The sport of football can be the world’s most complex game of chess at times. You need to have a plan before every play, and then another plan based on the opponent’s move — and yet another plan for the opponent’s counter to the plan you showed.
The difference between chess and football is that the pieces on the game board do exactly what you plan for them to do; on the gridiron, the chess pieces are human — and with that can come human error.
In recent weeks, all parts of the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense — the pieces and the planning — have not lived up to expectation. They’ve averaged 12 points in their last three games, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes has had a few of his worst statistical games ever mixed in.
When you ask Mahomes — the king on a chessboard — what is going wrong, there’s one word that he emphasizes right away.
“It comes down to execution,” Mahomes told reporters on Wednesday during his press conference. “When you don’t execute in this league, you don’t score points. You’ve seen that the last few weeks — then you saw the weeks where we were executing and scoring points. That’s on us to go out there and execute at a higher level, starting with me.”
The star quarterback elaborated on placing the blame on his shoulders.
“There are plays where guys are open that I’m not hitting,” Mahomes continued. “We’re calling plays to get guys open, and I have to find those guys, and they have to catch them and move the chains at the end of the day... I have to be better; I understand that.”
One particular play stood out to Chiefs Kingdom from their win over the Green Bay Packers.
The incomplete deep shot hear 'round the world— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 9, 2021
This is the kind of throw you attempt when you're really feeling it. It's a heat check throw... which doesn't make sense considering Mahomes isn't "on fire"
Would've liked to see him settle for Kelce to get an easy chunk play pic.twitter.com/QVNjqBUAk8
On first down in the second quarter, Mahomes gives a play-action fake and comes out of it looking for the big play. He attempts a bomb to wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who can’t work around the safety’s presence to get in position to catch it. There could have been a better play on the ball in the air, but it was a risky throw based on the safety’s positioning.
The significance of the play is that tight end Travis Kelce finds a wide-open void in the coverage about 10 yards downfield. Passing to Kelce could have resulted in at least 15 or 20 yards.
Mahomes knew he had Kelce open — but decided to take a chance at a game-breaking play on first down.
“I’m going to take shots,” Mahomes emphasized. “In the last few years, I’ve taken those shots, and they’ve worked and not worked — but we’ve still been able to find ways to score points. That drive ended up stalling out after that one... whenever I have a guy with a chance downfield, I’m going to give him a chance to make a play.”
The best chance at executing this play is hitting Kelce — plain and simple. That doesn’t mean the play couldn’t have been successfully executed with a great play on the ball by Hardman.
That’s single-play execution, but there’s a bigger picture to simply taking that deep shot. Mahomes is aware of how it can help the offense.
“Even when we’re not connecting on them, it tells the defense we have to back up, which opens up stuff underneath,” Mahomes pointed out. “Taking those shots in the game puts a little fear in the defense knowing that they can’t start coming up or jumping our routes.”
Later in the same game, a much more open deep shot was taken.
#Chiefs catch GB in Cover 3. Appropriately, Mahomes looks deep for Hill, who does a great job getting on top of CB and bending his route back outside away from one-high S— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 9, 2021
Ball is too inside, should be on his outside shoulder. This is a miss. How big would this have been pic.twitter.com/2T03jYy3jU
When Mahomes notices the Green Bay defense in a rare, one-high safety look, he goes to his favorite deep threat to take advantage. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill gets behind the secondary, but the pass is too far and inside for where Hill’s route is heading.
A different kind of misexecution compared to the throw to Hardman — but misexecution nonetheless. Mahomes is antsy to finally hit one of these deep shots.
“It’s going to be nice when we complete one,” Mahomes admitted. “We haven’t completed one in a couple weeks here — but either way, taking those shots at the right time and the right place will continue to open up the offense more and more as the game goes on.”
On the game-clinching drive, the threat of a deep pass to Hill helped clear space for an important completion to Kelce.
#Chiefs went back to a staple pass concept for Kelce on the last drive— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 9, 2021
Fake roll out, Kelce fakes the over route and pivots back away from flow of coverage. Big gain on 2nd & long. Good way to end a weird day for the 15-87 connection pic.twitter.com/YMx1IiTiFr
This second-down pass was a great play design. Mahomes fakes a rollout right; Kelce initially runs across the formation on a crossing route before pivoting back away from the flow of the defense. On the same side as Kelce, Hill sprints downfield and takes the attention of the deep safety and cornerback. That diversion gives Kelce a huge window to work with over the middle.
The bottom line
The Chiefs’ offense executed when it absolutely had to — but that doesn’t excuse the failures that proceeded the final drive. Mahomes has admitted to pressing at times this year, feeling like he has to score on every drive (or even every play). That feeling has started to go away with the rest of the team playing so well.
“These last few weeks have been big for me,” Mahomes revealed. “I’ve learned that we can punt the ball, back the team up, and the defense is going to make stops. That’s big for me individually because I’m someone that wants to score every single drive, but to know that we have that defense that’s going to stop them, (punter) Tommy [Townsend] can pin them inside the 10-yard line, and we’re going to get that ball back, that’s something that you have to learn as a quarterback.”
The great quarterbacks never stop learning — and the Chiefs’ phenom is no exception. He’s continually learning how to balance the execution of a play call and the chance at a big pass play.
The improvement of the defense and special teams is only making him more willing to take what the opponent gives within the design of the play. The more he does that, the better chance there is that the execution of the play is a deep, game-changing throw.