Patrick Mahomes stands in front of a whiteboard, right hand tightly gripping a Sharpie, and he’s drawing. His head and the pristinely constructed fauxhawk atop it dart from one side of the board to the other as he sketches a series of five circles, then the letters F, Q, H, X, Y and Z.
Inside a small conference room at EXOS San Diego, where Mahomes is training ahead of the NFL Draft, his task is to recreate his favorite 3rd-and-long play from his time as quarterback at Texas Tech, then explain it to Mike Sheppard, a longtime NFL quarterbacks coach who is seated a few feet away at a round table. Sheppard is assuming the role of an NFL head coach at the NFL Combine, recreating the type of board work Mahomes will be asked to perform for a handful of teams looking to interview him.
On this particular day, Sheppard has given Mahomes man defense to work against, and has even told Mahomes that if he were in a live game, he would know it’s man going into the hypothetical huddle.
It’s that last bit that gives Mahomes pause in the middle of his initial sketch.
“You said I’ll know it’s man?” he asks Sheppard, straightening his back.
“Yeah. You’ve been alerted that you can anticipate man coverage in this situation so [your coach] is going to call your favorite play,” Sheppard responds.
“Then I’m changing the play,” Mahomes says as he erases his original work and resumes drawing again from scratch.
A minute or two creep by. Mahomes draws an X representing his wide receiver on the far left of the formation, then erases it and rewrites it further back behind the line of scrimmage. He draws the route for his Z receiver on the opposite side as a deep out before deciding against it and making it a shallow curl instead. Suddenly, Sheppard’s voice interrupts the squeaks of the sharpie.
“When you get into that 15-minute interview [at the NFL Combine], and they ask you to do this, you’ve got about a minute to draw this,” Sheppard says. “So just know when you’re in that quick interview at the Combine, this has got to come out fast now.”
This is Mahomes’ life: taking everything he knew and transforming it into what he needs to know. He’s spending 8 to 10 hours a day training, talking about and thinking about NFL football as he prepares for the NFL Draft in April. Once the prolific leader of a pass-happy Air Raid college offense, Mahomes must re-program himself to fit the requirements of the more controlled pro-style offense. Sheppard, and front offices around the league, are anxiously watching to see if Mahomes can do it.
Born in Tyler, Texas to a father who spent 11 years playing pro baseball, Patrick Mahomes II grew up with sports in his blood. As a kid, young Patrick was a regular in his father’s clubhouses, shagging fly balls off the bat of Robin Ventura during New York Mets batting practice at Shea Stadium and living out the type of fantasy kids write about in their fifth grade homework assignment.
Mahomes II was a three-sport athlete in high school, bouncing from football in the fall to basketball in the winter to baseball in the spring. Naturally, baseball became Mahomes’ first love. A pitcher like his father with an arm that could uncork a 95-mph fastball, Mahomes threw a no-hitter in high school, and his abilities eventually persuaded the Detroit Tigers to spend a draft pick on him in 2014. But football’s pull was stronger, and by the time Mahomes was a junior at Texas Tech, he’d left his father’s profession behind for good to focus on being a quarterback full time. It was an agonizing decision.
“I’d played [baseball] my whole entire life, and I wanted to play Major League Baseball my whole life until football came on,” Mahomes said. “That was pretty tough giving that one up.”
Mahomes was Texas Tech’s starting quarterback by his sophomore year, and he thrived in head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s vision of the Air Raid offense. As a junior, he put up astronomical numbers, passing for over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions.
This past October, he eviscerated Oklahoma, throwing for an inhumane 734 yards and five touchdowns and rushing for two more. Texas Tech lost, but all anyone wanted to talk about was Mahomes and his golden arm.
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Watching Mahomes play quarterback is a bit like witnessing a bull storm through the streets of Pamplona. He darts in and out of holes created by his offensive line. He’s rarely set before he sends the football on a harrowing high speed journey to his wide receivers’ hands. And it almost never matters. So powerful is Mahomes’ arm, forged by decades of playing long toss with his father and his father’s teammates, that perfect footwork and mechanics aren’t necessary to achieve the desired outcome.
“I feel like Kliff really knew how to coach me,” Mahomes said. “He [helped me] work on taking the easy throws and keeping my footwork right. And then he let me, sometimes, get into the backyard football I play because he knows it’s dangerous and I can excel at it.”
But what made Mahomes a legend at Texas Tech gives NFL executives the cold sweats at the thought of using a first round pick on him. Scarred by guys like Colt Brennan, Bryce Petty, Graham Harrell and Johnny Manziel—quarterbacks who put up stupid-good numbers in a collegiate spread offense but failed to transfer that to NFL success—teams are wary of handing over the reins of their franchise to a “system quarterback.”
Simply put: Mahomes is being stereotyped by association, and he’s well aware of it.
“I know there’s this stereotypical system quarterback and everybody says that [about me], but I believe I break the mold.”
It’s an unusually cool day in San Diego. A morning fog lingers well past its welcome, and Mahomes, who’s out on a high school field, is throwing passes to a gaggle of receivers who are training for the NFL Combine with him. Most of the routes are short: quick outs to the sideline, slants over the middle. But as practice winds down, Mahomes wants to let it rip.
“Someone run a deep post,” Mahomes shouts. His request hangs in the air like the fog. One of the receivers turns, nods, and lines up to the quarterback’s left. Then the receiver sprints down the sideline. Mahomes mimes a snap, fakes a handoff to an imaginary running back, and promptly flicks the football 50 yards. The ball follows its desired trajectory perfectly, nestling into the waiting hands of the receiver in stride. Mahomes gives Sheppard a fist bump, then casually strides off the field.
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It’s an impressive throw. But then Mahomes’ arm was never in question.
“He’s got a big transition to make,” Sheppard says. “To go from spending 95 percent plus of your plays in shotgun to being under center for first and second down, it’s a big transition.”
The biggest part of that transition is getting Mahomes comfortable in taking drops, or the crossover steps he’ll need to take before he loads up to throw a pass. There are many variations of the drop, from a quick, three-step to the long, seven-step variety, depending on the type of routes the receivers are running.
“There are some drops in the NFL that are in rhythm,” Sheppard said. “You drop, you step and then the ball comes out if your first choice is open. If not, then there is a rhythm for your second or third choice. But not all patterns are like that. I say most of them are non-rhythmic, where you drop, then get comfortable and throw. So we separate the drop from the throw.”
Mahomes’s footwork on this all-important skill is a work in progress. On this particular day, Mahomes goes from executing a perfect five-step drop into a gorgeous throw to stumbling over his feet and spiking the ball into the ground.
“I definitely was a little uncomfortable at first,” Mahomes said. “The first two weeks, I would say I felt a little uncomfortable. But then one day I went out there and it started clicking for me. It’s gotten a lot better since then. It’s something that I’ve really tried to drill myself on—do all the drops, be ready to throw, and then your natural throw and everything that you’ve done your whole life will be there.”
Mahomes is open about the work he needs on his drops, but he bristles at other criticisms that come with playing in an Air Raid offense. And that’s fair enough. Such criticism is a veiled shot at a QB’s intelligence, as if playing from the shotgun and making quick reads and shorter throws means he’s incapable of grasping the full breadth of an NFL playbook. Mahomes, who says Kingsbury incorporated plays from the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots into Texas Tech’s playbook, isn’t having any of that noise.
“I feel like people don’t understand how smart I am,” Mahomes said. “They feel like I was in a system so I just threw the ball to certain receivers. They don’t realize the checks I was making at the line, and how much free will coach Kingsbury gave me where I could change the plays whenever I saw different coverages.”
Mahomes also cringes whenever someone says he’s just a kid who can throw a pretty deep ball. Sure, it’s cool that he once launched a football 80 yards during pregame warm-ups at Tech. But Mahomes would rather talk more about his accuracy.
“People talk about my arm and how big my arm is and that I can throw the ball far,” Mahomes said. “They don’t talk about how accurate I can throw the outs and the curls. I’m excited to go out there and prove what I can do and who I can be.”
Sheppard has been encouraged by Mahomes’ progress. He believes Mahomes has a leg up because of a foundation that’s stronger than a lot of other spread quarterbacks who have traversed the path Mahomes is currently on and come to a dead end.
“The nice part of coaching Patrick is, he’s already talented in all the run-around stuff,” Sheppard said. “To be able to move and set up, then throw the ball back across the field with plenty of arm and plenty of accuracy. He’s an extended play guy like [Ben] Roethlisberger in the NFL. When he moves, you think ‘I wish I kept him in the pocket.’ He can do that stuff already. He has a leg up on that. So what we need to do is make him a great drop thrower, and I think he’s coming along fine.”
It’s late afternoon at EXOS, and the weight room, which stretches almost the length of a football field, is quiet. Most of its previous occupants have retired to their hotel room across the street to rest up before another workout begins early tomorrow morning.
A lone treadmill begins whirring at the far right end of the gym. Mahomes stands atop it, wearing a weighted vest, eyes laser focused on the screen in front of him. He’s putting in a little extra time so he can lean up a bit, a move that will make him a little lighter and faster without taking away his physicality on the field. It’s a little extra effort on top of an already long training day, but Mahomes doesn’t mind. He doesn’t want to just break through the wall that has stunted so many spread quarterbacks before him. He wants to demolish it. And he’ll do whatever it takes to achieve that.
“I want to be ready Day 1 [in the NFL],” Mahomes said. “If I’m starting, if I’m a backup, whatever I am, I want to be an NFL professional football player and be able to get after it as much as I can.”
You can see the cracks in the wall already.