KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One of the third-quarter throws that Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes made recently against the Denver Broncos broke a lot of the NFL’s unwritten rules for a successful pass.
The right-handed Mahomes was drifting to his left. He threw the ball late to the middle of the field. The pass was made across his body.
But Mahomes still made it work. Tight end Travis Kelce was open and the Chiefs got a 29-yard gain on the play and, eventually, a field goal on the drive.
This was a case, and there have been others this season with Mahomes, when the Chiefs have benefited from letting their quarterback use his uncommonly strong arm.
“They never encourage that,” Mahomes said of coach Andy Reid and the other offensive assistants. “As long as you complete it and you get the first down, they’re fine with it. At the same time, you have to know when not to do that.
“You never want to throw across your body as a quarterback, especially in this league … but it kind of [happened] naturally.”
Mahomes has yet to get himself or the 5-0 Chiefs into trouble with any of his daring passes. The Chiefs have tamed Mahomes, who arrived with a reputation for making some reckless passes, without taking away the qualities that attracted coach Andy Reid to him in the first place.
That’s a big reason why Mahomes, in his first season as a starter, has 14 touchdown passes with only two interceptions heading into Sunday night’s game against the Patriots in New England.
“Most guys are told not to do that,” said fullback Anthony Sherman, who was referring to the Kelce pass but could have been talking about other unconventional Mahomes passes. “He goes out there and executes it and it’s like, ‘OK, I guess you can do that.’ … Coach Reid gives him the ability that if he thinks he can get it there, throw it and get it there. He knows he’s going to have to get the ball into some tight windows, but he trusts his arm enough.
“I think at this point we should trust him and know he won’t put us in a bad situation. He’ll just find a way to get the ball to an open receiver.”
Mahomes didn’t throw a ton of interceptions in college at Texas Tech: 29 in 857 pass attempts, or on about 3.4 percent of his throws.
But he was prone to try to make a play down the field when one wasn’t necessarily available rather than always operate within the offensive system and be content with a shorter gain.
The Chiefs set about changing that part of Mahomes’ game from the time he arrived last year as a first-round draft pick. The first thing they did was have him observe last year’s starting quarterback Alex Smith, who protects the ball as well as any quarterback.
Smith has thrown an interception on 2.1 percent of his passes in his 13-year NFL career and on 1.4 percent of his throws in his five seasons with the Chiefs.
“What he learned from Alex was having respect for the football,” former Chiefs assistant coach Brad Childress said. “I’ve been around quarterbacks who have no regard for the football. If it became between you and the football, you can have the football. So Pat gets that part, how turnovers can kill you.”
The Chiefs hired assistant coach Mike Kafka to work with Mahomes last year. Kafka, who once played for Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles, was promoted to quarterbacks coach this year.
“Mike Kafka has lived with this kid now for two years,” Reid said. “Mike played in the offense, so he knows the rules and regulations you kind of have to go by but also the freedom you get to be yourself, to put your own mark on it. Then, the kid is wired that way. He wants to do well and be the best. So you can coach him and he will take his coaching and he’ll work with you on it. It’s a tribute to him. He’s a special kid that way.”
Reid routinely uses a trust test with his quarterbacks, asking them after certain plays during practice or games what he saw from the defensive coverage. Reid said Mahomes almost always breaks down the coverage exactly the way it unfolded.
“Not every quarterback can spit that out to you,” Reid said. “The thing about Pat is he’s blessed with this great vision. He sees everything out there.”
Because he’s so confident Mahomes is aware of everything the defense is doing from the start of a play to the finish, Reid is comfortable in not placing many restrictions on him in terms of the types of throws he can make. As Reid put it, “You let him put his personality on it.”
Childress said Mahomes last season in practice made several no-look passes, gazing out into the flat while throwing a slant toward the middle of the field.
“I coached [Brett] Favre for two years and he’s the only other guy I’ve seen that was confident enough to be able to do that, to look one way and throw the other,” Childress said. “He would do that in practice and Andy of course would keep a straight face. He didn’t encourage it at all, but you’ve got to let him be himself.
“He’s got supreme confidence in his ability. You don’t want somebody who doesn’t. You wouldn’t want somebody who doubts himself or questions himself.”
Mahomes had some interception-filled practice sessions early in training camp. Reid described a lot of the interceptions as the result of Mahomes testing the limits of what he can get away with on certain plays and against certain coverages.
Mahomes’ two interceptions this season, both last week against the Jaguars, weren’t reckless throws. One appeared to sail on him and went over Tyreek Hill‘s reach. On the other, Demarcus Robinson went up the field rather than coming back to the ball.
Regardless, Mahomes will keep chucking, and the Chiefs will keep reaping the benefits.
“It’s all situational,” Mahomes said. “Sometimes you can extend plays and give your receivers chances to make plays, and sometimes you need to stay in the pocket and just take what’s there.
“I’m not fast. I know my strength is not running the ball. I know I have a lot of playmakers whose strength is catching the ball and making people miss. I know if I keep my eyes downfield I can get it to them.”