Patrick Mahomes: from project with Chiefs to NFL MVP way faster than anyone imagined

Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the NFL MVP

After a terrific season throwing 50 touchdowns and getting the Chiefs to the AFC Championship , Patrick Mahomes is the NFL's MVP.
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After a terrific season throwing 50 touchdowns and getting the Chiefs to the AFC Championship , Patrick Mahomes is the NFL's MVP.

The moment the world could see that Patrick Mahomes had skipped a dozen or so steps in his ascent to NFL stardom came right away, and that’s not an exaggeration.

On his fifth snap in his season debut, the play gave Mahomes the option of handing off or throwing over the middle. Football people call this a run-pass option — an RPO. The key is reading the linebacker, and in that way Mahomes got the look he wanted. But in another, the play was being blown to bits.

The Chargers’ Brandon Mebane was in the Chiefs’ backfield immediately, the nose tackle’s left arm wrapping around Mahomes’ body as he threw. The contact meant Mahomes had to hurry the throw. For normal human quarterbacks that would mean less velocity and more risk, but for Mahomes simply meant a sidearm shortstop-style throw to a window that had not yet opened on the other side of the safety.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback has taken the NFL by storm in his first year as a starter, and his numbers back it up. Here is every one of his touchdown passes so far this season. Music from KillerTracks.

Fifty-eight yards. Touchdown. Three more scores came that day, Mahomes named AFC offensive player of the week in his first game as QB1. Six more touchdowns the next week, which meant that two games into his season Mahomes had nearly half of the 21 1/2 touchdown pass prop bet available on

“I knew he’d be good,” a league personnel man said at the time. “Nobody knew it would be like this.”

Notably, that includes people inside the organization. Chiefs general manager Brett Veach called him “one of the best players I’ve ever seen” before the season, but he did not believe this much would happen this soon. The peaks did not shock nearly as much as the lack of valleys. Generally, the organization believed Mahomes would be great — but that it would take a few years to filter the bad from the good.

Sometimes reality is even better than the plan.

Mahomes, 23 years old and in his first season as a starter, became the NFL’s youngest MVP in a generation — since Dan Marino won in 1984. He is the first MVP in Chiefs’ history, and arguably the most important player the team has ever employed.

Once in a while, when we’re bored, Kansas Citians will talk about the city’s Mount Rushmore of athletes. Len Dawson has a spot. George Brett. Tom Watson. The fourth spot changes, depending on the mood or season, from Buck O’Neil to Maurice Greene to Derrick Thomas. Mahomes is now that guy. A longstanding Midwestern bar debate is now kaput, one more side effect of the greatest individual season in Chiefs history.

This is easy to forget now, but there was a time when Mahomes as NFL MVP made as much sense as a tree driving a car. He was raw, remember that? Air Raid quarterbacks were facades, and he’d only been a full-time football player for three seasons.

If you bet $100 in April on Mahomes to be MVP, well, congratulations on winning — this can’t be right ... *double checks math* ... holy cow — $550,000.

The Chiefs obviously believed Mahomes would be great. They traded three picks, including two in the first round, to select him 10th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. It was one of the boldest decisions in the history of a franchise that had typically played it safe. After decades of using someone else’s backup, the Chiefs would build their future around an East Texas kid with fascinating skills and precious little experience.

But when you plant a tree, you expect to need patience. Mahomes was, basically, an instant Redwood.

Mahomes’ ascent outpaced the wildest expectations for three primary reasons: He was a natural leader, a quicker learner than anyone knew, and was placed in the perfect situation. Let’s take them in order.

The leadership is the easiest to explain. Mahomes and most of those around him credit this to a childhood spent following his dad around in big-league clubhouses. Pat Mahomes played 11 seasons in the major leagues, which afforded Patrick the chance to see for himself what worked and didn’t work behind the scenes.

He learned how to spread credit and accept blame, about the value of hard work, and that nothing is respected more than showing you care more about the score than your stats. Mahomes has a laid-back, aw-shucks vibe that tends to overshadow how much time he puts into preparation.

Within the season’s first month, teammates were already talking of the confidence he brought them in the huddle. In the playoffs, they voted him a captain.

The best illustration of Mahomes’ brainpower might be in his 2.1 interception rate. That ranked 16th among 33 qualified quarterbacks, ahead of Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Mitchell Trubisky and others.

He never had the significant problems reading coverages, either before or after snaps, that some expected. He shouldn’t have thrown the pick against the Ravens, but that was also a bit of an arm-punt on third and long. Other interceptions included a virtual Hail Mary at the end of a half, one where he was hit as he threw, and another where the linebacker made an outrageously athletic play on a short throw.

Of his 12 picks on 580 attempts, just two came on what you would fairly call mental mistakes — Dont’a Hightower fooled him in New England, and No. 3 against the Rams was just a rotten decision.

That means just eight of his interceptions came on bad decisions or some combination of windows too small or passes not accurate enough.

That generally jibed with something the Chiefs noticed while scouting his college tape. Where some other teams saw a risk-taker, the Chiefs saw an interception rate in line with other top prospects and whose turnovers generally came toward the end of games with Texas Tech down and needing a miracle.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid reflects on the season that quarterback Patrick Mahomes had in his first full season as the starting quarterback.

He was, in other words, a deft learner and meticulous ball preserver wrapped in a gunslinger’s costume.

All of these strengths were amplified and weaknesses diminished because Mahomes had the irreplaceable fortune of being drafted by the perfect team. Andy Reid is one of the sport’s great offensive minds, and made Mahomes’ success his top singular priority. That was easier than it would’ve been because Travis Kelce is the game’s best tight end and Tyreek Hill is a diabolically perfect match for Mahomes’ arm strength.

The combination was too much for the league, which is already attempted to adjust against and copy Mahomes’ success.

His MVP award is the representation of all that went right, from his own hard work to the support around him.

There’s a foundation now, enough to believe he has a chance to do this again, only with the award being announced while he and the Chiefs are still playing.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.