The Magical Plays That Made Patrick Mahomes

The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback is reinventing his position before our eyes. Watch these plays to understand how.

MIAMI—For almost the entire history of football, the sport’s most important position was played more or less the same way. And then Patrick Mahomes came along and made everyone in football wonder how they could have been so wrong for such a long time.

If the Super Bowl is the first time you’re watching Mahomes play, you’re about to see football like never before. He throws off-balance, without looking and even left-handed. He’s the league’s reigning most valuable player. And he is one Kansas City Chiefs win from his first championship because he breaks every convention of how to play quarterback.

“People have said for years: ‘You can’t get away with doing that,’” said Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who coached Mahomes at Texas Tech. “But if you’re that good, it doesn’t matter.”

This isn’t just the stuff of legend. One of the cool things about Mahomes being 24 years old is that his entire life in football (and other sports) has been chronicled by both iPhones and the most sophisticated camera technology that a billion-dollar television deal can buy. These are the plays that reveal the ways in which he experimented with crazy ideas about the most effective way to throw a football.

The Escape

Patrick Mahomes escapes a tackle and throws a touchdown pass in high school. PHOTO: DFW INSIDE HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS

The final high-school football game of his senior year would turn out to be a preview of Mahomes’s time at Texas Tech and now with the Chiefs. Football was beginning to change dramatically in favor of the offense, and it was becoming clear that winning meant scoring more points than anyone ever imagined. This game offered a peek at how teams with Mahomes would keep scoreboard operators busy for many years to come.

Almost every teenage quarterback in Texas would have been sacked if he found himself in the arms of a linebacker named Malik Jefferson, who would one day play in the NFL himself. But not Mahomes. He escaped, scrambled and flung a touchdown pass off his back foot into the arms of Jake Parker. Few plays to this day better exemplify the ability to bring his imagination to life.

“You’re thinking during the play: How in the world does he keep doing that?” says Adam Cook, his coach at Whitehouse High School. “Those are things he did in high school and he’s continuing to do them now.”

But that wasn’t the only lesson NFL teams would have learned if they’d studied tape of this particular high-school game. Cook said it was representative of one of his most useful attributes as a modern quarterback.

“His ability to extend plays with his feet,” he said. “The difference is whenever he does buy time, he’s not doing it to run the ball. He’s doing it to throw the ball down the field.”

The Basketball Pass

Patrick Mahomes shows off his football skills—on the basketball court. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRENT KELLEY

Mahomes played his last football game on a Friday, joined the basketball team for practice the following Monday and played his first game of his senior year on Tuesday. This was not unusual—Mahomes is a case study for the virtues of playing multiple sports at a time when kids are pressured to specialize at earlier ages—but what happened next was.

A headband-wearing Mahomes secured a rebound underneath his own basket with two defenders swarming him as he was falling out of bounds. There was nowhere for him to go and nothing for him to do. Or at least that’s how it looked to everyone in the gym.

But with his body horizontal and his momentum dragging him in the opposite direction, Mahomes whipped a sidearm pass across half the court, over the entire defense and into the hands of Jake Parker for a layup—the very same Jake Parker who caught his touchdown pass a few days earlier.

It showed his awareness, his vision, his arm strength and finesse, his audacity to believe that he could make this pass and his deftness to actually pull it off. This was Mahomes, the football player, in one magnificent basketball play.

“It was one of those plays that you’ll never forget,” said Brent Kelley, his basketball coach.

The Improv Act

Kingsbury recruited Mahomes and Mahomes chose Texas Tech because they shared a vision. Kingsbury’s “Air Raid” offense gave Mahomes the structure to play an unstructured, almost improvisational form of football.

The play that illustrates this came in the first game of his first season as a full-time starter. He took the snap. He ran to his right. He ran backwards. He ran to his left. And then he threw a touchdown pass across his body.

He still just plays this free style of game,” Kingsbury said. “When it’s off schedule, that’s when the magic happens.”

The Lefty Pass

Mahomes throws with his right hand. Except for the time he threw with his left hand.

Early in the 2018 season, the Chiefs trailed 23-20 to the Broncos late in the fourth quarter, and Mahomes saw the unwelcome sight of Von Miller. He darted to his left, approaching the sideline with one of the NFL’s best pass rushers chasing his ankles, and soon Mahomes was out of space. There was only one way to get the pass from one point to another: He switched the ball from his right hand to his left.

“Whoa,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.

Tyreek Hill caught the lefty pass for a first down on a drive that resulted in a touchdown—and a Kansas City win.

The No-Look

Mahomes pulled off one of his most absurd feats when he turned a basketball move into a football one: He threw a no-look pass. Quarterbacks routinely look one way and then pass the other to throw off defenders. Mahomes did it at the same time.

After scrambling away from the Baltimore Ravens last year, Mahomes stepped forward in the pocket and kept his eyes trained on the center of the field. But when the ball left his hand, it went nowhere near the center of the field. It looked so unusual that the only reasonable explanation was that the ball was severely misthrown. His teammates knew better. They had seen him attempt these every day in practice.

“We knew it was going to happen at some point,” said Chiefs quarterback coach Mike Kafka. “We didn’t know when.”

The pass hit wide receiver Demarcus Robinson in the chest for a 17-yard gain. Mahomes needed the safety to move over, he said afterward, and he trusted Robinson would be in the right place. Robinson didn’t even know it was a no-look pass until he saw it on film afterward. “Everyone was talking about it like, ‘Bro, did you see that? How did he do that?’” Robinson says. “I was like, ‘Do what?’”

The Run

NFL defenders began to learn that Mahomes running and throwing usually results in them being embarrassed. Now they’re realizing that Mahomes can run—and keep running.

The Tennessee Titans became aware of this in the AFC Championship. Kansas City trailed Tennessee, 17-14, in the second quarter when Mahomes found himself in trouble. Then he pulled off a disappearing act: outrunning defenders in the backfield, juking another with a subtle cock of his head and dragging a few more into the end zone for the longest touchdown run of his career. It wasn’t just another play for high-school and college players to tell their friends about. It was a play that would catapult the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.

So how does he do all of it?

“A magician never reveals his tricks,” Mahomes once said.

Why Is Football Popular Only In The US?

02.5.2019 / NEWSLETTER
Why Is Football Popular Only In The US?

I walked into a bar in Mexico City. There were a few people scattered around at the tables, but the bar was empty.

I was thinking about football, now that the season had ended. I’d grown up in New Hampshire and lived in Boston back when the Patriots never won a title. Things had changed!

I ordered a beer.

I glanced at the mirror. A guy stared back at me. He raised his mug. “Here’s to the Super Bowl champions.” He smiled “My name’s Juan.”

“I’m John. Glad to meet you.” I couldn’t help adding, “I’m from New England. We’re happy about the Super Bowl.”

“Yeah. I know. Congratulations. Sixth time, right?” He lowered his mug. “Excuse the abruptness and I hope this isn’t rude, but I got to ask: Why is American football so popular in the US, unlike here in Mexico or anywhere else in the world?”

“I’ve wondered about that, Juan. I think it’s because a football team is a microcosm of the corporation.”

“Oh, you mean, John, that corporations make a lot of money off the business of football – the ads, Coke sales, Viagra, and all that other stuff they sell?”

“That’s true, but not exactly what I had in mind, Juan.”

I watched him in the mirror as he sipped his beer.

“You see,” I said, anticipating his question. “The team has a CEO – the quarterback – who gets lots of information from his advisors on the sidelines, including the coach who is sort of like the chairman of the board. Then the quarterback makes the decisions about what to do next.”

“Doesn’t he make more money than anyone else?”

“Exactly. Like the CEO.”

“And he gets the fame – if the team wins.”

“True again.”

He cocked his head. “I’ve noticed that the quarterback gets to touch the ball every play – and he’s the only one who does, other than an assistant who bends over and hands or throws the ball to the quarterback under his butt and between his legs.” He laughed. “A very strange position, very funny picture indeed!”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “Not sure why they do it that way, except the center – the guy who hands the ball back between his legs – is like a bodyguard to the quarterback.” I paused. In the mirror, his eyes held mine. “But there are these other guys – running backs, receivers. . . The quarterback sometimes hands or throws the ball to them. He tells them where they have to go and what they have to do to get the ball, but once they have it, they can make a few decisions – fake right, run left, or fake left, run right, that sort of thing.”

“Like vice presidents.”

“Hmmm. . .” I saw his point. “Nice analogy.”

“And what about all the other players, John? Those guys who bash heads and keep hitting each other.”

“The line.” I motioned for the bartender to bring our bill. There was no one else in the mirror. Just him.

“Yes, the line. They never even touch the football, do they?

“In general, Juan, they don’t. Although sometimes the CEO or one of those vice presidents drops the ball, and then the men on the line can grab it or fall on it.”

He scratched his head. “No other game like that, is there? In our futbol, what you call soccer – everyone gets the ball and decides what to do with it. Same with basketball, volleyball, baseball, tennis, hockey – you name it.” He stared at me through the mirror. “What about girls?”

“You mean. . .”

“Do they play American football?”

“A few do, but not professionally.” I searched my brain. “Not even in high school or college, as far as I know.”

“Wow, John. So, it is a very macho sport? Sexist.”

“I suppose you could say that.”

“Strange, especially at this time with so much talk about gender equality and sexual abuse.” He shook his head at the mirror. “American football is a unique sport.” He lifted his mug. “I think you’re right: A football team is modelled after the corporation.”

“Or perhaps,” I said as I finished my beer. “It’s the other way around.”

He shrugged in the mirror. I reached into my pocket and watched him hand my money to the bartender. We walked away from the bar, through the open doorway, and toward a group of boys and girls who were kicking a soccer ball around in the street outside.

The Super Bowl That Trump’s America Deserves

I’m not really sure why they’re bothering with a Super Bowl this year. Sure, a bunch of people will make a boatload of money, tens of millions of us will reflexively tune in and we’ll find rare common ground over how cheesy the halftime show is. But are we believers anymore? Will we really see the winner as the winner — or just as the charmed survivor of a grossly tarnished process? Be it the New England Patriots or the Los Angeles Rams, the team will have an asterisk after its name. And that asterisk is a big fat sign of the times.

I’m referring, of course, to the miserable officiating that’s arguably the reason the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs and the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints, leading to the matchup in this coming Sunday’s season-finale game. The Rams in particular were blessed by the referees, who failed to note and penalize a glaring case of pass interference in the climactic minutes. I needn’t describe what happened. Footage of it has been replayed as extensively and analyzed as exhaustively as the Zapruder film.

And it has prompted an intensity of protest, a magnitude of soul searching and a depth of cynicism that go well beyond the crime in question. That’s where the feelings about the Super Bowl and the mood of America converge.

We’re still reeling from a presidential election that was colored if not corrupted by unfair advantages, undue meddling and disrespected rules, and here we have a Super Bowl that’s colored if not corrupted by unfair advantages, undue meddling and disrespected rules. Many fans are rejecting its legitimacy — sound familiar? There are conspiracy theories afoot.

Americans are so down on, and distrustful of, major institutions and authorities that we’re primed to declare their fraudulence, and the National Football League and the Super Bowl are on the receiving end of that. They’re not fresh targets, not by any stretch. But this time we’ve lost all sense of perspective.

.. The missed pass-interference call in the clash between the Rams and Saints was certainly egregious, but every football game is a compendium of good and bad breaks; luck is always a factor and often the deciding one. The Saints had home-field advantage, and their fans created enough noise to addle and even paralyze the Rams on offense. The Saints also made errors galore, blowing the possibility of a lead too commanding to be erased by poor officiating. On a recent episode of his podcast, the sports commentator Bill Simmons methodically broke down the game en route to this conclusion: “I really thought the Rams were better.” He added that “if that’s a neutral field, I think the Rams win.”

That the Rams did win, with an assist from somnambulistic referees, has not gone over well in New Orleans. The Louisiana governor wrote a letterof condemnation to N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell. The New Orleans City Council is considering a formal resolution declaring the outcome an “injustice” and demanding that the N.F.L. thoroughly review its rules. One of Louisiana’s senators has called for a congressional hearing on the matter.

Several Saints ticket holders have filed lawsuits against the N.F.L., variously claiming that they have endured mental anguish, lost the enjoyment of life and been defrauded by the league. A movement in New Orleans to boycott the Super Bowl involves the staging of competing events, vows by many bars not to show the game and pledges by many other bars to show, instead, the 2010 Super Bowl, in which the Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts.

Planet Money: Atlanta Falcons: Hot Dog Hail Mary

Overpriced stadium food is standard at big-time sporting events. If you get hungry, expect to fork over $7 for a hot dog. It’s annoying. It’s also simple economics: Inside a stadium, there’s no competition bringing prices down, so prices stay high. Sports fans are trapped in a captive market.

That’s usually the end of the story. But the Atlanta Falcons are trying something different. They’ve lowered prices. It could change the way stadium economics works.

Today on the show: We send two reporters down to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to eat their way through a radical experiment.