As the most lauded player at the most overanalyzed position in sports, Mahomes is supposed to reach a point of public annoyance and second-guessing. It’s something every transcendent superstar experiences. It’s natural for people to start rolling their eyes at glorification. And Mahomes, still human and flawed, has weaknesses that teams and skeptics point to.
At this time a year ago, “What’s wrong with Muhammad?” became a hot topic as defenses adjusted and caused him more mistakes. He simplified his game for a while, found a way to keep producing and helped guide Kansas City to the AFC Championship game. Then, with a third Super Bowl appearance on the line, he struggled in a 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Two months later, the Chiefs traded Hill to the Miami Dolphins instead of making him the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history. And this was the point where Muhammad’s love fest was supposed to taper off a bit.
Instead, it has improved.
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And when you consider that he’s done it despite Hill’s absence, you can’t think about it in a binary or superficial way. The success that Mahomes has had this season does not lead to the conclusion that Hill was propped up. Check out what Hill is doing in Miami. He leads the NFL with 87 receptions and 1,233 yards. He’s on pace for 134 catches and 1,905 yards.
We left, fittingly, last season when Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp posted 145 receptions, 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns. Hill, with four touchdowns so far, won’t be able to match the end zone celebrations, but his numbers are comparable. He’s had an MVP impact, elevating Tua Tagovailoa to stardom and making it easy for fellow speedster Jaylen Waddle, who is on pace for a nearly 1,500-yard receiving season. Mahomes missed that kind of game changer. Still, it’s thriving.
The Chiefs (9-2) once again have the best record in the AFC. Their offense doesn’t look as dangerous because they’re no longer a 60-yard touchdown to Hill waiting for more to happen. But they lead the league in points, total yards and yards per play. They convert 51.2 percent of their third downs, which is also best in the NFL. Mahomes leads the league in passing yards (3,585) and touchdowns (29), and is fourth in passer rating (105.3). As much as Mahomes and Hill were together in an offense led by coach Andy Reid, taught by offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and blessed with elite tight end Travis Kelce, Kansas City has maintained its offensive standard through reinvention.
When he became the starter in 2018, Mahomes took control of a loaded offense tailor-made for his impressive talent. Hill and Kelce were already stars. Kareem Hunt, before he was released for a domestic violence incident caught on video, was a top running back. Kansas City also had all the complementary pieces, including a great offensive line. Muhammad was fascinating and supported. Four years later, Mahomes still has Kelce, but there are changes around him.
Mahomes is no longer the ultimate, extraordinary piece commanding an offense that will go down in history. he is the system now. While managing the salary cap, Kansas City will be forced to continue to make tough decisions and ask Mahomes to modify his game to accentuate the talent he finds. This season, the Chiefs may not have a 1,000-yard wide receiver; JuJu Smith-Schuster is on the bubble.
But Kelce is still an unremarkable pass-catching tight end who replaces elite productivity. And Mahomes has attacked the entire field instead of focusing on throwing it deep to Hill. As a result, the Chiefs have five players who have caught at least 25 passes. Four others have at least 12 receptions. Mahomes is not as greedy for the game as he appeared to be last season. Now he’s creating big plays because teams are starting to fear he can beat them with every little decision he makes.
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In the evolution of a star quarterback, it’s an important epiphany. Many greats never realize that proper game management is the key to prolonged greatness. Among the highlights, Mahomes is more efficient than ever. After that January loss to Cincinnati, he spent the offseason fine-tuning his fundamentals. He didn’t come into this season looking for revenge or wanting to prove himself without Hill. He was mostly concerned with improvement.
“You have to keep it in perspective,” said Mahomes, whose wife, Brittany, gave birth to their second child on Monday. They named their son Patrick “Bronze” Mahomes III. “It’s a new season.”
Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow has tracked Mahomes’ progress. As a superstar who also aims to refine every little detail, he has been impressed.
“He’s been playing his best all year,” Burrow told reporters before Sunday’s AFC championship game. “There really haven’t been many people like him that have come through the game.”
And this is coming from a player who also looks like a historical figure. Burrow is the only one of Mahomes’ teammates (quarterbacks who entered the league in or after 2017, the year Mahomes was drafted) to have a winning head-to-head record. Burrow is 2-0 against Mahomes. The others are 5-29. Now, let’s take out Josh Allen, who is 2-3 against Mahomes and makes their matchup look like the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning rivalry. That leaves all other young quarterbacks with a 3-26 record against the NFL standard. The remaining three who have beaten Mahomes once: Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Deshaun Watson.
This is a core with several potential Hall of Famers in their early years, all with rarely seen styles of play, and Mahomes stands out as a singular icon.
With a good finish, Mahomes, just 27 years old, could win his second MVP. Or maybe Jalen Hurts, who is worthy and fresh-faced, beats him if the Philadelphia Eagles have the best record in the league. It doesn’t matter, really. Mahomes is more than just a one-season award. He’s the most important player in the sport, and while a game of humility works to limit him, he’s getting stronger.