After just one player tested positive for COVID-19 in the latest round of monitoring, the NFL season will kick off on schedule Thursday night with the Houston Texans at the Kansas City Chiefs. The game is a rematch of January’s AFC divisional playoff — one of the more thrilling games of the most recent season. A quick refresher for those who’ve forgotten: Houston jumped out to a commanding 24-0 second-quarter lead at Arrowhead Stadium, only to lose 51-31 in what would be the largest comeback in Chiefs franchise history.
In the months since — and despite a pandemic that threatens to slash the NFL salary cap for the first time since 2011 — Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Houston’s Deshaun Watson signed massive, multi-year contract extensions that made them the two highest-paid players in the league. The two quarterbacks were taken within two picks of each other in the 2017 draft. Mahomes, who was drafted slightly earlier than Watson, has won a league MVP award and a Super Bowl, and according to Pro Football Focus has a 21.4 percent shot to win a second MVP as the season begins.
Yet despite Mahomes’s incredible early success, Watson’s regular-season passing production is surprisingly comparable to that of the 2018 MVP. Mahomes has completed 65.9 percent of his passes, averaging 8.6 yards per attempt, and tossed 76 touchdowns so far in his career. Watson sports a 66.8 career completion percentage, 8.1 yards per attempt and 71 touchdown passes. If we break out each passer’s performance by the type of coverage they faced, their performances continue to align generally in most measures. Mahomes seems to be better than Watson against Cover 4 zone coverage, but it’s one of the more infrequently used defenses in the NFL, so our sample is small.
|man-to-man, cover 0|
|man-to-man, cover 1|
|man-to-man, cover 2|
|zone cover 2|
|zone cover 3|
|zone cover 4|
The notable exception to the relative parity of Watson and Mahomes is their sack rate. Some have argued that Watson’s higher career sack total is proof of a more challenging team environment, but research strongly suggests that sacks are something over which a QB has the most control. If Watson takes more sacks, it isn’t necessarily evidence that his offensive line does a worse job of protecting him. In 2019, the Chiefs’ and Texans’ offensive lines earned nearly identical pass blocking grades from Pro Football Focus, yet Watson took more than twice as many sacks as Mahomes did. If we’re looking for a differentiator in team environment, particularly for last season, we should probably look elsewhere. Happily, we don’t have to look too far.
There is strong evidence that Mahomes does benefit from a better team environment than Watson in one important way: coach Andy Reid’s genius in designing screen plays. With Reid creating and calling plays, nine of Mahomes’s 76 career touchdowns have come on screens. This compares with just three touchdowns for Watson and accounts for the entire differential in the two QBs’ career TD totals.
We should probably expect a screen or two Thursday night. Reid particularly likes dialing them up in the red zone. Take, for example, a screen he called last year in Week 6 against the Texans at the 14-yard line. On the play, which went for a touchdown, three receivers lined up to the left with tight end Travis Kelce on the right side of the formation. The first and second receivers forced the defense to flow to the left, away from the design of the play. Meanwhile, the third receiver ran directly at the single high safety to try to occupy him. Finally, Kelce (No. 87) runs his route toward an area of the field that puts him in position to pick the safety if the safety is able to make a play on the running back catching the screen pass.
Along with good patience by Mahomes in delivering the ball and excellent execution by the offensive line, the play design gave running back Damien Williams a massive amount of open grass in a part of the field where space is rare.
Reid also signed a reported six-year contract extension in the offseason, keeping Mahomes and Reid together for the foreseeable future. Perhaps more than any other factor, it’s their partnership that has the Chiefs favored by 9 points in Thursday night’s rematch, and Kansas City a favorite to return the Super Bowl.