BY DAVE SKRETTA, AP Sports journalist
KANSAS CITY, Mon. (AP) – The casual soccer fan will likely describe the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense this way: a broken, deep, highlight role built around a record-breaking quarterback and broad receiver at Olympic speed.
You wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
You wouldn’t be entirely right either.
One of the biggest differences among the Chiefs in the past two years, when Patrick Mahomes claimed himself to be the best quarterback of his generation, and this season when he got a chance at the Super Bowl to beat Tom Brady of the Buccaneers – The Best Of every generation – this is how Mahomes avoided risky throws for high-proof throws.
He will pass double cover on Tyreek Hill, who is roaming down the field to do an open rewind into the apartment. Or the narrow window to the narrow end of Travis Kelce in the middle of the field for the wide-angle receiver on the edge.
Some call all of these dink-and-dunk throws “check-downs”.
Given the Chiefs are playing for a second Super Bowl on Sunday? You probably prefer “checkmate”.
“It’s a fine line,” explained Mahomes, who led all quarterbacks in yard production this season after his receivers caught the ball. “You want to believe that you can do every single game, but you don’t want a game that goes bad because you try to do too much. This is something I’ve tried to push the limits my entire career, but never go beyond. “
It is also a work in progress.
Mahomes had the lowest check-down rate in the NFL in 2018, his first year as a starter, which resulted in some record-breaking pass numbers but also a career high of 12 interceptions. But as his check-down rate rose slightly over the past two seasons, those other numbers also balanced out.
Mahomes still threw 4,740 yards with 38 touchdowns in just 15 regular season games that season, but his percentage of what the Chiefs consider “bad throws” dropped from 18.3 to 17.6.
Sure, those deep throws still create the high points. The reality, however, is that Mahomes’ average intended air length has dropped from 9.1 as a rookie to 8.8 last season to 8.4 this season as his passerby rating rose by more than five points.
“That’s what makes him so special,” said Chiefs Quarterbacks trainer Mike Kafka. “Sometimes the defenders do a good job. I think Pat understood better where his answers are. “
It helps that he has the strongest ball-in-hand collection of pass catchers in the league.
Kelce has broken nearly every NFL record for a close end to this season, including mileage at 1,229, but his average target depth was just 9.0 meters – barely among the top 100 players who caught a pass. Hill had received 1,276 yards in the regular season but had a target depth of 12.9, finishing 34th overall.
In fact, no Chiefs were among the NFL’s top 25 pass catchers for average target depth.
“It starts with Pat taking the ball out of his hand and allowing us to come up and make those moves,” said Sammy Watkins, the chief’s receiver.
“If you look at the season, Travis is number 1 in the league catching the ball and splitting the boys and running 30 or 40 yards because we don’t have those deep shots. We did a great job catching the ball, running on the field and making these games. That’s the next step this team took. “
Not that the Chiefs have ever given up on deep shots, and the buccaneers are painfully aware of what can happen if you let go of your guard. Hill dominated them for 203 yards received in Week 12 in the first quarter alone, and he finished the race with 13 catches for 269 yards and touchdown receptions of 75, 44 and 20 yards in a 27-24 win.
It’s just that most defenses have steadfastly refused to allow Kansas City to complete them.
That’s a big reason Mahomes was among the league’s least glitzy quarterbacks this season. Defensive coordinators would rather put an extra player (or two) in cover, give their cornerbacks and collateral extra cushion on those fast wide-angle receivers, and give up one short completion and play the next down, than give up six points at once.
The problem is, Mahomes has become just as dangerous to throw his push as his haymaker.
“They play fast, but they understand football. They’re not just a track team out there, ”said Todd Bowles, Buccaneers defensive coordinator. “They can hit you vertically and horizontally. They keep you off balance. They understand what to do to win. I am not worried about the opposition. They do what they do and do it better than anyone else. “
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