Super Bowl LVII: the fruitless quest to find a flaw in Patrick Mahomes’s game

<span>Photograph: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles will try to do the impossible on Sunday: expose a flaw in the seemingly flawless.

Even the greatest usually have some shortcomings in their game that the opposition can expose. Tom Brady was slow. Brett Favre was reckless – in more ways than one. Drew Brees was small. John Elway was accurate, but not always precise.

And then there’s Patrick Mahomes. Five years into his career, there are no imperfections left in his game. As far as quarterbacking goes, he’s conquered it.

On Sunday, he’ll play for a second title with the Kansas City Chiefs. By then, he’ll almost certainly have claimed his second league MVP award – and he could have added a couple more during the years he narrowly missed out. He has never played a road playoff game, and has guided the Chiefs to five straight AFC championship games. As raw output goes, he’s off to a quicker start to his career than Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and Brady.

Most standout athletes turn into myths after they’ve retired– Jordan, Senna, Graff. But at 27, Mahomes has already reached the LeBron zone – one it took James a decade to construct. His excellence – his all-time greatness – is so clear, so obvious, so damn early that it’s in danger of being overlooked.

Related: Are the Eagles so talented that anyone could coach them to the Super Bowl?

What else is there left to say? He has bent the boundaries of what is plausible. He is the most creative, atypical quarterback in league history. He broke the paradigm, proving that tippy-tappy footwork in the pocket was not the only way of doing things – better to combine that footwork with a slinky release and agility that can evade the pass-rush.

Underarm throws, no-look passes, sidearm flicks, crossbody heaves, the impossible feels inevitable with Mahomes at the wheel of the offense.

As he has matured, he has sanded off any rough edges. He used to be reckless. He used to struggle with certain coverages (in small doses). He used to hunt the big play at the cost of moving the ball efficiently and effectively. Not any more. Mahomes has ticked off all the boxes, transforming himself from the game’s most explosive, dynamic quarterback into its most complete.

He remains a three-way threat: to dice a defense up from the pocket, to move to throw, or to evade defenders with his legs. When he’s at his best, when all three approaches are working in concert, he’s the runaway MVP. When he hits his floor, when an avenue is taken away, he remains an MVP contender. Spend some time trying to find a weakness and, well, you’ll be left offering a Jim Halpert to camera.

Teams who face Mahomes face a decision: Do they try to keep him in the pocket or expose themselves to the organized chaos when he breaks it? “Shoot, the problem with him is that he can live in both worlds,” Nick Rallis, the Eagles’ linebacker coach, told the Guardian on Monday. “And he’s a great player regardless of what you ask of him.”

Not only has he rewritten the quarterback handbook, he’s also changed how defenses approach the game too.

Pushing quarterbacks out of the safety of the pocket used to be a win for defenses. Now, when Mahomes is your opponent, it’s wince-inducing. “With any quarterback, you want to keep them in the pocket and maintain your rush discipline,” Eagles defensive back coach Dennard Wilson said on Monday. “That way, you know where he is and you can keep discipline on the back end in coverage. If they leave the pocket, there are more opportunities for [coverage] breakdowns. And nobody punishes you more for that than the Chiefs.”

Defenses have tried adopting new, wonky approaches, like funneling Mahomes to a specific spot on the field with a trap lying in wait. But they’re ideas that work only as a change-up and not as the bedrock of a gameplan.

Sometimes getting pressure on a great quarterback is the only equalizer. Even the best (peak Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning) succumb to a cramped pocket. Some can’t escape with their legs. Others lose some zip on their fastball or panic as chaos envelopes them and put the ball in harm’s way.

Not Mahomes. Whether it’s extending with his legs, flipping the ball from a funky arm angle, or slipping and sliding in the pocket, delivering a down-the-field strike, on one leg, he’s just as effective in a crowded workspace as when he’s given time to read and scan the field.

How do you even think about defending that? Put simply: you don’t.

Mahomes tops the charts in accuracy, touchdowns, and yards per attempt when pressured. Where others flail, he appears immune.

The only path to slowing him down is by getting him down. Pressure alone is not enough. And there, too, Mahomes has evolved his game. Last season he was so eager to make a big play, to buy extra time for Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to zoom downfield, that he would invite pressure. Sometimes, the Chiefs’ well-oiled machine would become bogged down as Mahomes took a drive-killing sack. By concentrating on big shots to Hill and Kelce, Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense could sputter.

It reached its lowest point in the AFC championship, as the Bengals dropped eight defenders into coverage (rather than the traditional seven) and dared Mahomes to try to gun away. Mahomes was frazzled. He took the bait, the Chiefs’ coaching staff failed to adjust, and the team fell before the Super Bowl.

That wrong has been righted this season. Mahomes is more patient these days. His average time to throw has fallen. He’s traded in some potential second-reaction shot plays for a more efficient style – but always with the threat that he could uncork something special, some never-before-seen movement on any given down.

The old, swashbuckling style served the Chiefs well through Mahomes’ early years. But after dealing Hill to Miami last offseason, Mahomes has been happy to change his approach, spreading the ball around the receiving corps and focusing on quick, sharp passes.

The drive-ending sacks have now all but vanished. This season, he tops the league in pressure-to-sack rate. Great quarterbacks typically hover around the 15% mark; Mahomes has dropped his to 10%, the best in the league by some distance over the past four seasons. Even when teams get close to him, Mahomes has the arm and legs (when fully healthy) to escape unharmed.

Fortunately for the Eagles, they just so happen to lead the league in adjusted sack rate, including with a four-man rush, which allows the defense to steal an extra player in coverage, making it tougher for the offense to push the ball downfield.

If this was the Mahomes of 2022, then there would be a lingering concern – all the more so in a game that may well turn into a shootout. But Mahomes with the 2023 software update is more prepared to tackle Philly’s great advantage. Stripping Hill out of the lineup was supposed to dent Mahomes’ style. Instead, it helped prepared him for this moment.

Mahomes is the league’s best player. He is the most difficult to defend. Through talent alone (and the achievements are creeping up) he’s carved a place on the quarterback Mt Rushmore. The scary part: He is still just getting started.