Why Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes is the premier practitioner of the free play

  • Covered Chiefs for 20 seasons for Kansas City Star
  • Joined ESPN in 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Standing in the shotgun position late in the first half of Sunday’s divisional playoff game, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes used his gravelly voice to draw Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett offside with a hard count. The free play gave Mahomes free rein to throw a 16-yard pass to Tyreek Hill with seconds remaining in the half, setting up a field goal that put the Chiefs ahead 19-3.

It wasn’t an anomaly, just the latest example of Mahomes luring an opponent over the line with his cadence and then making a play for the Chiefs. Since Mahomes became Kansas City’s starter in 2018, he leads the NFL with 18 completions after drawing an opponent offside.

No other NFL quarterback has more than seven such completions during that time.

Mahomes’ status for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Buffalo Bills (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS) was unclear most of the week, but Friday the quarterback said he had cleared concussion protocol and will play. Mahomes was placed into the protocol following a hit later in the game against the Browns, but he took the majority of snaps for the Chiefs in practice this week. Coach Andy Reid said Mahomes moved around well in practice, and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said “he’s been great in meetings.” With Mahomes saying he’s ready, the Bills must be on their guard if the QB is given a free chance.

“He’s got a good feel for it,” Reid said of Mahomes on free plays. “… We have full trust in him to make the decision as he goes forward to take the shot. He’s normally pretty accurate with what he does with it and where he goes with it. So he doesn’t just say, ‘I’m going to take the deepest man and just sling it to him.’ He’ll normally work his way through it and try to find the open guy. So you either get the five-yard penalty or the big gain and/or touchdown.”

At age 25, Mahomes appears to have mastered the art of the free play. He has 401 yards and two touchdowns on those 18 passes for a healthy 22.3-yard average.

The next-best quarterback in terms of free-play completions is Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, who has seven completions on such throws in the past three seasons. Long considered the master of the free play, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers has five during that span. But going back to 2008, Rodgers has 33 completions with 14 touchdowns when he has nothing to lose.

“He does a tremendous job,” Mahomes said of Rodgers. “He can change plays, he can use the hard count, he can do whatever it is pre-snap. Obviously, he’s super talented and can make a lot of plays happen. He’s particularly good at using stuff like that with 12 [defenders] on the field or the hard counts to get free plays.”

It isn’t a skill acquired overnight. Mahomes started working on this part of his game at Whitehouse High School in Texas and continued through college at Texas Tech. He completed only two passes on free plays in college, though one went for a 31-yard touchdown in a bowl game against LSU.

“It’s not only me,” Mahomes said. “The whole offense has to be on the same page of running the routes at the right depths, doing the right stuff and staying onside when we’re using those hard counts.

“I try to use cadence as much as possible. I mean quick cadence, hard counts, whatever it is, just to get an advantage in any single way, and the offensive line does a great job of sitting in there, really paying attention, and we work on it throughout the week.”

Mahomes’ most recent touchdown pass on a free play came in Week 13 against the Broncos. Knowing an interception would be reversed by the penalty, Mahomes threw off his back foot and between two defenders, but the pass ended up with Travis Kelce for 20 yards and the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter.

“There’s typically one, maybe two home run shots if you get somebody to jump offsides on a deep pass,” Kelce said. “At the same time, if we don’t have a deep pass, there’s still a little bit of wiggle room to try to make a play happen.”

Mahomes alters how he goes through his reads once he has drawn an opponent offside. He immediately looks for the receiver running the deepest route. He threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Hill this way last season against the Houston Texans.

If that type of play isn’t available, Mahomes works his way down the field. His coaches like to see it, but they also sound words of caution.

“We’re always reminding Pat, ‘Let’s make sure now that we complete it,'” Bieniemy said. “We don’t want to give [the opposing defense] a gift in case it’s not on the opponent.”

Added quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka: “There’s a time and a place for getting the ball down the field and [a time and a place for] taking what they give you and getting the easy completion [or] a quick five yards.”

The Chiefs, though, see too much potential benefit to ask Mahomes to change his ways. His ability to draw defenders offside and then get a big play is something for all opponents to consider.

“This is a great quarterback,” Miami coach Brian Flores said last month before the Dolphins faced the Chiefs. “You can put him up there with the other guys you’ve seen do something similar — the Aaron Rodgers, the Mannings, the Bradys. He’s an elite quarterback. I think it goes without saying.

“If you make a mistake, he’s going to make you pay for it.”

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