5,000-yard arm won’t lift the Lom­bardi with­out help

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - Jerry Brewer

The Pa­trick Mahomes Show rolls into the stuffy old NFL play­offs Satur­day. With his flashy and pro­lific break­out performance, Mahomes had the great­est in­flu­ence on mak­ing the NFL fun again this sea­son. The post­sea­son doesn’t al­ways do fun, how­ever. It wears busi­ness for­mal at­tire.

Will Mahomes be daz­zling in this en­vi­ron­ment? There’s no doubt he is ca­pa­ble, and for max­i­mum entertainment, the NFL needs him to keep turn­ing the game into his high­light haven. But as elec­tri­fy­ing as Mahomes is, this stage has a his­tory of pre­sent­ing dif­fi­culty for teams led by mega-pro­duc­tive quar­ter­backs. Com­bine that with the Kansas City Chiefs’ 1-11 record in their past 12 post­sea­son games, and there is rea­son to worry about the Su­per Bowl hopes of the AFC’s best team.

Quite frankly, it would stink if Kansas City doesn’t hang around for mul­ti­ple play­off games, at the very least. The Chiefs’ of­fense is some­thing to be­hold. And Mahomes just out-Marino-ed the 1984 ver­sion of Dan Marino and set a new stan­dard for quar­ter­back pro­fi­ciency at age 23. He threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touch­downs. He joined Pey­ton Man­ning and Tom Brady as the only mem­bers of the 50TD club. In ad­di­tion, Mahomes el­e­vated the of­fen­sive ge­nius of Coach Andy Reid and en­hanced the pro­file of a for­mer men­tor, Kliff Kings­bury, so much that an NFL team hired Kings­bury — as a head coach — just weeks after

he was fired for be­ing a los­ing col­lege coach.

None­the­less, the NFL play­offs can be a harsh ex­pe­ri­ence for teams so de­pen­dent on a dy­namic quar­ter­back. Dur­ing the 2018 reg­u­lar sea­son, Mahomes and Ben Roeth­lis­berger (who led the league with 5,129 pass­ing yards) sur­passed 5,000 yards. There are now 11 in­stances in which a quar­ter­back has reached this mark. Mem­bers of that elite group have com­bined for zero cham­pi­onships in those sea­sons. They have a medi­ocre 8- 6 play­off record. Three of them — Man­ning in 2013, Brady in 2011 and Marino in 1984 — lost in the Su­per Bowl. There are ac­tu­ally more in­stances in which the 5,000-yard quar­ter­back failed to reach the play­offs. That has hap­pened four times, three of which be­long to Drew Brees.

In gen­eral, a 5,000-yard quar­ter­back sig­ni­fies a level of im­bal­ance dif­fi­cult to over­come in a game that re­quires con­tri­bu­tions from so many play­ers. Their post­sea­son his­tory is ir­refutable proof of the lim­i­ta­tions of a sin­gle star in foot­ball, no mat­ter his level of great­ness.

The Chiefs have plenty of topend tal­ent, in­clud­ing tight end Travis Kelce and speedy wide re­ceiver Tyreek Hill. They were a play­off team be­fore Mahomes took over for Alex Smith, who was traded to Washington last off­sea­son. Six Chiefs made the Pro Bowl this sea­son. They had a league-best four play­ers on the all-pro team, which is the most pres­ti­gious honor. But of all those in­di­vid­ual ac­co­lades, line­backer Dee Ford was the only de­fen­sive player to make the cut.

Kansas City al­lowed 405.5 yards per game this sea­son, mak­ing the Chiefs the second-worst de­fense in the NFL. They al­lowed 26.3 points per game, which ranked in the bot­tom third of the league. Some of their aw­ful de­fen­sive stats are the re­sult of their fast­paced of­fen­sive style and the fact that some of their games turn into low-in­ten­sity scrim­mages be­cause they are nurs­ing big leads. But there’s am­ple ev­i­dence that they are as bad as those num­bers sug­gest.

It’s a dan­ger­ous propo­si­tion to go into play­off games need­ing to win 35-30. And the team doesn’t have star run­ning back Ka­reem Hunt any­more to play more of a ball-con­trol style at times. If the de­fense doesn’t play at a higher level start­ing against In­di­anapo­lis on Satur­day, if the Kansas City run­ning game is a non-fac­tor, the Chiefs will put a lot on Mahomes’s shoul­ders.

He won’t have a prob­lem be­ing pro­duc­tive. He’s go­ing to throw his touch­down passes, and he’s go­ing to make plays that make your eyes eject from their sock­ets. But in the post­sea­son, turnovers tend to hap­pen more fre­quently for pass-heavy teams.

Mahomes’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence will man­i­fest it­self in some way. Kansas City hopes it will be sub­tle. If he throws a cou­ple of in­ter­cep­tions, the at­mos­phere at Ar­row­head Sta­dium could be­come tense.

Yet the young quar­ter­back is un­bowed. In his first year as an NFL starter, he had one of the great­est sea­sons in his­tory. Kansas City hasn’t won a home play­off game since Jan. 8, 1994. Mahomes wasn’t born un­til Sept. 17, 1995. But it’s not like he has been des­per­ate to win a game like this for his en­tire life. This is his first crack at it. And un­like the limited, jour­ney­man quar­ter­backs who have failed in Kansas City over the past quar­ter-cen­tury, he’s a home­grown su­per­star, a player the Chiefs drafted, de­vel­oped and then un­leashed.

Mahomes won’t man­age the game and hope the team can pull through. He will at­tack and try to win it.

“I know the his­tory and stuff like that, but at the same time, we’re a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion,” he said con­fi­dently this week.

Even though he is new to this, it’s easy to trust Mahomes. He might not play per­fect foot­ball, but he will show up. Here’s the most im­por­tant ques­tion, though: Will that in­spire the rest of the Chiefs? To win a ti­tle, to make a deep play­off run, they have to show more ver­sa­til­ity.

Shape-shift­ing teams al­ways have had an ad­van­tage in the NFL play­offs or in any sin­glee­l­im­i­na­tion tour­na­ment be­cause they can ad­just to any­thing. That skill might be­come even more im­por­tant as the NFL tran­si­tions to an era in which teams em­ploy more cre­ative strate­gies. The no­tion of the clas­sic pro-style of­fense or sim­ple ground-and-pound ap­proach is out. In­no­va­tion is in as the in­flu­ence of col­lege cre­ativ­ity starts to take hold. That’s why the league has been so in­ter­est­ing this sea­son, and Kansas City has been a big part of the move­ment.

But in a one-and-done for­mat, in a par­ity-based league, even the in­no­va­tors must adapt. Be­cause of their ex­plo­sive of­fense, the Chiefs have the abil­ity to over­whelm and dom­i­nate like few teams can. Some­times, though, the post­sea­son re­quires dif­fer­ent pitches. Can the Chiefs change it up? If nec­es­sary, can they con­form and still thrive?

Mahomes made the reg­u­lar sea­son sparkle. He’s the clear MVP, and he may con­tinue to be the league’s bright­est star in the play­offs. But the Chiefs won’t break through mul­ti­ple lay­ers of du­bi­ous his­tory sim­ply be­cause Mahomes is spe­cial.

The en­tire team must di­vide this responsibility in a more eq­ui­table man­ner. With­out that evo­lu­tion, Mahomes will suf­fer the same fate as those other pro­lific, spec­tac­u­lar and wholly un­sat­is­fied 5,000-yard quar­ter­backs. For more by Jerry Brewer, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/brewer.

JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES

Quar­ter­back Pa­trick Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touch­downs as the Chiefs went 12-4 in his first sea­son as a starter.

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