IT’S NOT HIS FAULT, right?
Patrick Mahomes knows what we know, sees what we see — all those perfectly placed passes slipping through pass-catchers’ fingertips. His decision-making, normally impeccable, seems occasionally mortal this year. The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback has even been forced to find virtue in the once unthinkable, like checkdowns and punts. All the greats go through moments like this when stuff just doesn’t work. The methodologies are sound, the processes rebuild confidence, but on game day, something’s missing, both fundamental and psychological. What makes it worse is not just the anger of missed plays — it’s the compounding reality that a Super Bowl window closes fast. Even though Mahomes is throwing better than ever, even though his stature is bigger than ever, it’s the first time that he has seemed small, not just in terms of fame and celebrity thanks to the presence of the Chiefs’ newest superfan Taylor Swift, but because he has been reduced to screaming at officials and at dead air, at a loss for what he can’t transcend.
It’s hard to know what we’re witnessing, now that the playoffs are here. Will Mahomes emerge from the morass of this season intact, even altered in a profound way? Or have we already seen the best that this version of the Chiefs can offer? Mahomes has been such a disrupter, arriving so fast — 50 touchdown passes and a league MVP award in ’19, championship in ’19, runner-up in ’20, the unfathomable 13-second game-saving drive against the Bills in ’21, Super Bowl and MVP No. 2 last year — that he established his own standard and bent the game to his will. But now, Mahomes is going to have to travel a new path to the Super Bowl, without a bye and mostly on the road, with pangs of doubt and rage beneath those beautiful throws.
IN MOMENTS LIKE THIS, quarterbacks often revert to their basic and most essential selves, and so I visited Adam Cook, Mahomes’ high school coach. We met at a sports bar in Tyler, Texas, near Whitehouse, where Mahomes grew up. Kansas City’s famous offensive offside penalty was a week earlier. You remember what happened. The Chiefs were down 20-17 with 1:25 left. Mahomes hit Travis Kelce, who drifted to the middle of the field and into a collection of Buffalo Bills. Where Kelce would normally lower his shoulder, he stood up. A former high school quarterback, he passed the ball backward to receiver Kadarius Toney, who took it the distance … but no. Toney had lined up offside. That flag broke Mahomes, frustration from a slog of a season boiling over. He screamed, cussed, threw his helmet. He kept going, even when he must have known his actions would go viral, even when he knew that he was showing us a petulant side of himself, something previously unseen but not uncommon to many great quarterbacks.
Cook might recognize the guy unrecognizable to most of us, some piece of him that is no different than who he was in high school. “He’s trying to be the best version of who he can be,” Cook says. “That’s his mindset.”
The morning that we met, the Chiefs would play the Patriots. Cook texted Mahomes biblical scripture. He has done this daily since Mahomes was in high school. As Mahomes’ life has expanded beyond his wildest dreams, he has dedicated himself more to faith, going to Friday night Bible study with teammates, praying at the goal posts before games and using his platform to speak about God more often. Cook opens his phone and scrolls through his text message history with Mahomes. Daily passages, one after another.
“I don’t know if he sees them,” Cook says.
Cook played quarterback at Texas Tech, serving as Kliff Kingsbury’s backup. He spent almost 20 years coaching high school football. Several of the players on his teams went on to play in college. One might be the greatest quarterback ever, when he walks away. And he can’t imagine everything Mahomes has to contend with daily. Mahomes came home last spring for a Q&A event at the University of Texas Tyler. People drove from all over the state. Mahomes kept his comments to the basics, about what can be achieved with hard work. He greeted former teammates, friends, well-wishers and Cook’s sons. Someone asked Mahomes about his transfer from college to the NFL, and he spoke about how much more intense the preparation is in the pros, how he had to think and study so much more for opponents. He also added that he doesn’t like playing against the defenses of the Bills and the 49ers, prompting a laugh in the crowd. He was sincere and warm, seemingly the same old Patrick, even though everyone knew that he wasn’t the same old Patrick. He still has an adolescent whiff, with his love of video games and golf, but he is a 28-year-old man with a wife and kids and at the top of his craft, influencing American culture more than any quarterback since Joe Namath.
Cook finds the scripture from this morning. Joshua 14:12: “So give me the hill country that the Lord promised me. You will remember that as scouts we found the descendants of Anak living there in great, walled towns. But if the Lord is with me, I will drive them out of the land, just as the Lord said.”
Cook knows better than to assume there’s a football answer in there. He just hopes it helps. As he settles into the New England game, Cook is as confused as anyone as to why the Chiefs struggled on offense this year. Is it lack of talent? Attrition? Bad luck? “He’s got that target on his back,” he says.
Mahomes has looked tired much of this season, not physically — definitely not in terms of arm capacity — but existentially. Tired of trying. Tired of stuff not working. Most of all, tired of learning limits to what he can attain alone. Against New England, Mahomes drops a perfect pass between two defenders in the end zone to Kelce, only to watch it bounce off his hands. Mahomes masks frustration, as if ready to blow but fully aware that he needs to be patient. He’s playing less carefree than in years past and Cook knows why. It’s not because of playcalling. Matt Nagy has replaced Eric Bieniemy as offensive coordinator but head coach Andy Reid is here, drawing up plays, and receivers are open. At some point, professional pass-catchers have to catch passes.
“Different team,” Cook says.
MAHOMES HAS ONE OF the biggest platforms in sports, but there’s a lot he can’t say. He can’t blame receivers. Can’t lament the crush of expectation. Can’t say that it’s not his fault. He has to accept responsibility for everything that happens on the field. Those are requirements of the job. It’s not easy for every quarterback. Hall of Famer Steve Young says that many quarterbacks struggle with accepting absolute blame, eating all the criticism. But there’s another theory Mahomes can’t cite this year, unique to the Chiefs. It emerged the moment the broadcasts started dialing in on Kelce’s newest invited guest, sitting there between Mama Kelce and Brittany Mahomes. The biggest star in the world becoming a NFL fan has become a talking point for those who follow the league and beyond. A billion dollars in concert ticket sales and another $260 million in movie receipts undoubtedly raises the visibility and by extension the nerves. Enough to shorten the catch radius of a professional wide receiver? Hell no. Enough to impact the variables involved between scoring touchdowns or settling for field goals? Infinitesimally perhaps, but I’m unconvinced it’s enough to alter the outcome of a game.
“It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to football, from the outside,” Young says. “When it happened, I felt bad for Patrick.”
Young sees a quarterback striving for excellence, and he knows how locker rooms work. Some teammates, even on great teams, are tired, or too cool, or easily distracted. Quarterbacking is hard enough to do in typically difficult times; it’s exhausting to be a constant engine, nagging teammates to focus.
Chiefs games occupy a different cultural space now. Private planes are tracked. Helicopters hover over Kelce’s home. TMZ and Page Six seem to file as many dispatches as writers in the press box, with burning insight into whether she wears his clothes, and whether her cat’s net worth stacks up next to Kelce’s. All of the photos of suites and double dates have intensified the fame of Patrick and his wife; Brittany was recently accused in the tabloids of not tipping hotel staff during a stay in Hollywood. Young believes that Mahomes and the Chiefs have handled the mania well, but that’s not the point. “It’s this thing,” Young says. “When you have an outside force, it puts this weight on everyone. They don’t feel it necessarily, but if you step back, it’s like, holy hell. You’ve got this thing you’re dragging around. Everyone has to manage it. Anyone who says it’s not part of it is lying to themselves.”
Watch the end of November’s game against Philadelphia. Just over two minutes left, down four, third down, the ball bounces off Kelce’s hands. He redeems himself a play later, but still: He’s a future Hall of Famer who appears happier than ever off the field but slower on it. A few plays later, Mahomes threw deep to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, running free towards the end zone. Off his fingertips. Third down, intentional grounding on Mahomes. On fourth-and-25, Mahomes dropped extra deep — that familiar prelude to brilliance — and looked left, just long enough to freeze the secondary, then snapped right and put a laser on receiver Justin Watson, between three Eagles, the type of throw the best quarterbacks make once every few years. But the ball went through Watson’s hands, ending the game.
“Distractions,” Young says.
RAGE HAS NEVER BEEN part of the Mahomes makeup. Yes, he’s human. He gets frustrated. But anger isn’t necessary for him, not a club in his bag to deploy, not something he seeks out, cultivates, nurtures. His optimism has been his promise, along with those quick decisions and brilliant throws. He and the Chiefs have been turning the page on two decades of ruthless and paranoid dominance out of New England by helping establish a return to a brand of football that allows for winning and fun: Mahomes’ title belts and flexing, Reid’s cheeseburgers and dabs, Kelce’s dopey charm. Even back at Whitehouse High, Mahomes never lashed out at linemen or receivers. He knew there was a better way. Cook remembers Mahomes’ freshman year, when Patrick started at point guard for the varsity basketball team. He watched the dynamic between Patrick Mahomes Sr. — “Big Pat,” Cook says — and his son. They were locked into the game, looking at one another, nodding or shaking heads, the slight wave of a hand, speaking their own language. It amazed Cook. Then it ended. Cook asked Big Pat what changed. “Early on, I was hard on him,” Mahomes Sr. said. “Then one day he asked me to stop, so I did.”
Patrick got his focus and arm from his dad, and his optimism from his mom, Randi, but some gifts are his own. Randi once told me that both she and Big Pat marvel at how little he carries stress. “It’s not his personality,” she said. When he needs to blow off steam, he plays with his kids, or hits golf balls, or double-dates with Kelce. He has coupled that with a lack of entitlement that he believes to his core. On the drive to Texas Tech when Patrick was due to report as a freshman, his dad turned to him and reminded him that there were some good quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart. “Dad, if I don’t beat them out,” Patrick said, “I don’t deserve to start.”
Cook watches Mahomes for the subtle signs of frustration: the squinting of his eyes, tilting of his head, gnawing of his mouthpiece intensely or letting it dangle. “It’s pretty easy to read his body language,” Cook says. “It’s also easy to see how confident he is in himself. That’s something I don’t think he’s lost.”
Confidence in his pass-catchers is something else entirely, of course. Mahomes has insisted that trust remains. That’s he’s going to keep firing. That winning ugly — even in this strange year, the Chiefs won 11 games — will help him grow as a player and them grow as a team. Mahomes is a junk-talker, yes, but he’s not bitter and out to avenge every slight real or imagined. Earlier this fall Tom Brady bemoaned the way players trade jerseys, laughs and photos nowadays — being normal humans; all the stuff Mahomes does. “I didn’t have any friends on the other teams,” Brady said. “My friends were the guys that were in the battle with me. … You got to create a lot of different emotion to heighten your sense of awareness and focus.”
Mahomes’ primary regret after his blowup against the Bills was as revealing as the outburst itself. He wasn’t sorry that he yelled at a ref, at least not right away. He was sorry that he couldn’t help but vent to his buddy Josh Allen after the game. He couldn’t help but pity himself. He also felt for Kelce, who had a chance to dust off old magic. “It was 100 percent improv,” Mahomes said on an interview on radio station 610 The Drive. “That’s just a great player making a great play in a big-time moment.”
When Young heard those words, after he had watched the play and shook his head that a ref threw a flag rather than allow future Hall of Famers to decide the game — “Context, bro,” he says — he knew the canvas Mahomes is painting on. The flag took away a play destined to live in the archives. Call it hubris, pressure, expectation, delusion, whatever, but in real time Mahomes was thinking about Canton and history and posterity, and just a win against a good team, all erased because of one guy’s shoe. That’s the vocabulary Mahomes is living in, shooting for best ever.
“It’s amazing that he’s thinking that way,” Young says. “It’s not a play he made. It’s a play his buddy made. That could have been the thing that elevated them. We can handle it all. We’re good. They needed that game. And they did it!
“That’s why he was pissed.”
MAHOMES PLAYS BEST WHEN he is unburdened, but he’s had to learn how to play within constraints. That’s not an idea we’ve had to associate with him. His limitlessness has been his greatest gift. He and Reid have spent seven years together adding layers to a system that the league couldn’t stop after Mahomes’ first season as a starter, speaking a language of two. Imagine that confidence. Imagine when it’s thwarted only because of the inability to execute basics: throwing and catching, to say nothing of lining up correctly. Midway through the third quarter against the Patriots, Chiefs up 17-10, Mahomes delivered a signature throw. He sat in the pocket, observed options, fled left, threw off his right leg, falling backwards and with a guy in his face, with nothing but arm, and hit Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the back of the end zone for a touchdown.
It felt like a page was turned, not just in the game but in the season. But in the fourth quarter, Mahomes saw a receiver open over the middle. The pass went through his hands and was intercepted.
Mahomes sat on the bench alone, venting to nobody nearby and everybody watching at home, saying all the things he can’t from a podium, setting off another round of lip-reading stabs on social media. A week later, Mahomes turned the ball over in a crucial spot in a Christmas Day loss to the Raiders, leading to a Vegas touchdown. The Chiefs lost. This time, a lot of it was his fault. Something needed to give. Against the Chargers in Week 17, Mahomes decided to take the layups, the easier stuff, to even — it’s weird to type — accept fourth down, trusting that the best defense of his Chiefs career will get him the ball back.
“We can punt, man,” Mahomes said. “I know that’s not how I’ve always rolled.”
Maybe Mahomes has survived something essential, an onboarding process that all legends endure. Maybe he has rekindled a kind of scarred joy — and requisite cockiness. In the final days of 2023, a young Chiefs fan named Isaac Murdock was invited to the facility. Isaac was born with a spinal condition and is unable to walk. He was in a room, being interviewed by the team video department about his favorite players when Mahomes entered. He gave Isaac a signed ball and two tickets for the Super Bowl. Mahomes looked at a poster-sized print of the tickets, for the seats and section, fully aware that championship windows close fast and without warning. You only get so many shots, even if you’re in your prime. Nobody knows when Reid will walk away, or if Kelce will regain his old form, or if a Chiefs defense will be this good again under Mahomes. He knows that the regular season is a mechanism for a team to find its identity for the playoffs. Now’s the time. “When we get to the Super Bowl,” he told Murdock, he promised to look for him in the stands and throw him the game ball.
“Sound good?” Mahomes said.
THE PERCENTAGES ARE ALWAYS with 15, even if the Chiefs don’t have that look this year. We never know how he’ll do it, but nevertheless imagine, trust, that he will. After the Chiefs’ win over the Patriots, Cook is scrolling on his phone again. He’s looking for a video of a play from November 2012. Whitehouse High against Wylie East. Mahomes, wearing No. 5, calls a Hail Mary. He’s deep in the shotgun, and with the ball in his hands, he tries to manufacture a few seconds to give the play a chance. He moves right, but a defender closes in. He then does the same stuff he does now, wheeling left, not fast but elusive, until he finds enough space to empty his arm. The ball lands at the 10, in a thicket of players, where a Whitehouse receiver named Dylan Cantrell plucks it like a rebound.
Cantrell is standing tall, surrounded by Wylie defenders. What does he do? The same thing Kelce did against the Bills: He tosses the ball to teammate Vincent Dunning, who catches it and runs for six. Whitehouse players jump and celebrate. No flags. Nobody to blame. Just joy, not only because it came before there was a canvas of history, but also because it’s what made the canvas of history possible.