From the GM’s Eye: For AFC West teams, cracking the riddle of Patrick Mahomes will be a 365-day challenge

As the clock wound down on Sunday’s AFC title game, I felt terrible for Raiders GM Mike Mayock, Broncos GM John Elway and Chargers GM Tom Telesco. Not because they were watching the Conference Championship game from their couches, but because they had to watch a generational talent in Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes take over the game, knowing that their chances of getting to any Super Bowl depend upon solving the riddle of defending Mahomes.

There are other people I feel bad for, like Bears General Manager Ryan Pace, who passed on Mahomes to pick Mitchell Trubisky, but ultimately that’s his own fault. The three other men have no choice but to deal with this massive challenge — and they’ll have to do it at least twice a year. I imagine they were watching and uttering, “how can we beat him when he does stuff like that???” Unless these GMs have an excellent plan of attack in their team building, all three teams will realize their path to the postseason for the foreseeable future is going to have to be a wild card entry rather than a division title. The reality of the uphill climb for those AFC West teams — and, frankly, for all other teams in the AFC — was on full display in the Chiefs’ win over the Titans on Sunday.

First and foremost, it’s a remarkable achievement to be one of the best four teams in the NFL after a long, grueling season. Kansas City, Tennessee, Green Bay and San Francisco all put together remarkable seasons. To withstand the highs and lows, the injuries, the setbacks, and to overcome all obstacles for the chance at playing on the biggest stage in all of sports is a highlight of anyone’s career. For those teams in the final four, there is no more exceptional moment than preparing for the game. For the rest of the NFL watching on championship weekend, the four teams battling on the field become the gold standard of the year.

All four teams need a complete examination, from how they were built to their schemes to their coaching style. This is not a one-day project for any pro personnel department, but rather an intensive autopsy of each team, with a complete summary of what made them so resilient, what contributed to winning, what moves they made that allowed them to offset injuries, how they operated in camp and during the season and what was the underlying factor to their success. Understanding how they were able to climb this incredibly tough mountain allows their competitors to learn something that might help them reach the top next season.

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Former Raiders owner Al Davis understood this project more than anyone — he was the architect of the analysis. He was relentless in his quest for understanding the opponent, and more specifically his AFC West opponents. When he woke up each day, his mind was always on the AFC West. If Al were alive to watch Patrick Mahomes play, he would be spending most of his day trying to understand how to build his team to best compete with the quarterback. (He would also be cursing the fact that his team did not draft him.)

Mahomes is not like any other NFL quarterback. He is the new Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, as all roads leading to the playoffs or Super Bowl will need to pass through Kansas City for the next 10 years. The Mahomes Problem is not going away; it will become more significant with each passing year. The gap in the AFC West will only widen unless teams fully understand that beating Mahomes does not start on game days or with a general gameplan, it begins in the offseason with detailed, specific planning. It starts with having a detailed grading system to help eliminate players who don’t fit the criteria set forth to help neutralize Mahomes’ style of play. Davis would always ask: can this player help us beat Elway or Brady? If the answer wasn’t a clear cut yes, then the player had zero chance to gain his interest.

Davis was all about the matchups in the division. When former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan started the outside zone trend with bootlegs, Davis became obsessed with defending the movement of the quarterback, the backside of the zone read, and most of all, the shots down the field. His focus then was more on the scheme than the talent. He would continuously ask the defensive coaches who had the boot on every call. He would try to understand how they taught the fundamentals of the outside zone, what the back was reading, what step did he decide to cut. Every single detail was on Davis’ mind, night and day.

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The problem the Chiefs currently present is much different. Dealing with Mahomes is not about the scheme, it’s about his ability. Yes, head coach Andy Reid runs a diverse system that highlights the talent of his offense which features incredible speed. But on Sunday, that scheme was not what destroyed the Titans. It was the second play within the original play call — the ad-lib plays. The breaking of the pocket, the runs for first downs, the throws down the field on the move, the sidearm, pinpoint accurate third-down conversions, the decision making, the timing, the deep drops to avoid the rush, then making any throw to any part of the field. Those skills are generational for football fans to enjoy. For opponents, they’re a nightmare.

Teams must understand that coverage is never going to stop Mahomes. Drafting corners might look good on paper but once again, if the play breaks down, all hell breaks loose no matter how well the defensive backs perform. No one play can cover anyone for five seconds, which is what occurs when the pocket breaks down. There is only one solution to dealing with Mahomes in the short- and long-term: It all starts up front. The defensive line is the kryptonite for any generational quarterback. And not just any defensive lineman — the line must be made of guys who can specifically handle the problems Mahomes presents.

Therefore, a team must have an extremely athletic defensive line that is in excellent physical condition. Large, out of shape linemen won’t cut it. They will tire too quickly and lack the speed to chase him down. The defensive line must have length and look like five NBA power forwards. They must be able to play with power and push the tackles back to make the space that Mahomes operates in small. They also must close down quickly once Mahomes escapes, which means anyone who cannot run sub 4.8 won’t help slow him down.

Every player in the front seven must be able to run exceptionally well as there can be no one on defense who would not be an elite special teams player. Why special teams? Because of Mahomes’ ability to threaten the width and length of the field with his arm and feet. The game with him always seems to become a fast break game in basketball. When the play breaks down, the game becomes wide open like a punt or kickoff return; therefore, every player must be fast, under control and able to tackle well in space. Those are the requirements for any great special teams player, which also happens to be a requirement for dealing with Mahomes. When you think of stopping Mahomes, you must remember: great speed, tackling in space and conditioning. Each one is as important as the other.

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As the Senior Bowl begins this week in Mobile, every team will be scouting out the talent. For Mayock, Telesco and Elway, the only defensive players worth evaluating are the ones who meet the specific criteria which can potentially help solve the Mahomes problem. Who cares if a big defensive tackle can stop the run? He won’t play in two games a year vs. the Chiefs, so what benefit does he bring? Yes, that player might be useful, he might make those teams a little better, but he won’t help beat the primary opponent. Those general managers cannot lose sight of the ultimate goal. Every scout and personnel person needs to understand the plan of how to attack Mahomes, precisely what type of players need to be acquired. They should never allow a player to enter the organization who cannot help deal with Mahomes — they simply can’t afford to. After all, Mahomes is only 24 years old.

Everyone in the organization must know that Mahomes is the target because if the organization does not solve this issue, the championship goals will go by the wayside. Defeating the Chiefs with Mahomes in control is not going to be about one player or one coach, it will take an organization dedicated to finding different ways through personnel to help solve the riddle.

Good luck to all. This won’t be easy.

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