Patrick Mahomes changed the sport six years ago.
From the moment Mahomes stepped on the field in 2018, it was clear there was nobody else like him. We wouldn't yet know the heights he would reach, but there was a presence about him, an unabashed willingness to create and try things only possible for an unbelievably talented player who didn't know any better than to indulge every intrusive thought. Early Mahomes was neither clean nor conventional, but he was overwhelming regardless.
Mahomes spent most of his first three seasons torching defenses up and down the field. The offenses he led were a revelation to the sport. Mahomes wasn't the first scrambler, big-armed quarterback, or passer with a penchant for testing the limits of the impossible. But nobody before him had put it all together the way he did. There was an indescribable air of unpredictability and inevitability whenever he held the ball.
That creativity and fearlessness were enough for the better part of three seasons, but as with anything in football, it eventually met its limits.
The New Reality
The 2020 Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the first inkling that Mahomes, as fantastic as he was, could no longer carry the Kansas City Chiefs on insanity alone. Tampa Bay beat Kansas City's battered offense line to a pulp all game long. Mahomes was forced into creation mode, even more so than usual, and couldn't put the team over the top against a gnarly Buccaneers defense.
The following season was no kinder to Mahomes and the Chiefs. Defenses had caught up to the idea that the best way to slow Mahomes down was never giving him the downfield shots he so cravenly desired. Defenses that could either present him with two-high coverages or flood the field with eight coverage defenders gave the Chiefs fits all year long.
It didn't matter much until the AFC Championship Game when Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo spammed drop-eight coverages in the second half to stymie Mahomes and the Chiefs offense entirely. They had no answer for being made to play a slow, methodical game, especially without a reliable run game. The Chiefs scored three points in the second half and none in overtime, allowing the Bengals to squeak out the win.
Just like that, two seasons came to a bitter end because the same creativity and explosiveness that made Mahomes a phenomenon was no longer enough.
Back to the Drawing Board
But as with all dynasties, both the team and the quarterback changed. Nobody in the building was too proud to admit that all the incredibly cool and unique things that jump-started this new era of Chiefs football were finally getting stale, not even Mahomes himself. Andy Reid returned to the drawing board on offense, and Mahomes set out to become a more mature quarterback.
Trading away star receiver Tyreek Hill before the 2022 season embodied the Chiefs' growth process. Hill was a beacon for big plays — a fast, explosive downfield threat with a unique gift for turning a routine 10-yard gain into seven points. His skill set was enough to make him an incredible match for Mahomes, never mind the off-script chemistry the two shared when plays broke down.
Without Hill, Mahomes' hand was forced. He had to become a cleaner, more methodical quarterback. He was made to become less Fran Tarkenton and more Tom Brady. But Mahomes never lost his edge and instead struck a perfect balance between calculation and creation.
Another Twist Left Up Their Sleeve
The new and improved Mahomes won the MVP in 2022. Mahomes ranked second in explosive pass percentage to Tua Tagovailoa (Tyreek Hill buff). But more to the point of his maturity, he led the league in success rate at 55.0 percent. Mahomes, seemingly in an instant, found a way to do all the boring stuff, like beating blitzes with pre-snap recognition and hitting checkdowns on time while still ripping explosive plays from thin air as well as anyone.
From play-to-play, drive-to-drive or game-to-game, Mahomes could oscillate between whichever mode the moment called for. Mahomes became the best of both worlds. That was enough to give them their second Super Bowl win, this time over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Now it's 2023, and the Chiefs are Super Bowl champions again, but with another twist.
Mahomes was no longer the one who needed to change. Mahomes had matured past the issues that kept him down (relatively) in 2020 and 2021. Two-high defenses and drop-eight coverages mean nothing to Mahomes now.
He is as comfortable nickel and diming defenses to death as Philip Rivers or late-stage Drew Brees could, but he can also tap into Superman mode whenever needed.
A General Manager's Dream
Instead, the defense needed to step up, and they did.
For most of the Mahomes era, the Chiefs defense has been "enough." Nothing more, nothing less. They would waste away in the regular season, throwing junk at the wall to see what sticks and ultimately tighten up in the playoffs. Sometimes they became fierce in the playoffs, but more off the back of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s talent as the nastiest junkball pitcher in the league, not because of elite defensive talent — outside of DT Chris Jones.
2023 was the year that finally turned. Years of investing in a youth movement on defense, especially over the last two draft classes, finally paid off. Jones is still the team's ace, but young players all over the depth chart have blossomed into impact players.
Outside cornerback L'Jarius Sneed is as suffocating as anyone in the league. Trent McDuffie offers the same quality of play out of the slot and is a legitimate difference-maker in the run game. In this Super Bowl alone, McDuffie made two or three plays on the ball that helped swing the game.
Up front, defensive end George Karlaftis has become the perfect Robin to Jones' Batman. Linebackers Willie Gay and Nick Bolton, though far from stars, are a quality linebacker duo for a team that hasn't seen good linebackers play since Derrick Johnson.
All of those players were still on their rookie deals this season. The two cornerbacks, Sneed and McDuffie, were named All-Pros, and Karlaftis notched a double-digit sack season. To get that quality of play from so many fresh talents putting relatively low stress against the cap is a dream for general managers everywhere.
Running the Gauntlet
Under Spagnuolo's mad scientist leadership, the Chiefs' defense was an elite unit all season long and into the playoffs. They ranked fifth in EPA during the regular season and allowed the fourth-fewest explosive plays in the league, according to TruMedia.
The Chiefs produced 0.05 EPA per play as a defense throughout the playoffs. That's only slightly above the regular NFL season average (0.03), but consider the gauntlet that defense faced.
First, it was Tyreek Hill and the Miami Dolphins, the most explosive offense in football when they're at their best. Then they went to Buffalo and beat Josh Allen, one of the few quarterbacks who comes close to being Mahomes' equal. MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson was their next victim. And finally, Kyle Shanahan's juggernaut 49ers offense in the Super Bowl.
All those offenses can score 40 points at will, yet the Chiefs held them all to no more than 24 points. The Dolphins and Ravens failed to score more than 10. Even the 49ers mustered just 19 points in regulation in the Super Bowl before tacking on three more in overtime.
Repaying Their Debts
The Chiefs needed their defense to play at that level now more than ever. Last year was supposed to be the "down" year for Mahomes and the offense. But that never happened, so a defensive takeover wasn't as necessary. That caught up to them in 2023. Mercenary wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster left the team, and tight end Travis Kelce started playing on a pitch count. The offensive line also took a step back, particularly at the bookends. The offense spent the entire year putting out fires up front and trying to find out which young players could make the offense whole again.
By any usual standard, the Chiefs were still a quality offense, but they were the worst they had ever been in the Mahomes era. Their -0.02 EPA was, by far, their lowest mark since Mahomes' debut in 2018. Moreover, seven of their 12 worst games by EPA per play since 2018 came this season alone, including the nightmare meltdown against the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas.
Mahomes desperately needed the defense to repay him for all the years he carried them before. Just in the nick of time, the defense repaid their debts — and some.
Just Getting Started?
The Chiefs are not done winning. More importantly, they aren't done changing. The ability to adapt is the mark of any great dynasty, and the Chiefs have already proved there's no obstacle they can not overcome.
Mahomes appeared to be solved until he suddenly wasn't. The Hill trade was supposed to sink their offense — then it didn't, at least not when and how it was supposed to. For years, Kansas City’s defense was an afterthought held together by duct tape and prayers, only to blossom into an elite unit when most needed. It's been one hurdle after another, and they still have four Super Bowl appearances and three rings to show for it.
Kelce may retire and ride off into the sunset with a pop star. Maybe he won't.
And maybe some of their young defensive players will walk in free agency. Maybe they won't. There's no telling how the Chiefs will be able to address offensive tackle or pass-catcher in the offseason. Everything is up in the air for the Chiefs.
None of that uncertainty matters. So long as Mahomes is the quarterback, the rest will figure itself out. Mahomes' six-year run as a starter already feels like a lifetime's worth of growth and achievement, and he's only just now hitting prime quarterback age.
At this moment, Mahomes is singular, and the Chiefs continue to prove they can put enough around him to win. There's no reason to believe any of that will change anytime soon.