six wide receivers. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Justin Watson, Mecole Hardman and Kadarius Toney all either did not play or left the game with an injury. ESPN's Mina Kimes detailed Mahomes' patient approach here. He did not force the ball downfield or to Kelce. He only attempted one tight-window pass to Kelce in the game.
I'm not sure if Mahomes is going to win his second Super Bowl on Sunday. The Eagles are a complete team and have a dominant pass rush. However, if he does win and avoid a repeat of Super Bowl LV (31-9 loss to Buccaneers) it'll be because his new style of play allows him to be effective despite an injured ankle against the best pass rush in the league. If you remember Super Bowl LV, Mahomes set a Super Bowl record for times pressured and was running for his life the entire game, playing with a toe injury and without both his starting offensive tackles. Now imagine how he'd perform against an Eagles pass rush (which has 78 sacks this season) if he employs the same approach.
Thankfully the updated version of Mahomes has the tools to both limit Philadelphia's pass rush and take advantage of an area they are vulnerable against: quick passing. The Eagles ranked 18th in defensive EPA against passes five or fewer yards downfield this season and 15th versus passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds. They were an elite defense in almost every other situation.
Mahomes' first MVP and Super Bowl came thanks to being one of the best gunslingers the game has ever seen. A second MVP and Super Bowl will be a credit to him reinventing himself as a quarterback who is patient and dissects teams from the pocket more consistently. We'll find out on Sunday if his evolution is enough to beat the Eagles, a very worthy opponent.