At the beginning of the 2023 NFL season, FanSided's "The Fifth Down" discussed how this season marked the dawn of a new quarterbacking era. Gone are the days of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. In place of those stoic pocket passers, a breed of dynamic quarterbacks are redefining the meaning of entertaining football. Each quarterback has their own distinctive artistry.
The league's new group of quarterbacks is led by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, whose improvisational skills and slingshot throws captivated the league during the 2018 NFL season. The Chiefs are on the cusp of a dynasty largely due to Mahomes' connection with All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, who has transcended to new heights under the limelight this season.
Great quarterback-pass catcher duos are littered throughout NFL history — Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Those elite duos succeeded with timing and familiarity. Mahomes and Kelce are unique in the sense that their style of play can best be described as professional backyard football.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling credits Mahomes, not Reid, for Chiefs offense
The route that's designated for Kelce in the play call isn't always the route he runs on the field. That would lead to disaster for most players, but Kelce's near-telepathic connection with Mahomes generally leads them to success.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who spent his first four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, credited quarterback Patrick Mahomes, not Andy Reid's scheme, for the evolution of Kansas City's offense.
"Aaron was very particular with where he wants guys and how he wants things done," Valdes-Scantling said. "Pat's more of a free spirit, and kind of [says], 'Hey, if you get to the open space, I'll find a way to get you the ball.'"
Perhaps the improvisational aptitude of Mahomes and Kelce appears that simple to Valdes-Scantling, and perhaps that's why the Chiefs passing game struggled throughout the season. In reality, it isn't that cut-and-dry.
Kelce doesn't just run to any open space. If it was that simple, everyone would do it. The connection between Mahomes and Kelce isn't as telepathic as it appears. The reason Mahomes knows what Kelce is going to do is because Kelce alters his routes based on schematic principles.
The future Hall of Fame tight end has been so great because he has an understanding of the Reid's scheme and defensive coverages. When Kelce elects to abandon his designated route and run to a different spot, it's based on his knowledge of Reid's scheme and the defensive coverage. After all, he can't run a route that interferes with another receiver or leads him into double coverage. When Kelce sees that his designated route will be smothered by the defense, he makes a decision to cut to an area of the field that will be left vacated by the defense. Thanks to Reid, Mahomes has the same mastery of the play call and the same knowledge of the coverage. Combined with countless repetitions, he knows what Kelce will decide to do.
On a passing play, each route serves a purpose, whether it's to drag coverage as a decoy or to put a single defender in a bind with high-low concepts. Rodgers wants his receivers to be precise because the depth and timing of a receiver's route affects how the defense reacts, and how the defense reacts affects which other receivers get open. With pressure bearing down, a quarterback needs to trust his receivers to where they're supposed to be.
"When you get to the league, what it comes down to is executing the game plan, executing the plays," NFL Films producer Greg Cosell said. "Coaches call plays, they put together a game plan, and ... while we all can love traits, when it's all said and done, they want the plays executed."
Even as schematic innovation and rule changes create a dynamic and evolving landscape, the fundamentals of football will never change. Since its inception, football has been a complex match of rock-paper-scissors — each play design has a countermove that can overwhelm a defense or immobilize an offense.
When quarterbacks prematurely flee the pocket or receivers wrongs the wrong route, they abandon the play design. At that point, success is dependent on randomness rather than consistency. There is nothing left of the well-crafted play design that was practiced all week and called in the huddle.
While the Chiefs offensive line took a lot of the blame for the Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mahomes played the worst game of his career. Mahomes' improvisational theater is one of creativity and imagination. That night, it turned into desperation and tragedy.
Mahomes learned a valuable lesson after that Super Bowl. Instead of causing the play to break down with his improvisational skills, he learned to use his athleticism only if the play breaks down. It's a lesson that many dual-threat quarterbacks struggle to learn — after a lifetime of relying on their athleticism to make plays, it's hard for quarterbacks to rewire their brains and master the game from the pocket.
"He actually — after the Super Bowl loss to the [Tampa Bay Buccaneers] — went back to school and calmed everything down." Steve Young said on Wednesday. "Andy [Reid] told him, 'To play great football in this league, you can't just put on the cape, you've got to be Clark Kent.' Clark Kent is the game manager."