A month into the NFL season, Patrick Mahomes II, the Kansas City Chiefs’ second-year quarterback and first-year starter, is the lead story. He’s compiled 1,200 passing yards, 14 touchdowns, and zero interceptions, digging in as the early MVP front-runner. A fitting enough summary of Mahomes’s year, to this point, came in the second quarter of Kansas City’s Week 3 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
With two touchdowns already to their credit, the Chiefs had marched to San Francisco’s 5-yard line when a pass rush sent Mahomes scrambling backward to almost the 25. He swerved, stumbled out of a would-be sack, and then—at the moment when most quarterbacks would’ve chucked the ball out of bounds and lived for another play—rifled a pass between linebacker and cornerback to the wide receiver Chris Conley in the last sliver of end zone. It would’ve been an impressive throw under ideal circumstances; on the run, with an extra quarter-field between Mahomes and his target, it was dizzying. It was also just the first of three unanswered passing scores. The Chiefs shortly took a 35–10 lead into halftime en route to a 38–27 victory.
That’s more or less how Mahomes’s introduction to the NFL has gone. Honors abound: Mahomes has won the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Week Award twice already, and his 13 touchdowns through three games broke a record set by Peyton Manning in 2013. After opening the season not even favored to win its own division, Kansas City now has the third-best odds of winning the Super Bowl. To the Chiefs, Mahomes looks the part of a franchise cornerstone; to the league, he’s a bankable superstar. But to the head coach, Andy Reid, whose extravagant schemes have been no small part of Mahomes’s early success, the player could offer something even harder to come by: belated validation for a career spent at football’s cutting edge.
It takes just a glance around the league to see the influence Reid has had in his two decades at the helm of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chiefs. His former assistants make up a sizable portion of the NFL’s head-coaching ranks. Doug Pederson, who led the Eagles to their first championship last season, and Matt Nagy, the first-year coach of the resurgent Chicago Bears, are only the most recent examples. Reid’s offense, which borrows liberally from the more flamboyant approaches favored in college football, is widely mimicked throughout the league. To watch a Reid team is to sense the outer reaches of the sport—all reverses, shovel passes, sleight of hand, and sudden downfield attacks. An old-school run up the middle registers as a surprise.
But despite Reid’s stature in league circles—Pederson calls him a “big mentor,” and Nagy has said of his influence that “words don’t do it justice”—the Chiefs coach has a parallel reputation for coming up short in the crucial moment. His partnership with the quarterback Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia reached its peak with a puzzling Super Bowl loss in 2005, and his high-scoring Eagles team built around a mid-comeback Michael Vick flamed out in its only postseason appearance that year. Tracking Reid’s clock mismanagements and the sizes of the comebacks he allows has become an annual parlor game. After the Chiefs lost a 21–3 lead to the Tennessee Titans in last season’s playoffs, Reid blamed himself. “[The fans] deserve more than what we gave them,” he said. “That’s my responsibility as the head coach of the football team.”
Such a view might minimize the credit Reid deserves for reaching those big games to begin with—for molding, for example, the San Francisco castoff Alex Smith into a quarterback who made the playoffs four times in five seasons with Kansas City—but the loud chambers of NFL legacy-making aren’t conducive to nuance. Enter Mahomes. Though draft evaluators in 2017 saw the big-armed and sometimes overeager Texas Tech quarterback as one who’d “drive his head coach crazy for the first couple of years,” Reid saw something different: a player savvy enough to grasp his tactics and talented enough to exploit them to their fullest.
After sitting for the bulk of his rookie year behind Smith, Mahomes has made good on his coach’s hopes. “He’s more excited than I’ve seen him in a long time,” the Chiefs president Mark Donovan said of Reid before the season started, and the reasons for that excitement have been broadcast weekly. Mahomes has made every type of throw Reid can draw up, muscling the football halfway down the field, arcing it down over a tightly covered receiver’s outside shoulder, or dropping it off to a teammate with room to run. Set amid an embarrassment of skill-position players—Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s leading rusher last season; Tyreek Hill, maybe the fastest player in the league; and Travis Kelce, the huge and Velcro-handed tight end—Mahomes has transformed the offense from clever to downright frightening. Reid’s system has been called a “cheat code.” Now, Reid’s quarterback is called the same.
Last Monday night provided a test to football’s newest darlings, as they played their first prime-time game of the season, on the road in Mile High Stadium against the Denver Broncos. It was a messy contest. The ferocious Denver pass-rush hurried Mahomes, and much of Reid’s downfield geometry didn’t have time to develop. The Chiefs trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter when, in an inversion of the usual patterns of Reid’s career, things suddenly snapped into place. On one drive, Mahomes threw completions of 15 and 19 yards into small windows before flicking the ball out to Kelce for a touchdown. On the next, flushed from the pocket on third down, he took the ball in his left hand and lobbed it to Hill for a first down. “Any way possible,” the announcer Jason Witten said, describing less the particular play than the governing spirit of the Kansas City attack. A short while and a couple more Mahomes strikes later, Hunt was stepping into the end zone for a lead the Chiefs would not relinquish.
The fact that Mahomes’s breakout is happening in Kansas City gives it a sense of rarity and fun; he is the first quarterback drafted by the QB-snakebitten Chiefs to win a game for the team since 1987. But the fact that he’s playing for Reid adds in a sense of karmic balancing. Reid has been generous to professional football, gifting it stylistic variation and tutoring its up-and-comers, albeit without much choice—he can’t copyright the run-pass option. Football has found him a signal-caller to match his imagination.
The Chiefs’ season won’t stay this breezy. The team’s next two games are against Jacksonville and New England—last year’s AFC title game participants—and Reid’s detractors will be waiting for evidence of the old glitches. But his coaching of Mahomes may, in this or coming years, be enough to render his well-chronicled faults irrelevant, or at least to cast the greater share of attention back on his standing as a front-edge football thinker. It’s hard for a team averaging 36 points per game to surrender many comebacks; the occasional clock snafu matters less as the margins for error widen. The quarterback, among his many positive attributes, is a believer. “I love this team,” Mahomes said in the minutes after the comeback in Denver. “Everybody can step up, and everybody can make plays.”