As recently as 18 years ago, the going rate for an NFL franchise was $545 million.
In 2020, that figure is only slightly above the price tag on the consensus best quarterback in the league. Last week the Kansas City Chiefs signed Patrick Mahomes to a 12-year contract extension worth as much as $503 million – a staggering figure that falls a mere $42 million short of the Atlanta Falcons’ sale price in 2002.
What has Mahomes done in two seasons as the Chiefs’ starter to earn his unprecedented paycheck?
During that span, Mahomes collected an array of accolades, highlighted by his 2018 MVP Award and last season’s Super Bowl MVP. His passing stats are sparkling. Mahomes has yet to reach the minimum of 1,500 pass attempts to rank among the league’s official career leaders; but among QBs who have thrown at least 1,000 passes, he is the all-time leader in passer rating (108.9) and ranks second in touchdown/interception ratio (4.22, trailing only Aaron Rodgers’ 4.33).
While passer rating and TD/INT ratio are statistics that favor current quarterbacks in today’s passer-friendly NFL, another Mahomes statistic hearkens back to Hall of Famers from the distant past. His career average of 8.56 yards per pass ranks second among QBs with at least 1,000 attempts – and the other three passers in the top four all retired at least 60 years ago.
For comparison, the chart below shows the NFL’s all-time leaders in yards per attempt, and includes their completion percentages.
NFL All-Time – Highest Career Yards/Pass Attempt
(minimum 1,000 attempts)
|Norm Van Brocklin||1949-60||53.6||8.16|
The disparity in completion percentage is striking, with Mahomes at least 10 percentage points higher than the three legends. In fact, if we use the 1,000-pass minimum, Mahomes’ 65.9% completion rate ranks fifth in league history. His accuracy is uncanny for a QB who throws deep so often.
To illustrate that point, consider Mahomes’ numbers on passes more than 20 yards downfield over his two seasons as the starter in KC. His average was 3.2 yards per attempt ahead of the leaguewide mark!
Mahomes, 2018-19 – Passes of 21+ Air Yards
(with NFL averages)
*highest in NFL (minimum 75 attempts)
Mahomes also led the NFL in touchdown passes (25) and yards (2,222) on those deep throws over the past two seasons. In Week 2 of the 2019 campaign at Oakland, he threw four touchdown passes of more than 20 air yards in a single quarter. Mahomes finished the game with 257 yards and those four TDs on deep throws; it had been 25 years since a quarterback (Dan Marino) had amassed at least 250 yards and four touchdowns on passes over 20 yards downfield.
Mahomes’ combination of success on long passes and overall accuracy is lethal – and it’s rarely found in the NFL. In addition to air yards on each throw, Stats Perform tracks quarterbacks’ Well Thrown Percentage – simply the rate at which their passes are on target. Over the past two seasons, Mahomes averaged 9.03 air yards per attempt and had a Well Thrown Percentage of 79.6%. Of the league’s 33 QBs to throw at least 500 passes over the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he was the only one to average better than 9.0 air yards per attempt with a Well Thrown Percentage over 79.
If you watched much of Mahomes over the past two seasons – and anyone with an interest in the NFL has – you’re surely not surprised at how well he grades out on deep passes. But that’s far from the only area in which he excels. It’s hard to overlook that since 2018, Mahomes has thrown 14 TD passes without an interception when targeting receivers behind the line of scrimmage. No other QB has as many as 10 such touchdown passes over that span, and none has as many as seven without throwing an interception.
Many of those passes behind the line of scrimmage were screens, and only Jared Goff was more productive on screen passes over the past two seasons than the Chiefs’ young star.
NFL, 2018-19 – Most Passing Yards on Screens
Success on short passes serves Mahomes well in the red zone, as his numbers in ’18 and ’19 illustrate: 46 TD passes and only two interceptions from inside the opposition 20-yard line. Figure in his postseason red-zone success – 10 TDs, no interceptions – and that’s an NFL-best 56 total TD passes on red-zone plays in the two years. He’s superb both inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and on deep throws from everywhere else on the field.
How is a defensive coordinator supposed to stop Mahomes?
By getting pressure on him, right? As well as the best quarterbacks perform when given time to throw, all of them are far less effective with defenders in their face. That general principle does apply to Mahomes, but he is better able to withstand pressure than the league’s other signal-callers.
First, let’s dispel the myth that last season’s Super Bowl MVP is a running quarterback. While he certainly is fleet afoot, Mahomes ranked ninth among QBs over the last two seasons in both rushing attempts (103) and yards (490). Twelve different quarterbacks had a least one run of 30-plus yards in that span; Mahomes did not. But while he did not pile up overwhelming yards on the ground, Mahomes proved to be very elusive at avoiding sacks. Defenders tackled him behind the line on just over 10 percent of the pass plays on which they pressured him. That was the lowest rate in the league.
NFL, 2018-19 – Lowest Sack Percentage When Pressured
(minimum 250 pass plays under pressure; includes forced scrambles)
|Rank||Player||Team||Sack% When Pressured|
While elder statesmen like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers often avoided sacks with short passes to running backs, producing smaller gains, Mahomes was far more dangerous. Considering the net yards on all pass plays on which he was pressured – whether they resulted in passes, rushes or sacks – Mahomes produced 6.28 yards per play. Only Rivers, at 6.31, topped that figure.
Rivers’ game over the past two seasons was heavily dependent on short passes to running backs, but Mahomes had the benefit of a far more potent weapon. Travis Kelce topped all tight ends and ranked fifth leaguewide with 2,565 receiving yards in 2018-19. Kelce was the epitome of a “tough cover” at his position, beating his defender on 69.8% of the passes on which he was targeted, topping all tight ends over that span (minimum 60 targets).
Kelce is part of a strong group of receivers that Mahomes has at his disposal – and has a strong chance to keep intact. While Kelce is 31, KC’s top four wide receivers from the 2019 season are all 27 or younger and all will return to the team in 2020. That speedy group contributed to Mahomes’ NFL-high 4,623 yards after catch by his receivers over the last two years. Last season, rookie Mecole Hardman averaged 20.7 yards per catch, tops among receivers with at least 25 receptions (more than half of those were yards after catch).
The combination of Mahomes’ diverse game and his young receiving corps brings much optimism that he will ultimately make the $503 million money well spent for the Chiefs. That said, it’s hard to avoid the question, hypothetical as it is, as to whether he can be the “best ever.” Looking far into the future, the theory here is that achieving such a moniker, or even being in the running for it, would require that Mahomes win multiple Super Bowls, maybe even approaching the six that Tom Brady has claimed.
To put in mildly, that’s a tall order, even for the best quarterback in the game. In NFL history, there have been 13 instances of QBs throwing 40-plus TD passes in a season. All of those occurred in the Super Bowl era, but in only one of those cases did that player win the Super Bowl. That QB was Kurt Warner with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, and it was also the last time that a quarterback who won league MVP honors capped his season with a Lombardi Trophy.
That’s an awful lot of history for Mahomes to overcome before he can be ranked among the all-time greats, but we can’t wait to watch him try.
Data modeling by Greg Gifford and Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads; research support provided by Jacob Jaffe and Josiah Sukumaran.