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Yes, Patrick Mahomes Is Struggling. But No QB Avoided His First Career Slump Longer.

Although the Kansas City Chiefs beat the New York Giants on Monday to bring their record to an even 4-4, it’s undeniable that quarterback Patrick Mahomes is in a slump. Since Week 5, the normally unstoppable K.C. signal-caller ranks 24th out of 33 qualified passers in completion percentage, 26th in net yards per attempt, 26th in passer rating, 27th in turnovers per play and 27th in Total QBR. Those are incredibly un-Mahomesian numbers for a guy who ranked either at or near the top of the league in all of those categories since 2018, his first year as the Chiefs’ starter. Not coincidentally, the usually explosive Kansas City offense is averaging a mere 18.5 points per game over the same stretch, which is tied for 24th in the league.

All quarterbacks — even the all-time greats — go through bad periods if they play the game long enough. But if anyone seemed immune to this reality, it was Mahomes. Before K.C.’s humbling 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 7, Mahomes had recorded above-average performances in 50 of his first 60 career starts,1 according to our QB Elo rating metric — and before his mediocre performance Monday night, he’d never experienced below-average outings in back-to-back games. Up to that point, the idea of a “Mahomes slump” was largely just a thought experiment.

Mahomes’s run to start his career -- without back-to-back subpar games until starts No. 61 and 62 -- is totally unprecedented in NFL history. Since 1950, that’s the deepest into a career any quarterback went without having two consecutive below-average QB Elo starts: Dan Marino is No. 2, with 51 starts before suffering his second-straight subpar game, followed by Joe Montana (34 starts), Daunte Culpepper (28 starts), Len Dawson (26 starts) and Kurt Warner (26 starts). In part, this slump for Mahomes only stands out because he had been so unyieldingly brilliant for practically the entirety of his career.

And such slumps did go away fairly quickly for some of those other QBs. Marino responded to his first set of back-to-back below-average starts by going 28 more starts in a row without another pair of consecutive subpar games, and Montana went an incredible 73 more starts in a row -- or more than four-and-a-half seasons. But others weren’t so lucky. After going his first 28 starts without a set of back-to-back bad ones, it took Culpepper only three more starts before suffering another set. Dawson, too, went only eight more starts before having another pair of bad ones, and Warner did it again after 11 more starts. Once a QB is shown to not be bulletproof, it suddenly seems easier to coax rough games out of them.

Still, even if they were no longer immune to the odd clunker now and again, Culpepper, Dawson and Warner all went on to post multiple great seasons after their first tastes of poor play. It’s likely that their initial slumps simply reflected a combination of defenses adjusting to their early success, weaknesses being exploited in the team around them and plain old regression to the mean -- all of which have factored into Mahomes’s struggles as well. Now midway through Year 4 of his starting career, not even Mahomes could have gone indefinitely without hitting some kind of rough patch. (And it’s worth remembering that, even after the down stretch, Mahomes still ranks 12th among qualified quarterbacks in QBR this season, in the same neighborhood as Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow.)

Perhaps an interesting parallel for Mahomes and his struggles is Aaron Rodgers, whose Green Bay Packers are set to face the Chiefs this week -- although Rodgers will miss the game after he tested positive for COVID-19 (and the Packers may have broken health and safety protocols for him). Rodgers didn’t start his career off quite as uniformly stellar as Mahomes; in his first 18 career starts, he’d already had three sets of back-to-back poor games. But once he hit his stride, Rodgers was just about as dangerous as Mahomes has been so far in his career. From early in the 2009 season until early in 2012, Rodgers averaged a QB Elo value 121.1 points better than an average starter (Mahomes’s career mark is +109.8 per game), and he had separate stretches of 19 starts, and then 31 more, without back-to-back subpar performances. Rodgers even had a 27-start streak without consecutive duds a few years later, from early 2014 until midway through the 2015 season, and piled up another 26 straight from his last game of the 2015 playoffs through 2017.

But the latter era of Rodgers’s career also saw periods of uncharacteristically mediocre play that sparked conversations about whether No. 12 still belonged among the league’s elite QBs. If you thought Mahomes’s current slump is alarming, consider that Rodgers delivered below-average production in six of his final nine starts of the 2015 season (playoffs included), and had a stretch of 13 subpar games in 22 starts (including in seven of eight at one point) from mid-2018 into late 2019. All Rodgers did in response to that, however, was win MVP honors in 2020 with his best season in years, delivering above-average performances in 16 of 18 starts.

Rodgers has had hot streaks — and slumps — before

Season-by-season QB Elo value summary and longest streaks of consecutive above- and below-average starts in Aaron Rodgers’s career as an NFL starting quarterback, 2008-2021

Longest Streaks of…
Season Starts Avg. QB Elo* Above-Avg. Starts Below-Avg. Starts
2008 16 +62.7 5 2
2009 17 +98.6 5 2
2010 19 +103.8 6 3
2011 16 +160.0 16
2012 18 +80.2 5 2
2013 10 +53.8 2 1
2014 18 +108.3 10 1
2015 18 +12.7 4 4
2016 19 +101.5 9 1
2017 7 +21.5 5 2
2018 16 +37.2 6 2
2019 18 +28.7 3 4
2020 18 +106.8 8 1
2021 8 +16.2 6 1

*FiveThirtyEight’s game-by-game QB Elo value metric, relative to an average starter that season.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The reasons for Rodgers’s up-and-down performances over the years were varied, though they centered in no small measure around the ebbs and flows of his supporting cast. Mahomes has always had an outstanding one of those, dating back to his first season as a starter, and it still seems plenty good in theory. So in that sense, there’s reason to think Mahomes’s problems won’t continue for as long as Rodgers’s did. But if Rodgers, whose talent might only be rivaled by Mahomes among all-time QBs, can go through prolonged periods of ordinary play over the course of his career (only to return to near-peak form later on), we shouldn’t be surprised if Mahomes is capable of similar down (and up) stretches as well.

Rodgers’s absence from the two teams’ Sunday matchup, thrusting backup Jordan Love into the starting role, should help Kansas City’s odds of stringing together back-to-back wins for the first time since last year’s playoffs, even though it has no bearing on Mahomes’s expectations against the Green Bay defense. On the offensive side of the ball, K.C. will need to cut down on the turnovers and for tight end Travis Kelce to do more damage after being held to just 27 yards against New York. But they’ll also need Mahomes to break out of the first real slump he’s ever had in the pros -- something that every QB, no matter how talented, must face sooner or later.

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Footnotes

  1. Regular season and postseason.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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