On the Patrick Mahomes situation, a closer look at the words and context

Mike Florio
ProFootball Talk on NBC Sports

On Wednesday’s PFT Live, Peter King and I engaged in an analysis of Patrick Mahomes‘ 27-yard run for the ages against the Titans, discussed the serious flaws with the way the Tennessee defense handled the play, and then tried to spin it forward regarding whether the San Francisco defense will do the same thing the Titans did. One specific quote from that discussion, despite the plain, clear words used, has become a rallying cry for Chiefs fans who contend that I’m advocating that 49ers players try to injure Mahomes if he runs the ball in Super Bowl LIV.

It’s not what I said. It’s not what I believe.

I’ve been a Patrick Mahomes fan from his days at Texas Tech. I predicted based on one play from Kansas City’s 2017 preseason game against the Titans that Mahomes would be a superstar. (He ran to his right, didn’t flinch as a defender approached, fired the ball on the run, took the hit, and delivered with pinpoint accuracy part-bomb, part-missile right into the hands of the receiver, 50 yards down the field.) Entering the 2018 season, I was on the Mahomes bandwagon before there was a bandwagon, and I’ve marveled at every great play he has made in his two years as a starter.

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I’ve interviewed him, dating back to the days before the 2017 draft, at least four times, maybe as many as seven. I’ve praised him publicly and privately for being unaffected by the superstardom that inevitably arrived. He is polite, he is respectful, he is cooperative. After their snow globe win over the Broncos in December, he started the discussion by apologizing for calling me later than he’d intended for a conversation that could be related to the audience of Football Night in America. He’s a credit to his parents, his team, and the league. In an industry where we need to be as objective as possible, he’s one of my favorite players and people.

And it’s that desire to be objective that often creates friction when it comes to the natural passions inherent to the subjective fans, especially those who see an out-of-context snippet on Twitter and know nothing about me, my background, my views on Patrick Mahomes, or my relationship with him. As much as I like (love) the guy and want him to have a huge game in the Super Bowl and look forward to covering the balance of a sure-fire Hall of Fame career that could result in Mahomes holding every major passing record and retiring as the greatest quarterback to play the game, I’ve got to objectively analyze and assess the trends and dynamics of the game, as they are unfolding.

That’s the general background to Wednesday’s remarks. The specific background resides in quotes that didn’t make their way to the limited comments that were clipped and posted on Twitter. The quote that landed on social media — the precise language of which is being, for whatever reason, twisted and warped into something that it wasn’t and isn’t — omits the broader context. So in order to ensure that there is no confusion regarding my views on the situation, here’s the exchange that was sparked by the poor effort from the Tennessee defense to tackle Mahomes once he used a head fake for the ages to get past Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans and sprint down the sideline late in the first half of the AFC Championship.

“One thing that I think we will see from the 49ers, if Patrick Mahomes decides to take off as a runner, I don’t think we will see that tentative quality that we see from too many defensive players who get scared of what happens if I hit the quarterback,” I said to Peter King. “And you know that’s in the brains of these guys, and it needs to be. If they’re near the sideline, you can’t blow ‘em up. If they slide you can’t blow ‘em up. And you can never dip your helmet and cram it into them.  But some defensive players I think, Peter, are coached far differently. Patriots defenders, Seahawks defenders, and my guess is that Robert Saleh, the defensive coordinator of the 49ers, is going to spend the next two weeks telling his guys, ‘If this guy runs, you go hit him.’ And the Titans players, especially inside the five, I don’t know what the hell those guys were doing, but they weren’t hitting Patrick Mahomes. I think it will be a different experience for him if he tries to run against the 49ers.”

Here’s Peter’s response, in full: “Yeah, I mean, clearly Tramaine Brock made a stupid play at the five yard line. He kept trying to strip the ball. You’ve got to tackle him. You’ve just got to tackle him. And too many people now in the NFL in general, I’ve had so many defensive coordinators over the last couple of years, like when I visit training camp and everything, I’ve had this pet peeve, and I’ll say, ‘Why is there such an emphasis on the strip when so many running backs and quarterbacks’ — I mean, obviously you’re gonna get some of them, but you give up so many yards doing that, right? And that is, look, I’m not saying the Chiefs wouldn’t have scored. But I think, Mike, one of the other things that I think Robert Saleh’s gonna do here, is he’s basically gonna say to his defense — you know, you’re absolutely right — when he is a runner, you treat him like a runner. You don’t treat him like a quarterback. You hit him, and you hit him hard.”

Then came the quote that has become, for reasons that I still can’t comprehend, characterized as urging 49ers players to try to injure Mahomes if he runs, even if I said multiple times that this isn’t what I was saying. (The key words are in italics.)

“At a certain level I think that,” I said, “and I want to be careful here because I’m not suggesting that they try to knock him out of the game. That’s not what I’m saying. But at a certain point, you trade the risk of 15 yards, if you can send a message. And football is still a physical, violent game. If you can hit him, even if it’s close to the sideline, even if he’s maybe started into his slide. When the championship is riding on it, I think it’s a different analysis. And yeah we may give up 15 yards or half the distance to the goal line. I mean, that’s the thing, Peter. If someone had blown up Patrick Mahomes inside the five, big deal. If goes from the four to the two. Big deal. So, again, I’m not saying that that should be part of the deliberate effort. But the Super Bowl is riding on it. And if this guy’s gonna think he can run through the defense without any physical consequence, they need to dispel him of that notion the first time he tries.”

This is an accurate explanation of how football works. It’s not about trying to injure Mahomes. It’s about treating a quarterback who becomes a running back like a running back, applying the kind of hit that will make him think twice about becoming a running back again. Or, as in the case of the 27-yard touchdown run, about not cutting back inside at the 10 and squirting past a couple of defensive backs who may have expected Mahomes to eventually run out of bounds even though he never did.

Quarterbacks have been doing just that in recent years, using movement along the boundary to lull defenders who fear drawing a 15-yard penalty into slowing up or bracing to the step out of bounds while the quarterback just keeps going. (Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan did that to the Vikings in Week One, for example, running to the sideline, inducing the defenders to pull up, and running for another 10 yards before finally getting out of bounds.)

That’s why I included this specific line, as it specifically was uttered: “If you can hit him, even if it’s close to the sideline, even if he’s maybe started into his slide. When the championship is riding on it, I think it’s a different analysis.” Read that again. And again. I did not say they should hit him after he’s out of bounds. I did not say they should hit him when he’s clearly into his slide. I said that, if it’s close to the sideline or maybe he has started into his slide, they shouldn’t pull up, not with a world championship riding on the outcome. If they slow down or hesitate because it’s a quarterback running the ball, he’ll do what he did to the Titans. And when he did it to the Titans, it was as a practical matter season over.

Look at what Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen did later in the same game when Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill ran the ball on Sunday. Sorensen squared up and hit him, even though Tannehill, seeing it coming, could have started into a slide before Sorensen struck him, possibly prompting an official to throw a flag and give Tennessee 15 yards of field position. That possibility of a late effort by Tannehill to didn’t deter Sorensen from hitting a quarterback like a running back.

As Peter King eventually explained, Mahomes has an innate ability to avoid taking big hits, which likely will keep him from getting injured even if the 49ers choose to hit him near the sideline or maybe at the front end of an attempted slide. Regardless, the broader point was, is, and always will be that defensive players shouldn’t hesitate to hit a quarterback who becomes a running back. In those cases, they should hit him like a running back. And with a Super Bowl on the line, they shouldn’t obsess over the possibility that he may be close to the sideline or he may be starting into a slide. If they do, there’s a good chance he’ll make them look as inept as he made Brock, Amani Hooker, and the rest of the Tennessee defense look on Sunday.

That’s the analysis. That’s what (we think) you come here for. It’s not advocating dirty play. It’s not, as I’ve said as many times as I possibly can and will say once more, urging an attempt to injure Mahomes. It’s about playing within the rules and not obsessing over the gray areas that can arise when a quarterback chooses to run. Because as the defensive players obsess over those gray areas, the quarterback quite often will continues to run right by them, maybe into the end zone.

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