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Patrick Mahomes is getting there, but he’s not ready yet

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Do not, I repeat, do not let the next 1,000-ish words dampen the feelings that you’re having for rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Believe me when I say I’m right there with you. I’ll unveil the results of the preseason checklist at the end of these four games, but without giving too much away, he’s exceeding my expectations halfway through.

He has been able to translate his immense skill very nicely while avoiding critical mistakes. He’s said and done all the right things the last few months, and after a few weeks it appears to not just be lip service. His excellent makeup and character as a football player is revealing itself through two weeks through his growth and maturation. I’m beyond impressed with what I’ve seen in him so far.

If this were a NASCAR race (this might be a clunky analogy, I’ve never watched an entire race), the Chiefs need a lot of crashes in front of them to win the whole thing. People are clamoring for Mahomes to supplant Alex Smith as the starter. Those who know me know I’m far from Smith’s biggest supporter. I see the ceiling he places on a team. But I also see his value as a football player.

Through two exciting, overall positive displays from the quarterback of the future, I don’t think he’s ready to start for a playoff contending team.

None of what I’m about to mention should be seen as criticism of Mahomes. He’s put his talent on full display. He’s just still learning. That’s not to say he can’t be where he needs to be by the end of the preseason, but he’s not ready at this point. My statements on his readiness should also in no way slow down the hype about his prospects as a prospect. There are just some critical things to being successful in an Andy Reid offense that he’s not quite there with yet. Yet.

For Mahomes to be best positioned to excel and for the team to be better off with him at QB in 2017, here are the areas I haven’t seen enough of yet to demand for Smith’s demotion.

Pre-snap

In watching film from last season, one thing I noticed: The Chiefs don’t always ask Alex Smith to do a lot post snap, but ask a lot of him pre-snap. The Chiefs trust Smith to get the offense in the right position. Not only is he setting protections, he’s killing plays, audibling to new ones and getting his team in the best situation they can on any given snap. He’s in command. From what I’ve seen they didn’t ask that much from him as a passer, a lot of plays were pretty defined, but leaned on him to get in the right look.

The Chiefs have asked little of Mahomes so far in games. They’ve asked him to identify the mike linebacker for protection purposes, but most of his pre-snap responsibility appears to be limited to just that. Even shifts and motions have been limited in the early sample size and they haven’t asked him to make any play fakes or handoffs with a player on the move at the snap. I saw one instance the last two weeks where he might have killed or adjusted a play. It very well could be that they dumbed the in-game offense down to accommodate eleven newer, learning players and Mahomes is able to do more. But even when Mahomes was with the first team offense, they limited his exposure and responsibilities.

Against vanilla defensive looks, the only thing Mahomes has been frequently asked to do pre-snap is identify the mike linebacker. Even that will become a little more complicated as protections with more complicated structure and rules are implemented. Some of this is just seeing different looks enough times to get a feel for what you need to do to counter. Not even necessarily in a game, just from the sidelines and on film. Before I’m ready to hand the reigns to Mahomes, I want to see him have to handle more pre-snap at the line of scrimmage.

Ball Handling

“LOL at this guy, right? He’s worried about ball handling?”

The Chiefs use a lot of moving pieces and parts to confuse and expose defenses and get their best players in position to succeed. That’s shifts, motions, play action, jet sweeps, pump fakes, false keys, QB eye movement, screens, etc. The list goes on and on.

Some of these things are where Jack Del Rio’s gimmick comments last year came from. The Chiefs work hard to manufacture yards at times. Alex Smith is excellent at executing these subtleties and so the Chiefs mask his deficiencies elsewhere with creativity. It’s one of those things he has to do at a high level to succeed.

The argument will be that the Chiefs won’t have to do as much of these things with a downfield minded passer in Mahomes. That would be correct. But Mahomes is very obviously uncomfortable with simple ball handling. This is not a knock on him. There’s no way anyone should expect him to comfortable yet. He’s never been under center.

The play above shows some things he’s still working on with these movements. He looks very timid at the mesh point of both the run action and the hand off on the reverse. His feet keep moving and eyes aren’t helping him sell the play.

So far, Mahomes’ movements on handoff mechanics, screens to the running back, play action and boots is some of the least comfortable and convincing you’re ever going to see. He’s still trying to adjust to being under center and being good enough to hold defenders. He holds the ball low and he’s not selling the plays with his head and hands. It’s clunky and he’s still trying to perfect those movements.

Young quarterbacks need easy yards. Little things like ball handling, play action and fakes can make it easier to get them. I would like him to be more comfortable with the little things before he gets thrown into the fire.

Let’s Be Patient

If you’re cutting the playbook down both with the responsibilities you give a quarterback pre-snap and the execution on the subtleties of the position, you’re going to have a harder time sustaining success. He is one of the oddest cases of a prospect you’re ever going to see. He took calculus before algebra. He ran before he walked. He needs to grow into some of the more traditional aspects of the position.

He won’t have to do as much as Alex does with these things to be successful. Being Patrick Mahomes will be enough a lot of the time. But to sustain success for a whole season, he needs to be better on little things than where he is. When he does get better with them...whew.

Be ecstatic with what you’ve seen. It’s real and it’s fantastic. But let him gain some comfort in what he’s doing. He’ll benefit from developing those in the long run. If he’s better with these small things, he’ll be in a much better position to be what we believe he is, the leader of the franchise for many years to come.

For one more season, the Chiefs need to hope for some car crashes. The No. 11 car is a little more race ready still. The No. 12 car (the other No. 12) is 40 years old and only runs on organic, all-plant fuel now. Next year, the Chiefs engine could have a ton more horsepower.