The Grim Reaper and the Perfect Game: Patrick Mahomes vs the Bills
It's basically impossible to play quarterback better than this, and it's a game like none I've ever analyzed.
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I thought the perfect game was impossible.
I have charted every snap by a Chiefs quarterback (with one or two games missing) since the beginning of the 2013 season. That’s not a brag, it’s more an admission of sickness. I know that the way stats are tabulated has serious holes in determining how well a quarterback played in a given game (or two, or three, or more), and I cannot help myself. I have to know how Kansas City’s quarterback actually performed.
I’ve charted great games and I’ve charted bad games. I’ve charted non-Chiefs quarterbacks as a frame of reference. The goal is always to find a way to isolate the things that actually measure quarterback play (accuracy, good decisions, pocket presence, etc.) and quantify it as best we can.
And on the way, one thing has always been true; No matter how well a quarterback performed, there was always room for considerable improvement. There was no such thing as the perfect game.
I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Because on Sunday, against the Buffalo Bills, Patrick Mahomes played the closest thing to a perfect game that I’ve ever seen from an NFL quarterback (including him) in nearly a decade of doing this job. Let’s talk about that.
First, here’s a link to the Week 1 film review from this season, where I discuss what “stats” I chart and why. The goal is to separate the quarterback’s play from what his coach, receivers, and offensive line do and gauge purely what the signal caller does on his own merits. Here’s a quick explanation:
… when I watch all-22 film I chart plays/yards created when the play breaks down, franchise QB throws (you know them when you see them), multiple-read plays, accurate/inaccurate throws from both in and out of the pocket, flushes (plays the quarterback is forced to bail out due to pressure before anyone is open), drops by receivers and yards cost, potential interceptions (because a bad throw is still a bad throw if the defender drops it), missed shots (a receiver who was open and should have likely been seen, but wasn’t), and “happy feet” (when a quarterback bails on clean pocket or creates pressure with his movement. By looking at these things, we can separate Mahomes’ (or any quarterback’s) play from the team around him.
With all that in mind, let’s look at what Mahomes did Sunday against the Bills from a charting perspective. Then we’ll compare that to what he did in his 2018 MVP season, and talk about what I saw when going through each snap. And on the way, we might have some fun.
First, the numbers.
(Note- Not every pass can be charted for accuracy, such as throwaways or batted passes. So the numbers will look a tad odd at times).
I understand that without context this can be a tad confusing if you haven’t been following my process for a while. So for frame of reference, here’s a look at what Mahomes did in his 2018 season that set the league on fire.
(I used to chart depth of target, but now that it’s widely available via Next Gen stats I leave that part out)
So here’s the short story. On Sunday, Mahomes created plays and made as many franchise throws as he did during what many people still talk about as his best season (wrongly, but that’s how it goes with stats-based analysis). But at the same time, he made multiple reads more often and had a significantly higher accuracy percentage, while not throwing any potential interceptions or missing open receivers. He also had only a single snap that qualified as a “happy feet” snap. And this was despite being under a fair amount of pressure.
In other words, Mahomes was simultaneously a tremendous playmaker AND made almost no mistakes whatsoever in a crazy shootout while facing plenty of heat from the opposing pass rush. Throw in the fact that this was against a high-level defense that was playing a brand of football specifically designed to stop Mahomes (and built to play well against him), and it becomes even more impressive.
Let’s start with the play creation, because that’s where we always want to start with Mahomes. From the very first drive, it became apparent that he was not going to allow plays to die without doing everything humanly possible to sustain them.
This was the first 3rd down Kansas City faced. Buffalo gets some pressure around the edge to force him to step up, and does a nice job staying in their rush lanes to add complementary pressure and prevent a scramble. They’ve also covered exceptionally well down the field. It’s a winning combination for the defense that should result in a punt.
Instead, Mahomes refuses to let the play die, managing to shake a defender (and giving Joe Thuney time to recover and flatten him) and buy himself time. When the Bills stay disciplined in their lanes, he looks like he’s out of options, but moves away from the rush just long enough to buy a moment for Jerick McKinnon to run back towards him. Mahomes flips him the ball, and the drive stays alive.
Early in the game, the Bills were playing plnety of man coverage with safeties playing deep. And so Mahomes utilized his legs to carry the bulk of the burden, rushing for nearly 50 yards on the first drive and punctuating it with a scrambling touchdown in which he faked out a defender to get him in the air and then won a race to the front corner of the end zone. The Bills essentially dared him to create yards with his legs, and he did so to the tune of a score.
Buffalo, it its credit, shifted how they played to avoid getting beaten by scrambles. But Mahomes continued to create yards in other ways, such as making throwing lanes out of thin air where they didn’t exist.
Everyone has heard the “Patrick Mahomes played baseball” bit about a thousand times by now, to the point that it’s gotten tired. That aside, Mahomes’ ability to accurately throw the ball from arm angles that don’t make sense to defenders allowed him on several occasions to complete passes where they didn’t look open against Buffalo. They are yards manufactured out of thin air that didn’t previously exist, similar to when a running back shakes a pair of tacklers on a well-defended play.
The Bills defense, on review, actually played very well the vast majority of the game. They mixed up their coverages, got pressure a fair amount of the time, and even chose good moments to blitz (normally a death sentence against Mahomes). They also often had a great play call for what the Chiefs were trying to do on offense.
The problem was that even when that happened, Kansas City would often “win” the snap regardless because of something absurd.
This is nonsense. It’s unfair. It’s nonsensical.
The Bills have this play dialed up almost perfectly, not getting fooled by the initial fake to the left and sending heat from the edge the play is designed to leave someone unblocked. And the pressure is executed well, with Jerry Hughes showing off his athleticism and not biting on a quick deke from Mahomes. He closes for the sack and this play should be a big win for the Bills.
Except Mahomes utilizes the half second he’s bought by stopping in space, jumping backwards, and throwing the ball out in front of a sprinting Byron Pringle to a spot only he can grab it.
There’s no play call to defeat something like this. Again, the word “unfair” is the only one that works. When a defense makes the right play call and executes it well, they should win the majority of the time. And Buffalo wasn’t on Sunday, because Mahomes was simply too good at making a play happen.
Mahomes’ ability to throw off-platform and at weird angles also allowed Andy Reid to design plays in a way that made life tough on Buffalo’s defense as well. An example of this came early in the overtime period with the Chiefs’ facing 3rd down deep enough in their territory that failing to convert would likely mean a punt. Reid called a rollout half-field read with multiple receivers in the area, something he loves to do in high leverage short yardage situations. Except this time, he had Mahomes roll out to his left rather than his right.
This play is excellently designed to make pressure a nonfactor. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is given the advantage of attacking the “unblocked” edge rusher with momentum, and Mahomes rolling left removes the rest of the pass rush from the play. A pair of Chiefs receivers are running whip routes next to one another to draw the defense.
Buffalo, to its credit (again, this was not a “Buffalo’s defense played poorly” game), still managed pretty quick pressure from a looping linebacker who was either already blitzing or was supposed to go when he saw Mahomes get out of the pocket. My suspicion is the latter, and it’s a great call. The problem is Reid puts Travis Kelce in the area that linebacker might have filled had he stayed in coverage, and Mahomes makes a shortstop-style throw around the pressure for a conversion.
When a quarterback can make these throws regardless of pressure, it means that even when defenses get it completely right they can still lose, and when they get it partially right they’re almost destined to lose.
The compounding problem for Buffalo, and what helps make this the best performance I’ve ever seen from a quarterback, is that Mahomes wasn’t just doing the spectacular, weird, off-schedule stuff. He was also working with a merciless efficiency within the offense as well, finding open players quickly and making accurate throws repeatedly.
The Bills played it the way they were supposed to, taking away deep routes and forcing Mahomes to be patient and make the right reads quickly. And he just kept doing it.
This isn’t a particularly special-looking snap, but it’s demonstrative of what was happening over and over Sunday when the Bills dropped into zone coverage. Mahomes would step back, survey the field quickly, and (regardless of pressure, which did get in his face here with a defender diving towards him) fire the ball to the open spot in the zone even as the receiver was breaking into the area.
There’s no good way to prevent this in zone coverage if the quarterback is seeing the field well and making throws that anticipate where the open space will be. The only thing a defense can do is hope that it’ll stop at some point. And it just never did on Sunday.
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Mahomes’ ball placement repeatedly killed the Bills even on throws where his playmakers were the stars. Everyone has watched Tyreek Hill outrace the Bills’ safeties for a late touchdown. But look where he was when Mahomes was in the middle of his throwing motion.
Mahomes has his arm cocked back and is about to release this ball to Hill, who is coming across the middle. By the time the ball arrives, Hill has separation. But when the throw is being made that separation isn’t there. So Mahomes puts it in front of Hill despite the fact that he’s throwing it much more on a rope than a loft. The placement has to be perfect for Hill to run right into the ball as though it’s a handoff, and that’s exactly what happens.
Hill’s post-catch run was spectacular, but it doesn’t happen without a perfect throw at the perfect moment to take advantage of man coverage. And that sort of read/throw is what helps teams make big plays without having to push the ball down the field.
Mahomes’ placement on the final play of the drive was another example of the way he played to near perfection in this game.
A lot has been made (and rightly so) about the fact that the Bills chose to put a linebacker on Kelce in the red zone on such a crucial snap, but Milano actually had solid coverage on this play despite an initial stumble (caused by Kelce’s fake out on his way towards the end zone). He’s able to get depth and has his hands up trying to contest the ball he knows is coming.
But it doesn’t matter. Because despite the fact that Mahomes has his right guard being shoved into his lap, he puts it in a spot that Kelce can snatch it out of the air with no risk of the defender making a play on the ball.
There’s no chance on a play like this for a defender, and the Chiefs advanced to the next round of the playoffs.
I’ve charted many games in which a quarterback created yardage at a high level when things broke down. I’ve charted many games in which a quarterback made nearly every throw on schedule and to the right spot. I’ve charted many games in which a quarterback showed poise under pressure. I’ve charted many games in which a quarterback threw the ball accurately almost every single time.
But I’ve never charted a game in which a quarterback did all of those things at an absolutely elite level for virtually the entire game, without making any significant mistakes throughout. It was as close to perfection as I’ve ever seen, and maybe as close to perfection as it can get as a quarterback.
The Grim Reaper, indeed.