Pat Mahomes was not meant for our stupid little televisions

Pat Mahomes was not meant for our stupid little televisions
Pat Mahomes was not meant for our stupid little televisions

I tried to feel sad about it, but in the moment, emotions are often performative. I wasn’t sad.

For all the maudlin dramatics you’ve endured from people like me, including me, over the last couple decades, being a Chiefs fan is more or less like being any other kind of person: Your good times and bad times punctuate one another, and no one ever throws you a parade. There isn’t much left to understand.

When the Chiefs fell just short of their first Super Bowl trip of my lifetime, I surprised myself by merely feeling irritated. I just wanted to watch Pat Mahomes, one of the the most exciting athletes I’ve ever seen, play one more game. He did something incredible in every single game he played this season, starting with this one, which included this

on-the-run dart to Tyreek Hill. If you watch this play from the coaches’ camera, which is pulled farther out, you know where the ball’s headed as soon as Pat rears back, because you see Hill pop right and find acres of separation. The tight broadcast camera is much more fun. It swings over to reveal the surprise.

In order to piece broadcast stills of a Pat Mahomes deep ball into a single composite image, a considerable amount of distortion is often required — the above image is so warped, it looks like they’re playing on a mile-wide planet. It’s sort of hideous, but it does capture the degradation of the image as it sits calmly on Mahomes, then blurs as it nervously swings downfield at approximately 55 miles per hour.

Pat did this 39 times over the course of the 2018 season. He completed 39 passing plays that each went for at least 30 yards, considerably more than any other quarterback in the NFL.

Mathematically, it’s somewhat difficult to fit multiple big plays into a single drive, but Mahomes did so by finding Anthony Sherman just a couple minutes later.

Like any quarterback who’s apt to ship any kind of throw to anywhere on the field, Mahomes’ delivery looks different from one throw to the next.

Even though the camera’s myopic perspective couldn’t tell us where Sammy Watkins was, or whether Mahomes was throwing to Watkins at all, his arm seemed to move slower, and he seemed to crane his neck to look over the top of something. It sufficiently telegraphed the beautiful rainbow pass he floated to his receiver.

Later that afternoon, he threw his next deep ball off his back foot. Both heels were on the ground. Didn’t matter. He has the arm strength.

Pat helped Kansas City exorcise a few demons this year, the first being the Steelers. More often than not, watching a Chiefs-Steelers game this decade meant having an awful time. In losing efforts, the Chiefs finished with such morbid final scores as 9, 12, and 16, the last of which came in a galling 2016 wild-card playoff loss when a game-tying score was taken off the board by a penalty. The team still hasn’t exorcised that one,

but it was satisfying beyond words to see them hang 42 points on the Steelers for the first time ever.

Here, Pat looks like he’s trying to fistfight the sun.

Hill had three men on him, so the throw needed to be on the money. It was, from 50 yards away.

It felt as though Mahomes’ season was being constructed like a video game, with new and increasingly difficult minibosses being carefully and thoughtfully deployed along his path. This one was a main boss: the rival Broncos, in Denver, with the lead, with two minutes left in the game.

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It seemed like the pocket collapsed on Mahomes on just about every play that drive, including one that necessitated a left-handed shot-put pass-like completion that defied laws of God and man. The “back-from-the-dead main boss” is a cherished video game trope: you beat them once and they seemingly die, only to resurrect as mutants that spawn attack spiders or laser cannons or what have you. This always happens for the boss, never the hero, and yet it was Mahomes who seemed to become unbeatable once he was forced to escape and throw on the run.

Sometimes it was easy. Here, Pat had about 45 minutes to loiter in the pocket undisturbed before throwing to Watkins, who was so unencumbered himself that he could afford to nearly make a full stop to haul in the catch.

And here, Travis Kelce picked up nearly all of the 40 yards with his feet.

Here is Pat Mahomes hailing a taxi. Totally flat-footed.

You know what’s weird? In terms of passer rating, Chiefs-Jaguars was by far Mahomes’ worst game of the season, largely because he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. Which is silly, because plays like this become undervalued.

Over the last three seasons, the Patriots’ defense has given up just four passing touchdowns of 65 yards or longer. The first two, in 2017, came in the same game against the Chiefs on passes to Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill. The next two, in 2018, came in the same game against the Chiefs on passes to Kareem Hunt …

… and Tyreek Hill.

bloop:

Thanks to the Chiefs’ play calling and the ability of guys like Kelce to pick up so many yards on their own, dump-offs like this one worked pretty well for them this season. This was fine by me, because I irrationally started wondering whether a pitch count should ever come into play for Mahomes. A football’s weight is triple that of a baseball, and Pat throws lots and lots of footballs that travel 20 yards, the distance from the mound to home plate. On the other hand, this is the same man who threw 88 passes in a college game. It’s tough to imagine him ever getting tired.

I think this, the 17th bomb from Pat Mahomes of 30-plus yards, was right around when I started to expect great things to be waiting for me.

I finally realized that these deep completions weren’t flukes or accidents or the result of blown coverage or a guy falling down, or, as I’d previously wondered, the product of a league that hadn’t figured Mahomes out yet but soon would. The camera’s harried pans downfield were no longer ominous, blurry voyages through Willy Wonka’s Tunnel of Terror. They were presents waiting to be opened.

Bill Barnwell saw the same thing this season, and completely nailed it:

Fans in the stadium can see what a quarterback sees and where a deep pass is likely heading. We, from the sideline angle, cannot. The camera whips downfield to reveal what’s going to happen before the ball arrives, but in that brief moment between the pass being thrown and the camera revealing its intended destination, my imagination runs wild.

This is the gift of watching this kind of football through a shoebox.

Pat Mahomes saw what we or our couches couldn’t. I had to trust him, and soon enough, every time, I did. He was right. Again and again and again, he was right.

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Most “this is why we love sports” odes end up as gibbering word salad: sometimes when it’s the BIG ballgame of what’s most of all. When it’s one second left in the ninth inning and the crack of the bat — that’s when you know it’s champion. Most of all when it’s fans. My dad was fan and I am fan! Fans of the ballgame if it’s what it’s truly special.

Tribalism, particularly at this point in our history, is the answer for many — the sorts of people who long for a military victory parade and will never, ever see one have to apply their thirst for triumph and revenge to something. Plenty of others affiliate with a team for more ordinary reasons, like community or belonging. It can even manifest as a weird, one-sided, longstanding friendship with those who don’t know who you are, and thus can’t personally let you down.

This overlaps a bit with escapism. Netflix normies like me have this in common with every whimpering chud who pitches a fit whenever Colin Kaepernick’s name is uttered — we want desperately to enjoy pure, isolated escape from everything that gives us trouble outside. When we were kids, the school night had menaced us with 60 Minutes and a 5:30 sunset, and it hasn’t left. But right now it is 3:44, the Chiefs are driving, and the troubles in front of us are imaginary.

What I have come to appreciate more than anything else, though, is the order of it all.

It’s a little rectangle with a few people and a few rules. The world, a hopelessly vast, complicated, and terrifying thing, is reduced dramatically to a scale we’re capable of fully understanding. Even the murkiness of catch rulings and pass interference calls can be explained away by poor officiating. Nothing about it happens behind the closed doors of our Congress or employer. It’s all transparent and measurable. Football is literally played on a painted ruler.

Nothing is nebulous. So when the unthinkable happens, we know it.

Holy fuck.

When we step back far enough to consume all of this pass in one shot, Pat Mahomes and Tyreek Hill look like ants. Here’s an untouched hi-res version if you’d like to see it.

Football fans never reach a consensus on anything, but if there was anything we agreed on, it was this: Chiefs-Rams was the best game of the season, a 54-51 shootout unlike anything the NFL had ever seen. That the Chiefs lost barely detracted from my experience, if at all. Then, as now, I couldn’t be mad. It was just too much fun.

My team marched on. I was watching for reasons independent of my lifelong team allegiance at this point. I was here for every 30-yard jump-pass

and sidearmed throw.

This is the most absurdly, irrationally confident moment I have ever had as a sports fan:

Trailing by a touchdown with a minute and a half late in the game, and facing fourth-and-9, Mahomes was chased out of the pocket until he had nowhere left to go. He heaved the ball across his body with everything he had. If this were any other quarterback in any other season, I would have counted on blind luck. Instead, I was positive that Pat Mahomes would make this borderline-impossible thing happen against the Ravens’ defense, which was among the best in the NFL at stopping the pass and had shut him down several times that day. I was surprised not by the 48-yard completion and eventual win, but by my own certainty.

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The Indianapolis Colts have been the Chiefs’ boogeymen for decades on end. More often than not, they were the ones to send us home in the playoffs. It didn’t matter whether we were the underdog, during the Peyton Manning years, or the favorite, when [REDACTED] missed three [REDACTED], or a close matchup, when Andrew Luck [REDACTED]. They’d managed to deliver us a different flavor of miserable loss each time: the blowout, the shootout, the completely implausible comeback, the excruciating 10-7 game. When the two met in the playoffs this year, the Colts had the opportunity to inflict an entirely new category of anguish by neutralizing our once-in-a-generation superhero. It was hard not to feel like we spent all season getting fattened up on optimism for this particular outcome.

The Chiefs blew their damn doors off.

What I enjoyed about their subsequent loss to the Patriots, the first sporting event in 25 years to keep me from sleeping the night prior, was Pat Mahomes’ refusal to be defeated.

He was certainly shut down early. After two completely listless possessions, he reassured the Patriots that greedy land seizures like this were inevitable,

only to make a rare costly mistake, a 14-yard sack that forced a Chiefs punt. They came alive after that, with Mahomes somehow cobbling one timeout and 32 seconds into a field goal that sent the game to overtime.

In the 18 games he played this season, whenever Mahomes headed to the sidelines for the final time, he almost always did so with his team tied or in the lead. There were only two exceptions: the Seahawks loss, in which he scored on his last two drives regardless, and the Rams loss, in which he was hopelessly marooned on his own 12 with 50 seconds and one timeout. Every other time, Pat took care of his business.

The surest way to beat the Chiefs, it seemed, is to make sure the Chiefs didn’t get the ball last.

Football is almost entirely made up of outcomes that occur for a reason: superior and inferior ability, good and bad ideas, good and bad execution, good and bad officiating, sufficient and insufficient replay angles, the wind. There are two elements of chaos. One is the football itself. Its oblong shape is made to bounce in unforeseeable directions if dropped. Football statisticians use the term “fumble luck” because there is no sound strategy for recovering a fumble or reasonable means of predicting who will recover it.

The other is the coin flip. The Patriots won the toss in overtime, took the ball, scored, and won before Mahomes could even step on the field to do anything about it. It’s sparked a debate over the fairness of the coin-flip rule, but I have no business protesting it unless I’m also prepared to demand they play with a round football.

I have no business complaining about anything at all. For months, I was spoiled by some of the most exciting football I’ve ever seen, thanks to a guy who used our televisions to play his magic tricks, delighting millions of people he’ll never know.

It was just one year. The camera hasn’t even moved yet. What’s over to the right, out in the great beyond, I can only imagine.

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