On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Green Bay Packers 13-7, advancing their record to 5-4 in an AFC West race that is suddenly wide open.
In a season that has defied everyone's expectations, the victory was obviously welcome. But it was only the second time during head coach Andy Reid's tenure that his team and its opponent had combined to score 20 or fewer points. The other one was almost six years ago — a 10-3 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
In one sense, the low-scoring game was an excellent development. It was only the fourth time since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's arrival in 2019 that the team had allowed seven or fewer points — and the first in almost two years.
But what was concerning was the performance of the Chiefs' offense — particularly that of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who still hasn't returned to the consistent production he gave the team during his first three seasons as a starter.
There's no other way to put it: Mahomes is in a slump.
In an article published last week, FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine noted that while all quarterbacks eventually have slumped, Mahomes has played longer without one than any other quarterback.
All quarterbacks — even the all-time greats — go through bad periods if they play the game long enough. But if anyone seemed immune to this reality, it was Mahomes. Before Kansas City’s humbling 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 7, Mahomes had recorded above-average performances in 50 of his first 60 career starts,1 according to our QB Elo rating metric — and before his mediocre performance Monday night, he’d never experienced below-average outings in back-to-back games. Up to that point, the idea of a “Mahomes slump” was largely just a thought experiment.
But you don't have to use FiveThirtyEight's ELO metric to see that Mahomes' recent performances have been subpar. Using his NFL passer rating as our yardstick, he's now had five consecutive games with a below-average rating.
Before the Week 8 game against the New York Giants, I noted Mahomes had previously had a three-game stretch with similarly below-average numbers. But now — with two more such games added to the stretch — we're well into unprecedented territory with the former NFL (and Super Bowl) MVP.
So what's going on?
Some have suggested that Mahomes — now engaged and with a new baby in his home — is distracted by his family life. In my view, this theory should be rejected out of hand. The NFL is full of young men who are beginning marriages and families. If this was actually the problem, wouldn't it be more widespread? Besides... Mahomes has shown every sign of being as well-adjusted as a sudden celebrity could possibly be.
Others opine that his celebrity is the root cause of the problem — that Mahomes is distracted by endorsement deals and making commercials. But those are offseason pursuits; they don't impact his practice time or preparation during the season. Remember: Mahomes is represented by Leigh Steinberg's agency. The real-life inspiration for Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire character has undoubtedly faced challenges in his career — the very kind that would motivate any agent to do everything in their power to be sure that when each season begins, Mahomes remains focused on football.
“The biggest thing for me is the sport of football, taking care of my family, and loving everything I do,” Mahomes said in 2019, via Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star. “I don’t ever want to lose that love for the game. The money’s awesome. The money’s cool, for sure. You dream about making money and stuff like that. But I always say football is what I loved first.”
Those aren't the words of a young man who is distracted by his celebrity.
Then some believe that it's all about Reid's play-calling. While it is true that at some point, every coach will sometimes throw a clunker out there — over the years, I myself have sometimes made specific criticisms of play-calls — I always return to this fact: in a quarter-century of covering the Chiefs, every single head coach has been heavily criticized for their play-calls when the team has been playing poorly.
What's more likely? That every one of these coaches has had exactly the same problem? Or that people tend to make these criticisms when they aren't really warranted?
What does that leave?
During a recent broadcast of a Chiefs game, the announcing team noted that Mahomes had protected the ball well as he slid at the end of a run — something that he had not been doing earlier in the season. They revealed that in their pregame meeting with Mahomes, he acknowledged that before coming to Kansas City, no one had ever taught him to do that.
To me, that was revelatory. Mahomes has spent his entire career relying only on his enormous physical talent. But now that he's at the top level of his profession, it just isn't enough. As we have seen throughout the season, opposing defenses have finally realized that the way to beat him is to take away what he does best: utilizing his incredible talent to make plays out of structure.
So now, Chiefs coaches are busy doing what NFL coaches always do: devising counter-strategies. In this case, those have included teaching Mahomes that with a now-solid interior offensive line, he can step up in the pocket... that it's OK for him to make shorter throws to keep moving the sticks... and finally, that it isn't on him to win every game.
In the last few games, we have seen signs that the strategy is beginning to work. The difficulty has been to make it work beyond each game's opening script. When drives have started to fail, Mahomes has been returning to what has worked for him over his whole career: trying to make plays. But what he hasn't yet learned is that until he fully embraces what the coaches are trying to teach him, those plays just aren't going to be there for him to make.
It looks bad right now. But Mahomes is smart. He is dedicated. He still possesses truly incredible physical gifts. He will get it figured out.
Maybe he'll get it done this year. Maybe he won't. But when he does, his slump will be over — and it is more than possible that we'll never see another one like it.