Scout QB to MVP: How Patrick Mahomes' 'redshirt' year and Alex Smith led to a historic season

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes is the NFL’s presumed MVP, a 23-year-old wunderkind who ended the Kansas City Chiefs’ postseason curse and has them within a win of the Super Bowl.

His no-look throws and sidearm missiles look nearly effortless. But some, like Brad Childress, know better.

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When Childress, the Chiefs’ co-offensive coordinator last season, watches Mahomes, he can’t stop thinking about how much progress the young QB has made since he arrived in Kansas City nearly two years ago.

“I just listen to him at the line of scrimmage and the calls he’s making and how he’s protecting himself and the snap counts he’s putting on and he really is, like, the master at the piano,” Childress told Yahoo Sports this week. “Even though he’s gonna get better, you [already] see him on the keyboard hitting the far left note and far right note.”

Mahomes is naturally gifted, with a rare combination of arm strength, moxie and on-field creativity. Scouts saw all that on his college tape at Texas Tech, but concerns about his “recklessness” — not to mention his loose fundamentals and the “Air Raid” offense he played in — led many to peg him as a second- or third-round pick.

In a regular-season loss to the Patriots, Patrick Mahomes went 23-for-36 for 352 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. A win this time against New England earns a trip to Super Bowl LII. (Getty Images)
In a regular-season loss to the Patriots, Patrick Mahomes went 23-for-36 for 352 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. A win this time against New England earns a trip to Super Bowl LII. (Getty Images)

The Chiefs, however, were on him early. Mahomes’ strengths were rare, and they figured he could be coached up to diminish his weaknesses. So they traded up from No. 27 overall to No. 10 in the 2017 NFL draft, figuring Mahomes needed polish and time to nail down the extensive verbiage in head coach Andy Reid’s playbook.

It was a good call, obviously. Mahomes just finished his second NFL season — his first as a starter — by completing 66 percent of his passes and throwing for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions, a gaudy statline that is one of the best by any second-year quarterback ever (certainly the best since Dan Marino’s historic 1984 season).

Mahomes’ success has even led some to question whether he should have been playing last season as a rookie, when the Chiefs went 10-6 under long-time starter Alex Smith and flopped in the first round of the playoffs.

“I hope I could have won a lot of games last year,” Mahomes said, when asked by Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “But I don’t know if I could have done this.”

Turns out that Mahomes learned plenty as a backup during his “redshirt year” of 2017, as it took the mentorship of a player no longer on the roster, lots of work with the coaching staff and lots of trial and error to become Kansas City’s equivalent of John Wick.

“You have to have a plan for how you’re going to teach the guy how to be an NFL quarterback and what it means to be the face of the franchise,” Childress said. “Coach Reid always does.”

A ‘heaven-sent’ mentor

Since the start of training camp, Reid has casually name-dropped Smith — often unprompted — at least 11 separate times when talking about Mahomes.

This is no coincidence. Reid likes to joke that Mahomes owes Smith a “castle” for being so good to him, and many close to the situation have made that observation as well.

“First off, Alex shared a lot — he held nothing back, which is a key piece to it,” Childress said. “He made [Patrick] feel as comfortable as anybody in that room.”

That isn’t a given in the NFL, where teammates double as the competition and their success can threaten a livelihood. Mahomes’ godfather, LaTroy Hawkins, spent 21 seasons in Major League Baseball, many of which were played alongside Mahomes’ father, Pat Mahomes. Both men made sure Patrick appreciated what he had in Smith, whom Reid successfully identified as a willing mentor despite Mahomes’ first-round status.

“Alex was heaven-sent,” Hawkins told Yahoo Sports this week. “That was a gift from God right there, for Alex to be so open with a rookie that was brought in, pretty much, to take his job. But that also shows how secure Alex is in who he is as a person outside of football.”

Alex Smith (11) provided strong mentorship for Patrick Mahomes in 2017. (AP)
Alex Smith (11) provided strong mentorship for Patrick Mahomes in 2017. (AP)

Childress shared an example of what the Mahomes-Smith dynamic usually looked like. Imagine the two in the film room, watching tape with the rest of the quarterbacks and select coaches, when Mahomes makes an observation about the defense and the best way to attack it. Smith then disagrees civilly, then explains why.

Mahomes nods his head — “a sponge,” as Childress put it — and also pays close attention to how Smith interacts with coaches on other matters.

“Alex, if he thought something was bulls— or he didn’t like a play or whatever, he’d say it,” Childress explained. “But Alex had the gravitas to do that because he had experience and he would tell you the whys and what-fors, not just say, ‘I don’t like it.’”

So every time Smith hated a play, Childress said, he’d explain to the coaches why, with Mahomes nearby as the coaches would retort. For Mahomes, this was an interactive crash course on pro football offensive theory, one that allowed him to develop his own opinions on how to attack defenses.

“He was really learning at the knee of Alex,” Childress said.

Smith’s influence on Mahomes goes beyond X’s and O’s.

“I am proud of the way he goes about his business,” Reid said of Mahomes.

The king of trial and error

Away from the meeting room, Smith set a good example for Mahomes on the importance of sticking to a routine.

“You can’t pay for that from a head coaching standpoint,” Reid said. “Alex, when the coaches were away, didn’t sneak out the door. He didn’t not lift. He went and did it. He ate right, lifted the right way, studied the right way and came in on off-days and worked. That’s how he went about his business. Patrick got a chance to see that.”

Mahomes started going above and beyond what was required. Although he was the No. 2 quarterback, Childress remembers Mahomes coming in at 7:15 a.m. every day during the season to work with then-offensive quality control coach Mike Kafka. Together, they’d watch tape and go over the upcoming gameplan, with Kafka — who is now the Chiefs’ quarterbacks coach — drilling down the details of what to expect if he were forced into action. Identifying coverages, identifying fronts, nailing down verbiage, the works.

“He didn’t have to do that — he didn’t have to be there until probably 8:30 a.m. for a quarterback meeting,” Childress said of Mahomes. “But he was religiously there every day, and he and Mike were able to build a great rapport there.”

All of his preparation paid off on the practice field, where the work he did with Kafka gave him a greater understanding of NFL concepts, even though he was executing plays the upcoming opponent was expected to run against the Chiefs’ first-string defense.

In addition, the reps he took against defensive starters also allowed him to work on other things — like his footwork and technique when taking snaps from under center — in a relatively pressure-free environment.

“Just a lot of things that he wasn’t accustomed to doing,” said Hawkins, who communicates with his godson regularly.

Eventually, it didn’t take long for stories of Mahomes’ scout-team exploits to become the stuff of legend. So much so that prior to his first NFL start — the Chiefs’ regular-season finale against the Denver Broncos last season — veteran teammates were openly talking about his penchant for the incredible, even though he hadn’t yet appeared in a regular-season game.

“All those no-look throws you guys are seeing now? We watched them last year,” Childress said with a chuckle.

So if you’re wondering why Mahomes is rarely intercepted — despite his penchant for difficult throws — it’s because he tested many of them out against the Chiefs’ first-string last season, winning plenty but losing just enough to keep him honest.

“His tools have always been there, but I think he’s really gained a great respect for the football and not throwing it to others and I don’t know if you could always say that,” Childress said.

That’s why tight end Travis Kelce says there’s not much difference between the way Mahomes performed in practice last year and the way he performs in games now, with that one notable exception.

“He was very confident,” Kelce said, “very creative in how he went about being a scout-team quarterback last year, kind of testing the waters even more than he did this year, so it kind of prepared him for the moment. He got his confidence going that he could still make the type of throws that, in his mind, he knows he can make.”

Epic start to a career

After Mahomes’ dazzling performance against the Broncos in last year’s regular-season finale — in which Reid proudly proclaimed Mahomes demonstrated “total control” of the offense in a come-from-behind win at Mile High — the Chiefs eventually dealt Smith to Washington in late January to clear the way for Mahomes.

Kelce says he knew the kid was the real deal on one play in the Chiefs’ season opener against the Chargers, when he took a shotgun snap, made the decision to pull the ball on a run-pass option and — without stepping into the throw — delivered a missile on a tight-window throw to Tyreek Hill for a huge gain. The Chiefs won that game, 38-28, and 11 more behind Mahomes to seize the AFC’s top seed.

And in their divisional-round win over the Indianapolis Colts last Saturday, it was no coincidence that Mahomes — the offense’s youngest starter — was, along with Kelce, the only player on that side of the ball to be named a team captain with a “C” on his chest.

“I mentioned that he had become a leader after four or five weeks as the team’s starting quarterback,” team chairman Clark Hunt said after the game. “It’s very, very hard to do as a 23-year-old player … but that’s just his personality and the team has really rallied around him. They believe in him and I believe that’s a very important quality if you want to win that AFC championship game and go to the Super Bowl.”

Like Hunt said, the Chiefs stand one win — against the defending conference champion New England Patriots on Sunday — away from the Super Bowl.

Whether they make it or not, Mahomes’ historic sophomore campaign has already served as proof that a “redshirt” year for a young quarterback can be helpful, especially when he has a coaching staff with a plan and the perfect mentor surrounding him.

“I think just the preparation and stuff that I learned last year from Alex and the coaches last year is helping me out a ton this year,” Mahomes explained. “I think that’s the biggest thing, is being prepared when you’re in the huddle and on the field. That’s the biggest difference for me from college to now.”

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