KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Patrick Mahomes' right arm looks like most other arms. Just like his left one in fact. There is an elbow that hinges, a wrist that is normal and five fingers on the hand.
As he sits doing this interview in late spring, it is not wrapped in bubble wrap, nor is there ice to keep it cool.
His right arm, though, is anything but normal. It is a gift from God that few have possessed to play the quarterback position. It is a gift that could make Mahomes special one day for the way he plays the position, and certainly makes him a player to watch in 2018.
"Catching passes from Patrick is crazy," Chiefs receiver Tyreke Hill said. "We all know he has tremendous arm strength, so it's ridiculous."
"It's different coming from Pat," said Chiefs linebacker Reggie Raglund, who had to defend against him all spring. "Every time it leaves his hand, you have that little whistling sound."
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The Kansas City Chiefs made the bold move this offseason to trade away starting quarterback Alex Smith to make Mahomes their starter. Smith was coming off his best NFL season, one that again helped the Chiefs win the AFC West, but the front office and coach Andy Reid thought it best to send Smith to the Washington Redskins so they could play Mahomes this season. It was, they felt, his time.
It's a decision based on more than just on his arm. But it's that arm that makes him different. It's what will draw fans to Mahomes and will make networks build highlight packages around his throws and, ultimately, the thing that will separate him from most of the other NFL passers.
Yet having the big arm also brings with it something else: A label.
More than just a cannon
He's the arm, but is he more than just that? Can that power be harnessed?
Strangely, for many with the gift of a power arm, there is a proving ground of sorts. Can they be anything other than a passer who just throws the fastball all the time? Wyoming's Josh Allen heard that talk leading into this year's draft, and Mahomes heard it in 2017. There have been failures of big-armed passers, guys like Kyle Boller and JaMarcus Russell, which can make it a tough act to follow, even if they failed for reasons other than their arms.
"When people talk about me, they talk about just the arm and that I have a big arm," Mahomes said during an interview in May at the Chiefs facility. "I want to be able to change that mindset to, 'he's a great quarterback who just happens to have a great arm.' Look at guys like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Those guys have great arms, but people talk about them more as a quarterbacks and the intellectual side of the game and how they really dissect defenses – and then the arm is something else that helps them with that."
Translation: Quarterbacking is much more than just the arm. This has proven out over years and years of evaluations. Many big-armed passers have failed because they simply couldn't play the position the right way to go with that arm talent.
"There's more to it (than the arm)," Reid said. "There's a lot of big arms that haven't made it. So, yeah, you've got to know the game. The big arm is only going to get you through certain things. Knowledge is power and strength is true at that position. You don't have to have the biggest arm in the world to be successful in this league. But you better have the mindset. Very few who have success at that position aren't sharp minds."
Sharp decisions don't get noticed like 75-yard rockets for touchdowns. That's why the arm stands out. It's also why it can be tough to show, as a quarterback, you are so much more.
Big arm from the past
John Elway lived that. Now the Denver Broncos general manager and a Hall of Fame quarterback in his playing days, Elway came into the league with one of the best arms the game has ever seen.
Some of his throws at Stanford were legendary. There was one against USC in 1980 that is still fondly remembered as "The Throw." On the play, Elway was flushed from the pocket – he was sacked eight times that day – and after scrambling around for what seemed like an hour, he fired a 61-yard laser shot across the field to receiver Ken Margerum that was unreal. You can look it up on You Tube if you like. It's that special.
"That's the all-timer there," Elway said. "That's the farthest I ever threw a football."
So when Elway arrived in Denver – of course after working a trade from the Baltimore Colts – Elway had to prove that he, too, was much more than just a big arm.
"I think in the NFL it took five, six or seven years to shed the label of just being a strong arm," Elway said.
Elway ultimately became one of the all-time greats. Along the way, his arm helped him make some of the best plays you'll see at the position.
"It's a bonus to have one," Elway said. "There aren't many quarterbacks who have succeeded without a strong arm. Anybody who says having a big arm is overrated is wrong."
Elway studied Mahomes when he was coming out of Texas Tech two years ago and said he liked his game a lot. He also got to see him up close last year when Mahomes started in Week 17 against the Broncos, a game the Chiefs won even though they rested a lot of their starters.
Mahomes was 22 of 35 for 285 yards that day and led the Chiefs to the game-winning field goal. He did throw an early interception and didn't throw any touchdown passes, but it was an impressive first game. During the week leading up that game, Reid had a conversation with quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka.
"You know we're going to win this game," Reid told Kafka.
Ready to take over
Reid believed that because even with some of his top players resting, Mahomes was ready.
"He felt that confidence in us that he could do his thing," Reid said. "He had no reservation. We knew they were going to play their ones and a couple of them I had in the Pro Bowl the year before – competitive as hell. I knew they were going to come after us. And they did. They played the whole game. They wanted to prove to the young guy it wasn't a cakewalk."
The year of preparation helped Mahomes get ready for that day. Reid and his teammates say Mahomes prepared all year like he was the starter, but all he did on Sundays was watch Smith play his best football.
With injury being the only real way he would play, some young passers might have let up on the preparation. Not Mahomes. He thrives on it. Part of it is who he is as a player, but it also stems from watching great baseball players as a kid.
The son of former Major League pitcher Pat Mahomes, the younger Mahomes spent a lot of time in MLB clubhouses. It was there he got to observe how the great ones prepare, especially Alex Rodriquez, who was a teammate of his father's in 2001.
"When he was on the Rangers, he was already one of the best players in baseball," Mahomes said. "And I watched Derek Jeter do the same type of things. They were guys already on the top. To see how hard they worked to keep getting better is something I will always remember. Those guys weren't just satisfied with just being one of the best at that time in the league. They wanted to maintain that and step up and be on that legendary status. In the NFL, things happen at any moment. Look at the Super Bowl champs with the Eagles. Nick Foles, if he wasn't preparing like he was the starter, he wouldn't have been able to become a Super Bowl MVP. Last year was all about preparing to be a starter for last year and for this year coming up and the future. It was about having the mindset of every single week of dong what I have to do to have success."
It helped that Mahomes played behind Smith, who is one of the best when it comes to preparation.
"For Patrick to sit in there and see the day in and day out grind Alex put in is invaluable," Reid said. "He did the same thing."
He did so knowing full on that that Smith was the guy. So much so that he didn't want to ruffle any feathers with his after-practice workouts. That's why Mahomes never threw to the starters when he did his after-work practice.
"You know which guys are your guys and guys you're going to have on the field on Sundays," Mahomes said. "I didn't want to affect that timing and stuff Alex had worked on with those guys. I got guys who needed to get work in too. We worked on getting better together. For me, it was easy to get those guys out there and get working."
Coming out of Texas Tech, Mahomes played in spread offenses in college and in high school. So last season was about working on the mechanics of the position, taking snaps under center, working on his footwork.
Learning the proper balance
The arm can bail you out of trouble in college. But without the proper mechanics in the NFL, it can lead to trouble. You rely on it too much. That's where accuracy issues come into play – and mistakes are made.
"Guys who have strong arms tend to hold onto it longer," Elway said. "I found myself doing it. Somebody who doesn't have a stronger arm will let it go a little early. Those with the big arms hold onto it a little longer. They have to adjust to throwing more with anticipation."
Reid coached Brett Favre when he was with the Green Bay Packers. Favre had one of the strongest arms the game has ever seen, but at times he would rely on that arm too much.
That's the balance that a quarterback with the big arm needs to make: When do you fire it in there and when do you take something off or take the check down? Throttling the thing down is a must at times.
Gunslingers like Favre take chances. That's why Favre is the NFL's all-time leader in throwing interceptions.
"Brett had a heck of a lot of touchdowns, too (second most all-time, in fact)," Reid said. "That's the balance. You are asking a player within a short period of time to make a decision. You have to have those fighter-pilot eyes. You have to put it through a keyhole and you have to do it right now. And then it's over. You have to train yourself the best you can, and then you have to eliminate the fear. You have to fear nothing. "
Reid stressed to Mahomes this spring that the offseason was the right time to work on when to take chances and when to play it safe. That can be tough duty to done down the gunslinger mentality. Reid played a role in doing that with Favre, and he's pounding that message home to Mahomes.
"Both of them are fearless with the football, and have the ultimate confidence in their ability and their arm," Reid said. "So my challenge to Patrick is similar to what I saw Brett go through. Experiment with that during the week, and particularly during the offseason and training camp. See what you can get away with. Getting it right down to the stinking inch. See where you can fit it in. On the other hand, understand the limitations and know when to go somewhere else. There's a fine balance there. Brett perfected that, which is why he's a Hall of Famer."
Mahomes gets it, and he used the spring to work on the timing of his throws and when and where he could fire a shot into a tight window or when he needed to check it down.
"Sometimes, I take the deeper throws to work on the timing," Mahomes said "The underneath stuff will be open. Coach Reid's offense will get guys open for you. For me, it's about me taking chances I might take in a game or I might not take in a game. It's about learning from those and learning from the mistakes and learning from the success."
Mahomes' time has come
Reid and his teammates see a much more confident Mahomes. It's his offense now. It's his team for the future. That means being more vocal, which isn't really his nature. But he's taken to it, according to his teammates.
He's acting like a starter, acting like a veteran. And that's a good thing.
"I just know he knows a lot more about the offense," Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt said. "Just being here, first person in here and last person to leave. He's taken on the leadership role. He's a lot more forceful."
"He doesn't let the moment get too big for him," Raglund said. "Nothing is going to change about him."
It's never easy to see a starter like Smith, one loved by his teammates, sent packing, especially for a player with one NFL game under his belt. It's a decision that will be watched closely around the league.
It's one reason Reid and general manager Brett Veach will be held accountable for this season.
"I can say as a staff, both personnel staff and coaching staff, I don't think he will let us down in any way for sure," Veach said. "We just think the whole process worked out in our favor."
Mahomes was at his brother's basketball game when he heard the news that Smith was traded and that meant the Chiefs were his offense now.
"You never know when your time is coming, but you just try to prepare for the moment," Mahomes said.
Leaving a mark
It helps to have the gift of the gun.
During a spring practice, Raglund had tight end Travis Kelce covered on a play in the middle of the field. Or so he thought.
"Pat puts it right over my fingers a little bit (for a completion)," Raglund said. "That guy is different. That guy is special."
When Elway played, his receivers talked of the Elway Cross. It was the x from the end of the football that his big throws would leave on their body. Yes, they said in those days, it hurt.
"If they didn't have shoulder pads on, it left a mark," Elway said.
Former Chiefs receiver Albert Wilson, who signed with Miami this spring, said Mahomes' passes have a similar feeling to them.
"You're either going to catch the ball, or it's going to smack you in the face," Wilson said. "It's crazy how hard he throws the ball."
The Mahomes Mark?
"That sounds pretty good," Mahomes said. "We'll see if the guys like it?"
"He does have the ability to leave that cross on your chest, stomach," Hill said. "I thank God that hasn't happened to none of us yet."
The way that arm shoots the football, they better get ready for it. The Chiefs have themselves a gunslinger, and for the next decade or it should be one wild show to watch.