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What Makes Patrick Mahomes So Great

We know which athletes are great, but we know less about what makes them great. To help, FiveThirtyEight is compiling The Greatness Files, a compendium of, well, what makes great athletes great. Next up in our series: some guy named Patrick Mahomes.

I grew up a Joe Montana fan. I was 2 years old when San Francisco hired Bill Walsh from Stanford and drafted Montana with the last pick in the third round.1 One of my earliest memories is wandering through a stranger’s house while our entire neighborhood took to the streets to celebrate the 49ers’ win in Super Bowl XVI — a community of sports fans unburdening itself after years of futility. And perhaps the most exciting part of that first Super Bowl win was the tantalizing prospect of more to follow.

Knowing your team possesses the league’s best player — at the sport’s most important position — can be intoxicating. You expect to win every game. These days, it’s Kansas City Chiefs fans who know what this feels like. Patrick Mahomes — a starter for only three years, yet already a Super Bowl champion — is the greatest quarterback of this generation. Under Mahomes, the Chiefs have never lost more than four games in the regular season and have finished in first place in the AFC West every year since he became the starter. Mahomes is just 25, yet he already owns one league MVP and may bag another once this season is complete.

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So, Mahomes is great. But you likely knew that already. It’s what makes Mahomes great that’s so revolutionary. He has the hardest job on the field and makes that job’s hardest tasks routine — so routine that he’s one of the most consistent quarterbacks of all time. Good quarterbacks excel at the mundane stuff; Mahomes excels at the seemingly impossible.

The hardest passes in pro football are on third down. If an offense is throwing on third, it typically needs to gain a lot of yards, and third down and long screams: “A pass is coming!” Yet since 2017 Mahomes is second only to Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson in third-down QBR. And while the Ravens’ Jackson does most of his third down damage with his legs, Mahomes dissects teams with his arm, averaging 9.5 yards per pass attempt with 32 touchdowns, 6 interceptions and 27 sacks on 433 dropbacks.

But that kind of success isn’t just limited to third downs. Mahomes is generally excellent in any situation when teams know he’s passing. His success seems inevitable.

Mahomes’s mastery at a high difficulty level isn’t just evident in the numbers. You can also see it in how he anticipates his receivers’ improvisational scrambles. Whether it’s via flashy no-look passes or simply delivering the ball to a spot on the field well before his receivers are open, time and again Mahomes has shown an uncanny ability to know where his receivers will run their option routes. Sometimes he’ll throw before his receiver is even sure where he’s going.

But even when he and his receiver aren’t on the same page Mahomes still has the ability to save the play.

In the aborted pass to Tyreek Hill on third down and five shown above, Mahomes somehow holds his fire at the last moment, contorts his body in the air — confounding blitzing Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey — and then escapes the pocket to his left. Mahomes then charges the line of scrimmage, causing a defender to abandon his coverage, and throws a pass back across his body for a first down, making Humphrey nearly rage-quit in the process.

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Underneath all the flash and sizzle of his unorthodox passing is an arm strong and accurate enough to rival the best in the league. Mahomes has literally thrown a ball out of Arrowhead Stadium, and his raw power is matched by a deft touch.

Deep throws are also some of the hardest in the NFL because they leave little room for error in accuracy while simultaneously requiring pro-level arm strength. Over his career, Mahomes has been dominant on deep passes — particularly over the middle of the field.

And Mahomes can make deep throws from clean pockets or under duress. On the deep completion along the right sideline to Tyreek Hill shown below, Mahomes rolls to his right, attracting the attention of a nearby linebacker. Despite throwing on the run while under pressure — and leaving his feet on the throw — Mahomes leads Hill past the numbers and drops an arcing pass right into his outstretched hands.

Because of the breadth of his skillset and the depth of his natural talent, Mahomes just does not have bad games very often. According to our QB Elo metric, 43 of Mahomes’s first 50 career starts rated above average, a level of consistency nearly unmatched in recorded NFL history. Since 1950 — our first year with data — only Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas had a higher share of above-average games over their first 50 starts.

Mahomes almost never has a bad game

In a quarterback’s first 50 starts, highest share that was better than average according to FiveThirtyEight’s QB Elo ratings, 1950-2020

Seasons Above-Avg. Games
Quarterback From To Total Share of Starts Avg Start*
Dan Marino 1983 1986 44 88% +124.9
Johnny Unitas 1956 1960 44 88 117.1
Patrick Mahomes 2017 2020 43 86 129.0
Jeff Garcia 1999 2002 42 84 108.1
Kurt Warner 1999 2001 40 80 109.2
Daunte Culpepper 2000 2003 39 78 80.2
Peyton Manning 1998 2000 39 78 76.1
Joe Montana 1979 1983 38 76 83.3
Milt Plum 1957 1961 38 76 60.2
Roger Staubach 1969 1975 38 76 75.4
Len Dawson 1957 1965 37 74 65.9
Deshaun Watson 2017 2020 36 72 64.4
Mark Rypien 1988 1991 36 72 71.9
Aaron Rodgers 2008 2010 35 70 93.7
Daryle Lamonica 1963 1969 35 70 74.8
Donovan McNabb 1999 2002 35 70 51.1
Matthew Stafford 2009 2013 35 70 43.5
Joe Theismann 1976 1980 34 68 34.1
Tony Romo 2006 2009 34 68 65.0
Andrew Luck 2012 2014 33 66 39.0

*As measured by QB Elo rating relative to a league-average starter.

There have been 23 perfect games pitched in Major League Baseball’s 150 year history. The NFL equivalent is even more rare: the perfect season. A perfect season is one in which a QB has no games in which he’s below average. In 2018 — his first season as a starter! — Mahomes pitched one of just eight perfect seasons in the past 70 years, joining a list that includes Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas and Dan Marino — as well as sure-fire future Canton inductees Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

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All seasons* where an NFL (or AFL) quarterback started at least 10 games and never had a below-average QB Elo performance since 1950

Above-Avg. Games
Quarterback season Starts Total Share of Starts Avg Start**
Dan Marino 1984 19 19 100% +186.5
Patrick Mahomes 2018 18 18 100 133.8
Daunte Culpepper 2004 18 18 100 143.5
Peyton Manning 1999 17 17 100 99.9
Aaron Rodgers 2011 16 16 100 165.5
Colin Kaepernick 2012 10 10 100 127.1
Johnny Unitas 1958 10 10 100 129.3
Y.A. Tittle 1953 10 10 100 131.1

*Including playoffs.

**As measured by QB Elo rating relative to a league-average starter.

Perfection is a hard act to follow, but when you don’t have bad games, the numbers start to pile up, and Mahomes’s sustained game-to-game greatness has led to gaudy stats. Two years after his perfect season, Mahomes’s consistency has manifested itself in the all-time record books. This season, when he qualified for inclusion by meeting minimum attempt requirements, Mahomes instantly became the NFL leader in a slew of key QB metrics, including passing yards per game, adjusted yards per pass attempt,2 passer rating, and QBR.3

Go ahead, pick a stat. Mahomes is probably No. 1.

NFL passing rate stats in which Patrick Mahomes is now the all-time leader

Passing Yards per Game Net Yards per Pass
1 Mahomes 307.7 1 Mahomes 7.81
2 Brees 280.0 2 P. Manning 7.23
3 Luck 275.2 3 Romo 7.09
4 Stafford 273.4 4 Warner 7.08
5 Ryan 272.0 5 Brees 7.05
Adjusted Yards per Pass Lowest Interception Rate
1 Mahomes 9.10 T1 Mahomes 1.4
2 Watson 8.58 T1 Rodgers 1.4
3 Rodgers 8.42 3 Prescott 1.7
4 Wilson 8.22 T4 Kaepernick 1.8
5 Graham 7.99 T4 Brady 1.8
Passer Rating Total QBR*
1 Mahomes 108.7 1 Mahomes 80.3
2 Watson 104.5 2 P. Manning 76.1
3 Rodgers 103.9 3 Brady 72.7
4 Wilson 101.7 4 Jackson 71.8
5 Brees 98.7 5 Brees 71.2

*Calculated since the 2006 season.

Source: PRO-FOOTBALL-reference.com

Of course, comparisons with players who have already hung up their cleats are inherently unfair — Mahomes is just 25, and his career decline is nowhere in sight. But the speed with which he ascended the all-time charts in so many important categories is remarkable. And when we combine perhaps the four most important quarterback metrics into an all-encompassing advanced passing index, we find Mahomes in rare company: on a list with only Montana, my childhood hero, among passers who were at least two-thirds of a standard deviation better than an average QB in essentially every statistical category.

Showtime and Joe Cool have no weaknesses

NFL quarterbacks since 1969 with an advanced passing index* of at least 110 in four component categories: Yards per attempt, touchdown rate, interception rate and sack rate

Advanced Passing Index*
Quarterback Yds/Att. TD% Int% Sack% Adj. Net YPA
Patrick Mahomes 122 123 116 121 130
Joe Montana 111 111 119 111 121

*Advanced passing indices are measured relative to the league average, where 100 is average and a standard deviation is +/-15 points.

Mahomes may be the most talented quarterback the NFL has ever seen. We’ve watched players like Montana and Steve Young excel under a Hall of Fame head coach, in systems tailored to their strengths. But Montana lacked Mahomes’s raw physical gifts, while Young began his career late, spending four years as a backup. There are no weaknesses in Mahomes’s skill set, in his athletic ability or in his situation — and he’s still young. The expectations for the rest of his career are enormous, but the chances of failure seem impossibly small. If he remains healthy, it’s no stretch to predict that Mahomes has the potential to match the longevity of a player like Tom Brady and, in the process, redefine excellence at the QB position. That sounds difficult — bordering on impossible — but Mahomes is good at that kind of thing.


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Footnotes

  1. Pittsburgh had to forfeit their third round selection that year for the heinous crime of “practicing with pads on.”

  2. Which accounts for sacks and interceptions.

  3. Which accounts for rushing.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Ryan Best is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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