“I think, mentally, I can take my game to a whole ‘nother level.”
That’s what Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said a few weeks ago during his appearance on HBO’s “The Shop: Uninterrupted.”
His bold comment had football fans wondering how the 2018’s NFL MVP (and 2019’s and Super Bowl MVP) could boost his performance any more. In the episode, he was referencing his growth in reading and manipulating defensive coverages.
But I have another idea for how Mahomes could reach that next level.
He should make an effort to scramble more often. An increase in scrambling could lead to a more efficient passing offense — and more stress on opposing defensive schemes.
But that does come with the condition that he utilizes a safe, sliding stop more often.
Mahomes is obviously a very gifted athlete. He is comfortable as a runner and incorporates his background as a multi-sport athlete into his rushing ability. There was no better example of this than the play that immediately became an all-time highlight for the young superstar during the AFC championship against the Tennessee Titans.
With :23 left in the first half, Mahomes begins to scramble to the sideline, intending to out of bounds to stop the clock. To beat the pursuing tacklers, he uses a few hesitation moves to get outside — similar to how a basketball player would use hesitation to get past a defender. Once he realizes he has room on the sideline, his athletic instincts take over — and the rest is history.
Mahomes isn’t known for his speed, but he showed it off a few times in 2019.
On this third-down conversion, he uses it against Los Angeles Chargers edge rusher Melvin Ingram, a freak athlete with great athleticism for his position. Mahomes easily destroys his angle and outraces him for a 20-yard gain.
The athleticism is important. But what makes Mahomes so incredible is the combination of his physical abilities and his football intelligence.
Pro Football Focus tracks quarterback scrambles, separating them from general rushing attempts. In the 17 games he started in 2019, Mahomes averaged 9.4 yards per scramble. In comparison, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson averaged 7.7 yards. Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills averaged 7.2. The Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson scrambled for 6.4 yards per attempt and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray averaged 7.8 per scramble.
Mahomes’ impressive rate reflects how efficient he is in choosing when to scramble. He understands down and distance situations, allowing him to recognize the scenarios in which he needs to stay in the pocket and the ones where he needs to bail quickly. His scrambles occur only at the most opportune times.
On this third-and-short play, you can tell Mahomes understands the defensive coverage — and knows how to use his feet to manipulate the defenders. He immediately rolls left to see if any defenders will leave their zones to attack him. When no defenders take the bait, Mahomes continues on his path to the sideline and gains a first down. But if he had drawn a defender to his rollout, a receiver would have come open.
Throughout the season, Mahomes was very successful while rushing on third-down plays. Through the Super Bowl, he converted 11 of the 13 times he ran on third down.
This play was definitely a simpler read.
Knowing he only needs five yards to convert, Mahomes drops back and scans the defense. Once he sees the multiple defenders tight end Travis Kelce is taking across the field — leaving no one on that sideline — Mahomes immediately takes off.
Here we see what was possibly the most crucial scramble of the regular season.
Down three points late in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs are at fourth-and-8. You can see that as soon as Mahomes understands the Detroit Lions are playing man coverage, he knows he can take off; the defenders have their backs to him.
This conversion helped a game-winning touchdown drive stay alive.
Here, Mahomes shows great awareness of the situation and the development of the receivers’ routes. Once he feels pressure from his right, he already knows that the left side of the field will be vacant because of the routes the receivers are running. Without hesitation, Mahomes takes off to pick up the first down.
Some of the other young quarterbacks known for their mobility give up too quickly, dropping their eyes to evade tacklers. That’s why all the aforementioned quarterbacks (besides Murray) have more scrambles than Mahomes does. But the Chiefs’ quarterback makes a noticeable effort to always keep the possibility of throwing alive — sometimes to his detriment.
Here we see the downside of Mahomes’ situational awareness — and his insistence on keeping his eyes downfield.
He understands that first down is a good time to take a chance, knowing he will still have two more chances to convert. This leads to keeping himself in throwing position right up until he is tackled by the linebacker — even though there is room to take off on the right.
In this situation, placing a bigger emphasis on taking the scramble yards — rather than trying to make a big-time throw — likely would have resulted in a good gain.
On this play, Mahomes has room to take off up the middle and possibly earn the first down. Instead. he forces a throw while being hit by pass rushers.
I believe encouraging Mahomes to scramble more could improve the effectiveness of the passing offense. If he becomes a more serious threat to run on any dropback, defenses will have no choice but to account for it. If they do, it will open up passing lanes. If they don’t, Mahomes has shown that he can make them pay.
In a universe where football is played like it is on Madden, Mahomes would be dropping back to pass on every play; the only team rushing attempts would be his scrambles. For now, I would settle for a little more focus on taking the scramble yards when the opportunities arise.
And please, Patrick... keep yourself safe. Slide.