After the Kansas City Chiefs clinched their eighth consecutive AFC West title with a 25-17 defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17, quarterback Patrick Mahomes was surprisingly candid about this year’s team.
Following the game, the face of the league discussed a concerted effort to play intelligent, complementary football to allow Kansas City’s top-tier defense to put them in position to win games.
Before Thursday’s practice, Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy and quarterbacks coach David Girardi spoke of the growth they have seen in Mahomes’ mindset, even in an often-frustrating season for the team’s offense.
“The way defenses are playing him,” Girardi observed, “it’s a lot different than what it was in 2018, 2019. and 2020. So, he’s had to adapt a little bit. It’s been a growth thing from him even in prior years, but continuing this year just to see him continue to adapt and take what teams are giving him.”
Nagy saw his quarterback’s adaptability during Sunday’s win against the Bengals in an offensive performance that, while underwhelming, had many fewer mistakes than most of Kansas City’s recent games.
“There’s a few plays where it wasn’t there,” Nagy recalled, “and [Mahomes] took off and ran. Or if there is a play that’s there — and he feels fast in the pocket — now it’s don’t take a bad sack, a coverage sack. Throw the ball away.
“He had two [where] they brought two nickel pressures to the field in a bunch set, and he’s play-actioning and turning around, and there’s two guys in his face right away. Being able to get the ball off and not take an eight-to-ten-yard sack, that’s a smart decision. Third-and-10 plus in the red zone — one of the hardest plays in football — making sure you don’t throw into coverage and make a play that takes points away: a turnover.
“That was a game where we chipped away. We chipped away with three points, obviously, with six field goals. He understood that, and I think that this is something that’s a benefit of his growth...When you see that kind of stuff, that’s awesome. You love it as a coach. You love it as a player.”
Early in Mahomes’ career, he seemed a threat to throw a long touchdown pass at any moment. A combination of defenses adjusting to the star quarterback and Kansas City’s current personnel have limited the number of big plays available this season. Girardi appreciates how Mahomes has learned to accept the necessity of check-down options.
“That’s a constant conversation we have,” the coach stated. “We’ve got to see how defenses are playing. It’s a week-to-week basis. Also, [recognize] the trend of the year like what’s kind of happening. It is a constant conversation that we’ve just got to be efficient with the ball. If the deep shot’s not there, take the check down. It’s been a gradual conversation that we’ve had throughout the year.”
Both coaches maintain that, for the best quarterback in football, team success matters most, even if this year’s Kansas City defense is the side of the ball delivering wins.
“For Pat, it’s all about he just wants to win,” Nagy reaffirmed, “and he’s smart enough to understand that every year’s different. With that comes the ability to adapt. Whether it’s people, whether it’s situations, whatever it is: every year is a little different.
“Your identity’s a little bit different, not just as an offense but as a team and how you win...We have an exceptional defense that is keeping teams out of the end zone and doing really good things, so let’s play complementary football. We are so used to the 40 or 45 points at will all the time — and that’s the goal — but we also have to understand throughout the course of a season how we’re going to win.”
Girardi agreed with Mahomes’ mindset.
“At the end of the day,” he explained, “Pat’s competitive, and he wants to win. We’ve had success. We’ve had the opportunity to win the West. From his standpoint, that’s all he wants to do: he just wants to win. Regardless of how that’s done — whether it’s throwing for a lot, whether we’ve got to hand the ball off, whatever it may be — at the end of the day, he wants to win, and we’ve been able to do that.”
Against the Bengals, Mahomes connected with rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice for a 67-yard completion, teasing the big-play ability of the Chiefs’ offense. Nagy hopes the moment can be a building block to overcoming some of the offense’s season-long bouts of inefficiency.
“It was a great ball,” he stated, “[and] it was a great catch in stride. When you have those — whether it’s as a play caller, whether it’s as a team, whatever it is — it’s a breather...Now you get a big play; now you want to be more effective in the red zone. Having four plays in that game over 35 games was good as a start. We know we have that in us. We just have to do that more consistently.”
While this season has not gone as hoped on his side of the ball, Nagy recognizes that the Chiefs can put concerns to bed by performing in the playoffs.
“We never want to change our goal of scoring a lot of points,” he declared, “whether it’s being great on third down or great in the red zone or protecting the football... However, it goes on, we just want to play complementary football, and we know that going into the playoffs that it doesn’t matter how you win. If you win, everybody will be happy.”