KANSAS CITY, Mo. — To the larger football world, Patrick Mahomes burst onto the scene in 2018 in a spectacular way by throwing for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns and winning the MVP award in his first season as a starter.
Mahomes spent his rookie season mostly hidden from public view as a backup to Alex Smith until the Kansas City Chiefs rested their starters in the final game of the regular season against the Denver Broncos.
But Mahomes’ burgeoning talent wasn’t a big surprise to his teammates and coaches.
In Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Eric Berry, the Chiefs had a group of defensive players who combined for 17 Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro selections. But in 2017, they had seen nothing like the quarterback who played against them each day in practice.
“We were in awe of what he was doing,” Johnson said. “We’d sit around talking about the throws he made on us in practice. We’d all talk about how he got us with this play or that play.
“When it came time for the Broncos game, we all had our popcorn ready. We were sitting there saying, ‘Watch this,’ or ‘Look at this.’ We were starstruck when it came to the talent he had. There was no way he could throw the passes he could throw and not be successful.”
Everyone who spent time around Mahomes during his rookie season has a story, when his star was beginning to rise. As the reigning MVP and two-time Super Bowl champion begins his seventh season on Thursday against the Detroit Lions (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), here are just a few of those tales.
‘It’s a thing I can tell my kids’
Demetrius Harris, a backup tight end for the Chiefs at the time, is the answer to the trivia question: Who caught Patrick Mahomes’ first career completion? Mahomes had thrown incompletions on the first two plays in the Week 17 game against the Broncos, leaving the Chiefs with a third-and-10 from their own 14 on their first drive.
They called a play featuring vertical routes from each of the five receivers, a play the Chiefs named All Go Special. If ever a first completion foreshadowed a quarterback’s career, this was it.
Mahomes took the shotgun snap and passed the ball to the 6-foot-7 Harris, a former college basketball player. It was a strike 25 yards down the field and up high for Harris, over leaping Broncos safety Will Parks. The play wasn’t over, as Harris ran after the catch before eventually being tackled for a 51-yard gain.
“He threw it right on the money, right there,” Harris said. “You could see it then, that this kid was going to be special. There’s not a lot of quarterbacks who could have made that throw. The coverage was pretty good actually, but he threw it on a dime and it wasn’t just like a five-yard or a 10-yard pass.
“It wasn’t surprising to me. We saw it every day, day in and day out, at practice. He was doing all of these no-look passes in practice. It wasn’t surprising when he started doing those in the games. The first time he did it in practice, I was like, ‘Hold on. Did he really just throw that without looking at the receiver?’ But then we saw it so much it wasn’t shocking anymore.”
The All Go Special was designed for Travis Kelce to run the tight end’s route down the middle of the field, but Kelce was held out of that game as the Chiefs rested their starters.
Harris played eight NFL seasons for four teams, finishing with the Arizona Cardinals in 2021. He caught 82 passes and 9 touchdowns. But Harris called the catch from Mahomes a career favorite.
“It’s a thing I can tell my kids,” he said. “I cherish the moment.”
‘We never had that much fear for Alex Smith’
Chris Harris played for the Broncos in Mahomes’ first game. He was eager to get a look at the rookie quarterback coming into the AFC West and wondering whether he would make the Chiefs a more difficult opponent.
“He was coming into our division, so you pay attention when he got drafted,” Harris said. “We knew Alex Smith was good, but we never thought he was one of the top guys in the league. We never had that much fear for Alex Smith.
“Then Mahomes came in, and in that game against us he showed off his scrambling ability and his throwing ability. His arm talent was off the charts. You could see it from that first throw to Harris. Then his scrambling ability, he was a different kind of scrambler. He was really smart with it and was always looking to throw when he did. We almost came back, and then Mahomes closed the game out for them. He showed right then he was a winner. From then on, we knew he was going to be hard to deal with. You could see he had the talent to be able to succeed in the league.”
Denver has never beaten Mahomes. He is 11-0 against the Broncos, who owned the AFC West before Mahomes’ arrival. Denver won the division title every season from 2011 through 2015.
The division is now the domain of the Chiefs. They’ve won seven consecutive AFC West titles, the past five with Mahomes as their starting quarterback.
Mahomes and Harris played for the AFC in the Pro Bowl after the 2018 season. Harris said he made a point to talk with Mahomes.
“I let him know then I knew he was going to be pretty tough on us, seeing him twice each year,” Harris said. “It wasn’t hard to see they were going to be a long-lasting dynasty. We had been dominating the division at the time, and then Mahomes came in and they pretty much took over the dominance in the division. Right now, I don’t even think it’s a rivalry. I don’t know the last time we beat them.”
‘This quarterback is pretty good’
Derrick Johnson, a linebacker, was in his 13th and final season with the Chiefs in 2017, so the only Mahomes he knows is the one who was a backup. But he got to know Mahomes well on the practice field that year, when things didn’t always go as planned for Johnson and the Chiefs on defense.
“I never got fussed at from the coaches in practice like we were that year,” Johnson said. “Usually we know what the offense is going to do. We practice it. We know the plays. We just have to respond the right way. We’ll make plays, get an interception here and there, knock some passes down. Very rarely does the offense make plays against us.
“That was the year, 2017, when the offense was making plays against us. I’m thinking, ‘This quarterback is pretty good.’ He was making it happen. I never had a scout team quarterback beat me as consistently as he did. Normally, if the scout team beats you or is making plays on you, it’s not a good thing. Not at all. Usually that means you have to figure some things out. But it happened when Pat was the quarterback. It was because of Pat.”
Johnson recalled the cat-and-mouse games he would play with Mahomes in those practice sessions, trying to trick the rookie quarterback into making a mistake.
“When he would run a [run-pass option], I would try to bait him,” Johnson said. “He would read me and I would move for the run, but just enough to make sure he threw the ball and I’ll still be there to pick it off. I never got there. He threw it right by me. My coach was looking at me, yelling at me. But there was no way I could have gotten to that ball. There was nothing I could have done.
“He was throwing no-look passes. I thought he was playing with us at times. I actually got upset, thought he was hot-dogging around by looking this way and throwing the ball that way. But that was him. That was what he does, the way he plays.”
‘That was probably the moment where we all knew’
Brett Veach was promoted to Chiefs general manager in the summer of 2017, after Mahomes was drafted. But as the team’s personnel director he was instrumental in identifying Mahomes as a top prospect early in his college career at Texas Tech and getting coach Andy Reid and then-general manager John Dorsey interested enough for the Chiefs to trade up to draft him.
Veach’s routine at training camp after practice is to retreat to the dorm room that doubles as his office and watch the morning’s session again on video. That year, he watched the passes made by their rookie quarterback first before viewing the rest of practice.
“I would literally sprint back to the dorm just to see his throws,” Veach said. “I would fast-forward through all the stuff that was most important, like how the projected starters looked. I would go right to Pat’s segment of practice and then go back through the rest of it. It wasn’t like it was just one throw. It was every day. There were countless numbers of crazy throws and a handful of no-look passes.”
Veach was an interested spectator from up high in the press box during that season’s game in Denver. He recalled the details from that day in Colorado, the 17-degree temperature and snow flurries at kickoff, the Chiefs pulling Mahomes from the game in the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead, the Broncos’ coming back to tie and then Mahomes leading the winning drive by completing 4-of-5 passes for 52 yards.
But all he really needed to see was that first third-down pass to Harris.
“That was probably the moment where we all knew,” Veach said. “That was one of those moments, where the signs became obvious he was destined to do some pretty good things.”
‘He was making sure I saw it, too’
Matt Nagy in 2017 was in the final season of his first go-round as Chiefs offensive coordinator. He left after the season to coach the Chicago Bears, returned to Kansas City last year and was promoted this season to his former position.
He usually doesn’t spend much time watching defensive drills during practice, instead working off to the side with the starting quarterback. But he would stop to watch Mahomes practice against the Chiefs’ starting defense in 2017.
“I was like everyone else,” he said. “I wanted to see it.”
Most often, the defensive coordinator will instruct the quarterback where to throw the ball on any given play in order to help the defense prepare. That year’s coordinator, Bob Sutton, didn’t interfere, believing any work the defense could get against an improvising Mahomes was better preparation than anything he could script.
Mahomes even got Reid out of his usual practice routine. Normally, the Chiefs practice at a fast pace, going from one play to the next with little delay. But after Mahomes threw his first no-look pass at a training camp practice, even Reid had to pause to appreciate the moment.
“I looked at coach Reid and he was acting like he was looking at his play sheet,” Nagy said. “But he was looking out of the corner of his eye at me. He was making sure I saw it, too.”
Flashback: Patrick Mahomes’ first career INT
On Dec. 31, 2017, Patrick Mahomes threw his first career interception to Broncos safety Darian Stewart.
‘He didn’t get intimidated by the moment’
Mahomes acknowledged being too excited for the game in Denver. One of his first passes after the throw to Harris went well over the head of his intended receiver and was intercepted. He later blamed the overthrow on being too pumped for his first NFL game.
Mitchell Schwartz, then the Chiefs’ right tackle, said he couldn’t see any nervousness on the part of the rookie quarterback, not that day nor during the week of preparation.
“He just had this calmness about him and that seems to be natural for him,” Schwartz said. “He didn’t get intimidated by the moment, and that’s something you want to see on the road in Denver. In practice, when he’s on the scout team, he can run around and chuck it and not really have to worry about things. The game is really when you get to know how someone can handle pressure situations. It was good to see. It was a fun game and it turned out well.
“That kind of solidified his status and his ability to lead a team in the future. Things were smooth the whole week in practice and you appreciate that. That tells you he was doing stuff Monday and Tuesday to prepare for the game.”
‘All right, I’m going to get him back’
Mahomes remembers one of the first no-look passes he threw on the Chiefs’ practice field. The victim was Johnson, the veteran linebacker with tremendous instincts. Mahomes recalled the only way he was going to get the ball past Johnson, who otherwise would have been in the passing lane, was to look away from his intended receiver.
“If I had been looking at the receiver, he would have picked it off,” Mahomes said. “He’d picked me off earlier in practice that day, and I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to get him back.’ I did a no-look pass, and I remember it wasn’t like he said anything. He looked at me and smiled. It was like he was saying, ‘I see what you’re doing there.'”
It’s natural to wonder now, after what he’s accomplished in his five seasons as a starter, how Mahomes and the Chiefs would have fared had he played as a rookie. Would he have a third MVP award? Would the Chiefs have won the Super Bowl that season?
“I think I would have had some success,” Mahomes said recently. “I don’t think it would have happened as fast. I think there would have been a lot more mistakes, especially early in my career, early in my season. I think by the end of the year I could have figured some stuff out and made some stuff happen. I don’t know if it would have been a Super Bowl run or anything like that but I think I hopefully could have gotten us into the playoffs.
“Alex was way ahead of me at that point where he could run the offense the right way. He was playing so [well] that there was never a thought that I should be playing. I wasn’t supposed to be playing. I was supposed to be learning.”
Turns out, he was a pretty good student.