Vahe Gregorian: 'Rainbows, flowers and awesome' faded. Then Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes got even better.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Patrick Mahomes betrayed some fleeting moments of mortality earlier this season, you'd have thought this revolutionary star had burst just like a supernova.
Kaboom, just like that, no more was he the stellar force who had transformed everything for and about the Chiefs.
No longer was he the guy who stoked them to their first championship in 50 years and back-to-back Super Bowls and 26 wins in 27 starts before that startling wipeout against Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV.
At least that was what you'd see and hear if you were following along in the echoing panic room that is social media. Or tracking what people paid to make snap judgments and stir things up were selling.
The nonsense ran the gamut, from saying he was "broken" to bizarre suggestions he'd lost his nerve or intensity or even his arm strength. Some speculated all those commercial appearances (the ones he'd filmed months before) must be distracting him. Some said this guy with the eidetic memory, along with an uncanny sense of time and place and down and distance, didn't know how to read a defense.
Not that there wasn't ample reason to be left gasping as the Chiefs were grasping to find themselves, especially when they had plummeted to 3-4 after that 27-3 clobbering at Tennessee. Their funk, and seemingly impending collapse, felt inexplicable.
And not that there wasn't reason to wonder what was going awry with Mahomes: He had indeed looked off-kilter at times and was uncharacteristically interception-prone. He had made more curious, or simply erroneous, decisions than we'd seen, and he even appeared flustered by some defensive looks — including a steady regimen of Cover-2 zone concepts.
But none of that was happening in a vacuum.
First of all, his numbers and even overall performances themselves were skewed by such variables as an absurd spree of dropped passes and caroms off his own players for six of his 13 interceptions. (Even with recent improvements, in data from nflfastR and SportRadar analyzed by Anthony Reinhard, Mahomes has suffered the third-worst impact in the NFL from dropped passes: 32 of them.)
Then there were all the X-factors that came with trying to sync up with an entirely new offensive line, one that began the season with three rookies. Those dynamics were all the more challenging since Mahomes' game tends to be unorthodox, and linemen aren't taught to block the game the way he plays it.
Meanwhile, it also was clear he was simply pressing to do too much at times because of some combination of porous defense early in the season, dealing with the drops and trial and error with his line.
That's a lot of flux to work in, and it was underscored by this:
All perceptions of him had become warped because of how spoiled we'd been by his first three seasons as QB1. At 26, of course he's still a work in progress; it's just that we didn't see any real evidence of that for a long time.
In fact, he had been so transcendent as for it to be unsustainable ... at least in terms of raw results.
No quarterback in NFL history had gone longer into his career without back-to-back subpar games, as measured by a FiveThirtyEight.com's statistical analysis after Mahomes struggled against the Giants a week after the Chiefs' clunker against the Titans.
Those aren't the only key points of context, though, in a season through which Mahomes has grown immensely.
It's a season that actually has forged him to flourish all the more going forward — starting Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium, when Mahomes and the AFC No. 2 seed Chiefs (12-5) play host to the seventh-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1).
And we don't mean just because Mahomes is 2-0 against Pittsburgh, including a 36-10 victory on Dec. 26, and has completed 46 of 58 passes for nine touchdowns and 584 yards against the Steelers.
We mean because for the first time in his NFL career he's had to contend with a phase of nothing coming easily and has emerged unscathed, more mature and girded for all the more ahead.
If you believe like we do that what doesn't kill you can make you stronger, or, less dramatically, that adversity reveals character, Mahomes has prospered by the reality check. It's one thing to ride the tide of unparalleled success. It's quite another to slog through the muck and break on through to the other side.
Or as Mahomes put it after the Tennessee loss: Everything had been "kind of rainbows and flowers and awesome" the past few years. Which was tremendous, but ...
"When you want to build something substantial, something great," Mahomes added then, "you're going to go through parts like this."
More importantly, though, was getting through parts like that.
And get through Mahomes and the Chiefs have, winning nine of their last 10.
In nine outings since that game against the Giants, Mahomes has thrown 19 TD passes with three interceptions ... after throwing for 18 TDs with 10 interceptions in the first eight games.
More to the point than the numbers, though, is a crucial part of how that's been accomplished: via a more poised and polished Mahomes, who appears now to be engaging the entire offense (including with his own judicious running) instead of forcing certain elements of it.
You can see it in a more pronounced pocket presence as Mahomes has gelled with what has become a rugged line — a line that also has helped the Chiefs more reliably run for the hard yards and enabled the offense to become the first in the NFL in a decade to convert better than 50% of its third-down opportunities.
"Just being able to play behind those guys (more), go to battle with them, getting a good feel for them definitely helps out a ton ...," Mahomes said last week. "Trying to figure out that right balance of when to scramble and run and do that stuff and when to stay in the pocket and make the throw is something I'll always work on. Definitely think I've gotten better as these weeks have gone on."
In fact, seeking "that right balance" has been essential to his overall resurgence in a season in which he also never was as far off as alarmists and various forms of trolls suggested.
As much as anything else, he's learned, or at least learning, to embrace the virtues of patience as an antidote to defenses that are so committed to taking away deep passes.
Indeed, if Mahomes ever had a gap in his game, it's a pretty human one: when to try to make things happen vs. when to let them happen. He'll tell you he's struggled with that since he began competing. Or as Chad Parker, a family friend and his first coach back in Texas, recently put it:
"It pains him to throw the checkdown route, alright?" he said.
Now, though, it sustains him.
"I've learned to take what's there, take the underneath stuff, probably the most I've ever thrown to the running backs and stuff like that," Mahomes said last week. "I have such an aggressive nature and want to push the ball down the field. But defenses have forced me to learn how to drive the length of the field, and I think we've done a great job of that as the season's gone on.
"We've made a lot of big drives happen and drove the length of the field, but we haven't lost our explosiveness. And when defenses do present man coverage, or safety middle zone coverage, where they come down and give us a chance to throw it deep, I think we're still hitting those.
"Finding that right balance, I think that's been a big growth for me to learn to take what's there but keep that aggressiveness."
Applying that balance, not to mention incorporating all he's learned from the endless defensive wrinkles he's navigated, will be fundamental to the Chiefs' playoff prospects.
Which appear pretty promising, after all, much because of the still-blossoming, and decidedly unbroken, Mahomes.