It’s hard to drag your thoughts away from Mahomes’s pure physicality, the strange combination of brawn and lithe movement, the supple slinging throws, the dodging stag legs. But what really makes the Kansas City Chiefs’ 25-year-old quarterback such a generational talent is that his natural physical material is married to such quick-learning, studious ambition. “What makes him great is from the shoulders up,” Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner opined in an online analysis this week.
Super Bowl coach turned broadcaster Tony Dungy agreed: “I’ve been impressed with Mahomes’s mental game for three years now,” Dungy observed. “Because of his skill level we don’t talk about that a lot. But his understanding of football is at another level. He processes information faster than any young quarterback I have ever seen.”
Understand this about Mahomes: as freely as he plays, he’s not improvising on the field. Those throws come from a highly practiced palm and well-schooled eyes. The man is an indefatigable scholar of the game — he studies it as hard as maybe any quarterback but Tom Brady — and that’s the biggest problem he poses for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Sunday’s Super Bowl. As good as he was a year ago, when he was the Super Bowl MVP, he spent the offseason trying “to get better even one percent every day,” Mahomes says.
Mahomes called the conversation with the six-ringed Brady “a stamp” of approval, reassurance that he was going about his career the right way. He appears determined to emulate not just Brady’s work habits, but his unquenchable pursuit of multiple titles, and ability to drag an entire franchise along for the quest. Mahomes says, “No one has become happy with winning just one Super Bowl.”
What did Mahomes do after winning it all last season? He went right back to throwing around 20 pound medicine balls, and when he signed a 10-year contract for a half a billion dollars, he said his idea of a splurge was to build his own 50-yard football field in the backyard of his new home, so he “could get some extra work in.”
“I know he wants to be great,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said earlier this week. According to Reid, all a guy like Mahomes craves is, “They want you to give ‘em one more thing so they can be even greater.”
In the off week before these playoffs began, tight end Travis Kelce noticed that Mahomes was carrying around a fat notebook. The Chiefs didn’t even know who their opponents would be yet, but Mahomes had already researched all four possible teams. He watched films of four to five games for each, at least 20 games worth, until he understood “what every single team we could possibly face is doing defensively,” Kelce said.
Mahomes’s thoroughness has made it all but impossible for defenses to really bother him. Maybe the most impressive statistic of Mahomes’s young career is that, since 2018, he’s the best quarterback in the league against the blitz. You only do that with recognition. The natural consequence of a young quarterback’s growth is that teams throw ever more intricate schemes at him, disguises and unscouted looks. But with Mahomes, “He figures it out,” New England Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty observed last year.
Each week, Mahomes commits every line of Reid’s game plan to memory. He memorizes the call sheets until by Sunday he knows what Reid is most likely to signal on every down and distance. “He’s anticipating what the call will be,” says quarterback coach Mike Kafka. “His study habits are tremendous.”
Even Mahomes’s most off-schedule plays, the back footed parabolas and the no-look heaves from his belt, are more studied than you might suspect. Chiefs coaches have devised drills to work on them, so that his receivers won’t get hit between the eyes by a ball they don’t see coming.
Running back Le’Veon Bell had already judged Mahomes the best quarterback in the league before he joined the Chiefs 10 weeks ago. But then he got a look at how Mahomes worked up close. “It really hit me, like oh, he might be the greatest player ever,” Bell said this week. “It’s the way he practices, the way he goes about his business. I wish y’all could see the throws he does in practice. I thought he was a 10 before I came here. And now he’s probably like a 12.”
Some of those unlikely throws are borrowed from tape of old quarterbacks, which he also studies exhaustively, footage of Brett Favre and Dan Marino. Mahomes watches their classic moves closely and tries to add “a little of myself,” he says. Every year in training camp Reid gives him carte blanche to fire away and not worry about interceptions, because “he’s got to figure out what he can and can’t get away with,” Reid said back in August.
And some of the things he comes up with are purely original. One afternoon during a drill, Mahomes toyed around with putting himself in motion during the cadence to distract the defense, before firing the ball to Kelce. Reid liked the idea so much he incorporated it into the playbook, after they had practiced it enough. They used it for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers late in the season.
“We get to see it every day,” Reid said. “It’s something the fans only get to see on game days. We get to see it every day. He keeps practice alive, challenges the defense and makes everybody around him better just by his attitude.”
So on Sunday, don’t just watch the arm. Watch the greatest young mind in football tell that body what to do.