A strange and uncomfortable phenomenon has invaded Kansas City Chiefs games this season: Their quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, is throwing the football to players not on his team.
He’s thrown it at mythical creatures (Giants, Titans) and birds (Eagles, Ravens), frontiersmen (Bills, Cowboys) and Footballers (Washington). In all, Mahomes was responsible for 11 interceptions – the same number as during the 2019 and 2020 regular seasons combined, and one away from the total he threw in 2018, his first season as a starter.
There are also as many as, sigh, Sam Darnold has pitched this season, and more than Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield and Daniel Jones, none of whom are considered particularly vigilant protectors of the ball. Ryan Tannehill, who has been intercepted 13 times, leads the NFL in that category.
Throughout his rocketry career, Mahomes has tended to defy time and space and all common sense by trying — and completing — passes that other quarterbacks wouldn’t, and has done so without suffering punitive consequences: in each of the last two seasons, only Aaron Rodgers had a lower interception rate.
All of these interceptions, part of Mahomes’ first prolonged slump since he became Kansas City’s starter in 2018, have sparked varying degrees of anxiety among the team and its fans. But a deeper look reveals that he is only partially responsible for the wave of giveaways.
News and Analysis of the 2021 NFL Season
He has had fewer big throws.
Mahomes’ interceptions look worse – or at least more striking – because of the way the Kansas City offense struggled during the first half of the season.
Pro Football Focus has a stat called Turnover-Worthy Plays, which is good for passes that have a high probability of being intercepted or for times when a quarterback shows poor ball security. Mahomes’ rate this season is 3 percent (about the NFL average), which is barely different from other seasons: 3.2 in 2020 and 2018, 2.5 in 2019.
However, Mahomes has thrown a much lower percentage of what Pro Football Focus considers Big Time Throws – passing with excellent location and timing, and often thrown deeper into the field and into tighter spaces. Only 3.1 percent of his throws this season were considered Big Time, compared to 7.4 in 2020, 5.7 in 2019 and 7.8 in 2018.
The defense is loaded against him.
The main reason for the decline in explosive pass plays is that opponents have deployed variations of two-high-safety coverage, taking away the deep intersection routes that Kansas City loves so much and challenging the Chiefs to run. That tactic discourages Mahomes from pitching in and forces the team, which has no credible threat, to play a more methodical style.
“The theory behind it is that sooner or later you’re going to make a mistake or get impatient,” former NFL safety Matt Bowen, now an analyst for ESPN, said in a telephone interview. “You’ve seen that in Kansas City because it’s hard to do twelve plays. It’s hard to do that as a play-caller. It’s hard to be patient as a quarterback.”
As a result, Mahomes averages just 4.9 air yards per completion, tied for second-fewest in the league, according to Pro Football Reference.
After Kansas City’s 27-3 loss to Tennessee in Week 7, Mahomes acknowledged the challenge of playing more mindfully and said he had to adapt so as not to “get bored taking profits.” Bowen said he noticed Mahomes’ unnecessary movement in games earlier in the season, when the quarterback would leave a clean bag to extend the game when he didn’t need it, for example.
The Kansas City defense created deficits that Mahomes was able to eliminate.
It’s possible that the team’s gruesome defense, which tied Washington for the most allowed touchdowns (27) through Week 7, could have pressured Mahomes into feeling like he needed to score points to compensate. After that game in Tennessee, Mahomes mentioned the importance of suppressing the urge to go for a “14 point game.”
Two weeks later, when the Chiefs defeated Green Bay at home, Bowen began to notice a difference. Mahomes, he said, thrived within their offensive structure, pitching in to the beat and remaining patient as he made his progress. He also showed more willingness to check, throwing nine passes—although one was a 38-yard touchdown in the end zone—to run Darrel Williams back in their Week 10 Las Vegas win. In his last three games, Mahomes has only thrown one interception, in Week 11 against Dallas, and it was deflected off tight end Travis Kelce’s hands.
He’s been unlucky.
And this is where that terrible luck comes into play.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, six of Mahomes’ 11 interceptions have come on passes that had at least a 75 percent chance of being completed. Five of those interceptions — including Micah Hyde’s pick-6 for Buffalo in Week 5 — touched a receiver’s hands first.
So it’s possible that for a man who has played three consecutive AFC championships and the last two Super Bowls and is the youngest quarterback to be voted the most valuable player from both a Super Bowl and the league, fortune just happened the other way. .
But only for a spell. The Chiefs have won four in a row and have taken the lead from AFC West, putting Mahomes on his way to more usual results.