On January 30, 2018 — just 24 days after their season had ended in a stinging 22-21 playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans — the Kansas City Chiefs traded their starting quarterback, Alex Smith, to the Washington Redskins for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
And the Patrick Mahomes Era began in Kansas City.
Even though Mahomes was Smith’s heir-apparent — and rumors of a trade for Smith had begun immediately after the final game of the season — the move was still a bit of a shock, as Arrowhead Pride’s Joel Thorman explained to our readers that day.
We wondered if the Chiefs could possibly eat the money and keep Alex after he put up the best season of his career — 4,000 yards, 26 touchdowns, five interceptions and the highest QB rating in the league this year.
“The Blogfather” had a point. Although Smith’s $18.4 million salary cap hit would make the trip to Washington with Smith, the Chiefs would be on the hook for $3.6 million in dead money on his contract for the 2018 season. And Smith was coming off not only a career year but also one in which he had become the only Chiefs quarterback since the 1970 merger to lead the league in passer rating.
And as Thorman went on to explain, the timing was unexpected.
Why now? We didn’t expect the real rumors to heat up until closer to March when a trade can officially be consummated. It’s before the Super Bowl, which is rare for a move like this to happen this early. Alex Smith was making the media rounds during Super Bowl week and said he didn’t know what was going to happen. There was little to no talk of the Redskins being the target.
Even Mahomes had no idea it was about to happen.
“Our sense of it was we thought something like this might happen closer to the draft,” Mahomes’ agent Leigh Steinberg said the next day. “I went back to my hotel room last night and Patrick was a backup, and about a half hour later the Mahomes Era began. He had no notice of it either. [He had] a general sense that they were probably moving in that direction but he hadn’t talked to anybody from the team... so I sorta told him.”
It seems amazing to look back on it now, but in the poll we published that day, just 68 percent of our readers approved of the trade that would hand Mahomes the reins of the offense.
One year and three days later, Mahomes would be officially named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, becoming the first player in franchise history to win the award — and the youngest-ever in the Super Bowl era.
A show of hands: is there anyone who voted in the poll a year ago who would now like to change their vote?
Even the man who was in the best position to be confident about it — Chiefs head coach Andy Reid — had his doubts, as he explained Wednesday in an interview on SiriusXM’s Movin’ the Chains with Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“The one thing we weren’t sure about — we thought we knew, but you never know -- was that Alex Smith had taken it to such a high level,” Reid explained. “You weren’t going to run out of gigabytes with Alex. Could we not back up? Could we continue to move forward with the offense? Until the guy does it, you’re not quite sure.”
His comment was much like one he made before Mahomes’ first career start against the Denver Broncos in the last game of the 2017 regular season.
“You hear what he’s all about but until the player is there, you really don’t know,” Reid told the press before the game. “He’s everything everybody said he was: a great person — works hard, loves playing — all those things we’ve seen. Obviously he hasn’t played in the game other than the preseason, but he’s done a great job [with] the other stuff.”
With everything that’s happened since, it might be shocking to recall Mahomes’ stat line from his NFL debut: 22 of 35 for 284 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, which translated to a passer rating of just 76.4.
With the Chiefs leading 24-10 in a meaningless end-of-season game, third-string quarterback Tyler Bray relieved Mahomes halfway through the fourth quarter and immediately surrendered a fumble that the Broncos recovered and returned for a touchdown. After a three-and-out with Bray under center — and a Broncos touchdown drive that tied the game at 24 with 2:45 remaining — Reid decided to see if the heir-apparent could eke out a win.
Mahomes’ first game-winning drive started inauspiciously with a sack, nearly fizzling after three plays when he couldn’t connect with Demarcus Robinson on a deep pass on third-and-4. But Denver was called offsides on the play, which kept the drive alive. Mahomes settled down and led the Chiefs down the field with a series of short passes for medium gains to set up a 30-yard Harrison Butker field goal that won the game with just four seconds remaining.
But that’s just what the game looked like on paper. Tape from several plays in the game would be endlessly analyzed by Chiefs fans over the months that followed and gave an entirely different picture of what the Chiefs might be able to expect in their new offensive leader — a picture that now seems quite familiar.
3rd and 14. Mahomes throws a dime while being tackled. pic.twitter.com/wCwMGLfhLi— TOM MARTIN (@TomKCTV5) December 31, 2017
But even after seeing all of that happen, Reid’s comments about Mahomes after the game were more about Smith — who would start the playoff game a week later — than they were about his young gunslinger.
“I mentioned to our guys that he’s so fortunate to have been in that room with Alex Smith,” Reid said in his postgame press conference. “Just to know how to go about doing your job at this level, and he did that this week. He spent the time knowing that he was going to be the guy. Alex was a great support for him.”
“Alex is an awesome guy,” Mahomes said. “He helped me the entire game. He really showed me what he was seeing out there, showed me things he was recognizing and giving me tips. You really can’t ask for a guy to be in front of you as well as Alex has been for me.”
But elsewhere in the building that evening, Broncos players were ready to forget all about Smith.
“I saw enough of Patrick Mahomes to think Alex Smith is going to be a free agent next year,” Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said after the game. “That guy can play some ball. He’s smart. I saw him checking protections, I saw him reading the defense. We know how strong his arm is. The guy is a competitor. I think Alex Smith definitely might be on the market this year.”
His teammate Von Miller agreed.
“He came out and made some great throws,” Miller said in the locker room. “He’s a rookie, still, and got out there and played lights out. We had some ones out there and he still came through and played. Hats off to Mahomes. He’s going to be the quarterback of the future. He’s going to be a great quarterback.”
Apparently, we should have listened more to those two guys.
The following May, after ESPN analyst Mike Clay had projected Mahomes would throw for just over 4,000 yards, with 21 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, we published a lengthy analysis in response to Clay’s prediction. Gary McKenzie’s analysis also concluded Mahomes would throw for just over 4,000 yards, but with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Still, on the eve of his first game as the starter against the Los Angeles Chargers, Mahomes didn’t exactly sound like a guy on the brink of a historic season, as an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune showed.
Mahomes this week said he’s worked to learn Reid’s game plan “backward, forward and sideways” and to know “every aspect and every situation that could apply in the game.”
I asked if he was more apt to go off script in college, in comparison to now as a second-year pro.
“Uh, I don’t necessarily know yet,” he said. “To me, I’m going to try to go out there and run this offense hopefully how it’s supposed to be run. If I do have to scramble and make a play, I hope I can make them. But at the same time, there are different athletes in this league so I know you can’t get away with as much as you got away with in college.”
Even after the Chiefs defeated the Chargers 38-28 to open the season — a game in which Mahomes threw four touchdown passes and compiled a passer rating of 127.5 — the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t see Mahomes coming.
”I don’t think we gave him enough credit. I think he was better than we thought,” Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree admitted to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler after Mahomes and the Chiefs defeated Pittsburgh 42-37 in Week 2. “I feel like his intelligence was better than we thought. We thought since he was a young quarterback we could trick him, but he kind of spread us out. He didn’t snap the ball fast so he was really trying to read us, seeing where the weaknesses were before he snapped the ball. Many young quarterbacks can’t really check like that. He showed us otherwise.”
Mahomes threw for six touchdowns and no interceptions in the game with a near-perfect passer rating of 154.8.
You know the rest. Mahomes would exceed all expectations in 2018, throwing for 5,097 yards with 50 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions, which was good for a passer rating of 113.8
Unlike Mike Clay, at least Gary McKenzie got the number of interceptions right.
Mahomes 2018 statistics exceeded every one of those from Kurt Warner’s legendary 17-game career start in 1998-99. He led the league in touchdown passes, passing touchdown percentage, adjusted yards per attempt and net adjusted yards per attempt. While he finished second to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in passer rating, he led the league in ESPN’s proprietary QBR rating with a mark of 82.0.
Mahomes threw six touchdown passes in one other 2018 game. But that one — the 54-51 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 11 — stands out for a different reason. In that game, Mahomes also threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles. No other NFL quarterback has ever committed five turnovers and also thrown six touchdown passes in a single game. While the game was a loss, his performance in it spoke volumes about Mahomes’ poise and leadership.
throw— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) November 20, 2018
TOUCHDOWN, KANSAS CITY! pic.twitter.com/VKXbv8mivY
You tell me: is that the kind of play a quarterback typically makes when he’s already committed four turnovers?
“Well, Patrick stepped in [and] we were able to do it,” Andy Reid told SiriusXM’s Miller and Kirwin on Wednesday — with his usual flair for understatement. “We were able to keep moving — still get the plays in on time, and get the call out — [and] execution was good. That was probably the most — well, I’m not going to say surprising — biggest unknown: where he’d be.”
It might have been unclear to Reid (and most fans) one year ago, but Mahomes was already there: ready to play at nothing less than an elite level — enough to turn in one of the most amazing individual quarterback performances in NFL history, and lead his team to the cusp of a Super Bowl. And Reid told Miller and Kirwin that Mahomes would be able to improve on his play.
“Now he can go back and look at all the cut-ups that we put together, and he can see, ‘Ok, I can do better on my footwork here, I can throw it on the back pad here” — all the different things he can improve on that he’ll be able to do this offseason.”
Chiefs fans will always remember the 2018 season as a disappointment: one that ended just inches from a Super Bowl. But now that he’s had the time to reflect on the 37-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots that ended the season, in Reid’s mind, it’s all about the experience his team had — and where it will lead.
“I think the best thing is that they got a taste of what it’s like to play in a championship game,” he said. “You know how it is: it’s faster. It’s more intense. So you can talk about it as a coach, but until you get in there and you feel it, that’s a little different deal. They were able to get in, feel it, and now they know what it takes to get there. And then to take that next step.”
His quarterback put it a slightly different way — just before he stepped off the stage in Atlanta holding his shiny new MVP trophy.
“This is just the beginning. We have a long way to go.”