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Be like Pat: The Mahomesification of football

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Henry Martin grew up in Johnson County, Kansas, but really, like so many Americans, he grew up in football. His grandpa played, and taught Henry’s dad, who passed the sport down to his boy. In second grade, Henry graduated from flags to pads, and took up quarterbacking.

From there, his education took him to local parks and a youth league, to private quarterback coaches and beyond. He learned footwork. He honed proper technique. He also once heard something that stuck with him. If you want to get better at football, a coach said, watch it.

So Henry did, most often on Sundays, as both fan and student. “I'd always watch Drew Brees and Peyton Manning,” he remembers. He lapped up Brees’ accuracy, and Manning’s ability to read a defense. He’d marvel at a throw on his TV screen, then go out to a nearby field and try it. He’d see a specific skill and think, OK, I’ma add that to my arsenal. Thousands of kids across the United States thought similarly, and a generation of quarterbacks were molded in the Brees-Brady-Manning image.

“But now,” Martin says, “I just get to watch Pat Mahomes all the time.”

And so now, when coaches watch Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kansas, they don’t see a mini Manning under center. They instead see a prolific senior quarterback — Martin — who’ll drop his arm to unconventional angles; who’ll escape the pocket and throw off balance, or even off his back foot when necessary.

Martin hasn’t quite added the no-look pass to his repertoire. He isn’t tossing underhanded touchdowns, as Mahomes did Sunday. But he’s one of many young QBs who are evidence that the fifth-year Chiefs superstar has, as one coach says, already “changed the game.”

Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes plays during an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Patrick Mahomes tosses a pass underhanded against the Philadelphia Eagles. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Mimicking Patrick Mahomes’ sorcery

Mahomes’ football legacy crystallizes daily. Down in San Antonio, longtime quarterback coach Daniel Aguilar sees it before training sessions. Jeff Trickey sees it at his QB camps in Wisconsin. Rod Stallbaumer sees it in his Basehor, Kansas, yard, where his fifth-grade son and neighborhood buddies fling side-arm passes on the run, or “try to throw across their body, and try to do the no-look stuff.”

All of them see kids either consciously or unconsciously mimicking a player who will shape quarterbacking for years to come.

Mahomes has wowed the NFL ever since he became a full-time starter in 2018. He’s wowed not just with gaudy numbers and improbable comebacks, but with otherworldly throws that many of his positional predecessors wouldn’t even dare attempt. His back-foot bombs and no-look passes quickly became a phenomenon. A name for them — “off-platform throws” — took hold.

Mahomes’ sorcery isn’t completely unprecedented — Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, among others, have been similarly creative and bold — but his impact is. According to interviews and emails with coaches and players across the amateur football landscape, the quarterback position is undergoing something of a Mahomesification. It’s driven by an MVP whose relatable personality and exuberance make him uber-popular among kids. It’s also driven by YouTube. Mahomes’ greatest hits aren’t just available once a week. They’re available anytime, on Gen Z’s favorite website, and on loop, in unofficial compilations that have hundreds of thousands of views. The NFL will post a “top plays” reel; in just six days, 100,000 people will watch it.

The youngest, most talented among them will then take what they see to their backyard or middle-school practice. “At all levels of youth sports or high school sports, the role models dictate a lot of what kids want to emulate,” Trickey says. The dynamic extends far beyond football. It’s why young soccer players celebrate goals like Cristiano Ronaldo or Megan Rapinoe. It’s how Stephem Curry and his 3-point shooting changed basketball forever.

The challenge, coaches say, is making sure that Mahomes changes football for the better, not for the worse.

Some worry that his success will be “misinterpreted.” That kids will begin scampering wildly 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and unleashing risky throws they’re incapable of completing. That counterproductive tendencies will be encouraged, and fundamentals compromised. Sean Martin, the head coach at Raymore-Peculiar High School in Missouri, remembers seeing a throw that broke “just about every” traditional rule of quarterbacking — and then, moments later, overhearing a QB coach tell the offender: “Don’t ever throw the ball like that again.”

Many coaches, though, are embracing the trend.

“What was at one time forbidden now is being forgiven,” says Maryland-based QB trainer Chris Baucia.

In fact, in many cases, it’s being taught.

'He has changed how QBs think'

The most common misinterpretation is that Mahomes’ brilliance is spontaneous. The reality is that every highlight-reel throw has been drilled, obsessively, for years. Mahomes even began practicing the no-lookers at Texas Tech in 2015, as a mechanism to move defenders and open passing windows with his eyes.

There’s a method to everything Mahomes does, and even traditionalists have come to understand this. So, rather than rue it, they’ve added it to their curriculums. Terry Copacia, a longtime QB guru in Michigan, has turned throws that “used to be taboo” into what he calls the “Mahomes drill.” Greg Jones, a high school coach who runs a QB academy in Missouri, has traveled the country to observe other camps, and has seen coaches drilling no-look passes and cross-body throws.

“He has changed how QBs think, and how they think they are supposed to throw the ball,” Jones says of Mahomes.

He’s changed how they’re tutored as well.

“Because of him, among others,” Copacia says, “I teach young QBs to throw with a more ‘outside angle’ as opposed to the vertical delivery that many have been coached at in previous years.”

Most coaches have realized that what was once seen as improper is actually necessary in modern football. Fundamentals are still fundamental, especially in the pocket. But athletic, aggressive defenses and the run-pass option have made off-platform throws essential. “The quarterback position really has evolved, in that you have to be creative at times,” Trickey says. QBs have to be able to drop their arm and sneak a short pass around a defensive lineman. They have to be able to throw on the run, without setting their feet, as they were taught to do for decades.

In this sense, Mahomes is just as much a product of the evolution as he is a reason for it. But even coaches who argue the trend predates Mahomes agree that he has been a catalyst; that he has redefined the QB prototype; that he's emboldening coaches and teens alike to follow his lead.

And the teens, like Henry Martin, are benefitting. In Week 1, on Drive No. 1 of the 2021 season, Martin took a snap in the red zone. A defensive end and nose guard converged. Martin’s pocket shrunk, so he dropped his arm, flicked a pass between two defenders, and hit a receiver on an under route for a touchdown.

For three years, he’d seen Mahomes make similar throws. For roughly two years, he’s worked on them himself. In practice, he throws off balance, “and at different angles,” refining football’s trendiest technique.

On Sundays, he’ll watch Mahomes, and occasionally think: “Wow. How did he do that?” Then he’ll go back to practice, or perhaps to a private session, and try to find out.

“Seeing Pat do it,” Martin says, “it has a huge effect on everybody else.”

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