Patrick Mahomes took the league by storm when he became the starting quarterback in Kansas City, but it was the year in which he didn’t play that may have played the biggest role in his superstar trajectory.
Mahomes’ memorable first season as the Chiefs’ top quarterback saw him win NFL Most Valuable Player and nearly lead Kansas City to the Super Bowl. A year later, he won a Lombardi Trophy with a furious comeback in Super Bowl LIV. And it all came after spending a season learning behind Alex Smith.
That period in football history is being revisited now because another quarterback — Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill — stated publicly that it’s not his job to mentor his eventual replacement, rookie Malik Willis. Tannehill’s stance is logical, of course, but it’s important to note Chiefs coach Andy Reid never expected Smith to help Mahomes, either.
“I told Alex, ‘Man, go out and have the greatest year you’ve ever had, and you don’t have to teach Pat,'” Reid told Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd last week. “‘We’re here to do that as coaches. You’re out there to go produce and win games and do the best you possibly can for your team.’ And so that’s the way we approached it with him.
“Now Alex, by nature, though, was the greatest thing that ever happened to Pat Mahomes … Alex let Patrick into his world without being forced (into) it … So it worked out (perfectly). I didn’t have to say a whole lot other than, ‘You go play and go win games, let’s go win a championship, and do the best you possibly can do at the quarterback position.'”
The 2017 season allowed Mahomes to relax comfortably on the sidelines while soaking up as much wisdom as possible from Smith, who turned in a career year, completing 67.5 percent of his passes for 4,042 yards, a 26-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 104.7 passer rating. Those numbers were enough to earn Smith a trip to the Pro Bowl while the quarterback led the Chiefs to an AFC West title and a playoff appearance.
A year later, the Chiefs raised their ceiling with Mahomes, and they haven’t looked back.
Tannehill has found himself in the crosshairs of critics since his honest response regarding his own future with the Titans, but perhaps we should turn down the heat on the veteran quarterback who had to complete his own comeback to reverse his NFL fortunes. Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota in Tennessee in 2019, earning Pro Bowl honors while also helping the Titans make an unlikely run to the AFC Championship Game where they fell to — you guessed it — Mahomes’ Chiefs.
Since then, he’s been the entrenched starter in Tennessee, but his own struggles (including a three-interception outing in a Divisional Round loss to Cincinnati) forced the Titans to consider a future without Tannehill for which they prepared by selecting Willis in the 2022 NFL Draft. Willis is seen as a player who has the physical tools to thrive, but could use a year spent on the bench learning behind a veteran in a process similar to the one that helped Mahomes quickly become a superstar.
Understandably, Tannehill isn’t about to help expedite the process of replacing him by sharing his secrets with Willis. Instead, he’ll go about performing as Tennessee’s returning starter and let everything play out from there.
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