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NFL Draft

Super Bowl 55 Proves Chiefs Were Never ‘Just Patrick Mahomes’

  • The Draft Network
  • February 8, 2021
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It was a clash of titans in Tampa Bay on Sunday night. The NFL’s iron man in Tom Brady took on its superhero in Patrick Mahomes in a bout that would define legacies. The buildup was deafening and frightful.

And the game was pretty uneventful. Not unexciting, of course. Every drive that the Kansas City Chiefs started, no matter the deficit, felt like the one that could break the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense—which played as fast and aggressively as any championship defense of recent memory. The Buccaneers’ offense was surgical, hammering the Chiefs’ light boxes and taking advantage of timely penalties to a quiet 31 points. It was calm domination from the league’s most dominant figure of the last 20 years: Tom Brady.

In the shadow of Brady’s seventh towering Lombardi Trophy is Mahomes, with only one measly ring to his three-year career. It wasn’t just that Brady fended off Mahomes for at least one more year in the inevitable passing of the torch from all-time great to (future) all-time great, it was how mortal Mahomes looked for perhaps the first time in his career.

Don’t get it twisted: Mahomes has played some of the best games at quarterback we’ve ever seen. But once the Buccaneers’ pass rush was clearly deemed inevitable, he started taking 20-yard, serpentine dropbacks that made throwaways harder and throws riskier—even for all the sacks he still avoided. He rarely threw from a stable platform and was accordingly less accurate than usual. He couldn’t connect on money downs or downfield shots.

So it wasn’t the best game of Mahomes’ career, but it still had some of the best throws of his career. Completions or otherwise, Mahomes was as magical on Sunday night as he’s been during his young career, delivering impossible throws from hitherto unforeseen angles in critical situations.

There was this early third-down heave from a falling platform, dropped by the usually sure-handed Travis Kelce.

A likely touchdown on another third-down scramble, this time dropped by the Chiefs’ other top receiver, Tyreek Hill.

And of course, when the game was almost definitely out of reach—but it still kinda wasn’t!—there was this mind-bending throw from Mahomes. Dropped at the goal line.

That Mahomes displayed his characteristic superhuman abilities is only half the point. The point is that he did and the Chiefs still only scored nine points.

That the Chiefs’ offense was so thoroughly stymied has an easy explanation, at least on the surface: the pressure. The offensive line performance from Kansas City was laughable even for their injuries considered. They regularly failed to even land hands on oncoming rushers and were befuddled by even the simplest of rush games. Credit goes to Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator, for an excellent game plan that included timeline blitzes, weird Vita Vea alignments, and blanketing deep safeties to limit shot plays.

But pressure has historically not been enough to stop Mahomes’ attack in Kansas City. This was only the second start of his career in which his team scored fewer than 24 points; only the fifth game of a 53-game career in which he was held without a passing touchdown. Mahomes and Kansas City have never been so stifled.

So it was the pressure, and it was also not the best Mahomes game, but it was some gameplanning as well. The Chiefs’ screen game was toothless early as they looked to relieve their offensive line. Bryon Pringle and Mecole Hardman had five combined targets before Kelce saw his first look in the passing game. The Chiefs used condensed formations to chip Tampa’s EDGEs, but ended up neutering their own passing game while barely affecting the Buccaneers’ rush. There’s no page in the playbook with the heading “Run These When The OL Can’t Block Anyone,” and relying on Mahomes’ magic is as good of a solution as any, but Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy weren’t able to help their quarterback in this one—despite a long history of marrying diabolical designs with Mahomes’ rocket arm.

Speaking of Reid, his game management also put the Chiefs in stickier spots. The Chiefs gave the Buccaneers an opportunity to score at least three, if not seven, with Reid’s atrocious clock management at the end of the first half. That wasn’t the offense’s fault, but it certainly hurt their ability to call a balanced and controlled game when they took the field down 15, not eight, to start the second half.

And finally, we return to the clips above: the high-leverage drops. The Chiefs’ top two receivers are still stars, but Kelce and Hill both had game-changing drops on leverage downs that we rarely see from such high-caliber players.

The Chiefs’ losing effort was exactly that: a team effort. That doesn’t tell us much about the game itself—anyone watching could have told you the Chiefs had problems across the board, and anyone checking the 31-9 box score could have inferred that more than one Chief played poorly—but it does remind us of common offseason narratives. That Mahomes is the entire Chiefs offense, and that he makes the Reid and Bieniemy offense work while earning no benefit from it in return. That he doesn’t need a running game, or that he can make even an abominable offensive line seem workable (something I wrote in favor of last week!).

The Chiefs remain a team. They may have the best player in the world, and while he digs them out of deep holes and leverages them against impossible odds, he still remains a cog in the machine. Mahomes was everything he could be, and it wasn’t nearly enough for the Chiefs to beat the Buccaneers, because it’s never just been Mahomes. It’s been Kelce and Hill, Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, Reid and Bieniemy. And tonight, they all weren’t enough.

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