With the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs upon us, one thing seems clear.
The paradigm shift in the NFL is complete.
Seven of the eight head coaches left standing have offensive backgrounds. Beyond that, look at the quarterbacks involved. While all eight remaining quarterbacks can operate from the pocket, their ability to create off-structure, whether through their feet, their legs, or a combination of both, stands out. In addition, using the quarterback as a run threat is a big part of this season, as three of the quarterbacks left standing – Daniel Jones, Jalen Hurts, and Josh Allen – all had more than 120 rushing attempts this season.
They also come from a variety of offensive schools of thought, with backgrounds in Air Raid systems, West Coast offenses, and more.
At the forefront of this paradigm shift might be Patrick Mahomes, who oddly enough is the “elder statesman” of the AFC group of quarterbacks. Coming out of Texas Tech, where he ran an Air Raid system, he faced questions about how well he would adapt to the pro game. As we have seen over the past few seasons, the answer was simple: The pro game would adapt to him. As Mahomes carved up the NFL while running an amped-up version of Andy Reid’s West Coast offense, the league began to adapt, and more Air Raid quarterbacks followed.
But adapting, and evolving, is part of life in the NFL. An often repeated phrase around league circles is this: “Adapt or die.” Eventually, teams will catch up to what you are doing schematically, or rosters will change, and you will have to find a new approach.
Or success will leave you behind.
What we have seen over the past season-plus from Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense is perhaps the next step in their evolution.
During the 2018 season, Mahomes’ first full-time year as a starting quarterback, he was among the league leaders in Intended Air Yards, averaging 9.2 IAY per attempt according to Next Gen Stats. That number was 8.6 the following season, and 8.5 during the 2020 campaign.
Last year, that number dipped even more, dropping to 7.3. That was the seventh-lowest among qualified passers a season ago. This year, Mahomes averaged 7.5 IAY per attempt, placing him right in the middle of the pack. It also tied him with the quarterback he will see on the other side of the field Saturday, Trevor Lawrence.
It would be easy to tie this to the departure of Tyreek Hill for the sunny shores of South Beach, but this evolution began last season and is a response to what defenses are doing around the league. As has been well-documented, defenses are leaning into two-high coverages, trying to limit explosive plays, and daring teams to run the football.
Beyond that, defenses have also incorporated more drop-eight coverages into their call sheets over the past few seasons. If NFL offenses are going to rely on throwing the ball, and fold in some Air Raid concepts into their playbooks, then it makes sense that defenses would adjust with some of the concepts that teams are using on Saturdays to slow those offenses down.
For example, according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, last regular season Mahomes attempted 62 passes against a drop-eight coverage, second-most in the NFL. Only Tom Brady, with 66, attempted more. On those 62 throws, Mahomes completed 33 of them for 321 yards and 2 touchdowns, along with 2 interceptions.
Mahomes also posted an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of just 3.9 on those throws, which was 27th among qualified passers.
This came to a head in the AFC Championship Game a year ago. In the second half of that game, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo leaned into drop eight coverages. All told, during that game Mahomes attempted 15 passes against drop-eight coverage, completing 8 for just 77 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception.
That interception? It came early in overtime, setting the stage for the Bengals’ win:
How Mahomes and the Chiefs would adapt to these coverages was a massive storyline entering the 2022 regular season, particularly with the departure of Hill to Miami. Without the threat of Hill stretching those coverages, how would the Chiefs handle those coverages this season?
As you might expect, during the regular season Mahomes attempted 63 passes against eight in coverage, the most in the NFL, according to SIS. How did he fare? He hit on 38 of those throws for 549 yards and 4 touchdowns, against 3 interceptions. That added up to an ANY/A of 6.9, a big jump over last season’s number – and the number against the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game – and it placed Mahomes 19th in the league.
Of course, part of the success this year against drop-eight came courtesy of Mahomes delivering some “Mahomes Magic.” His ability to escape the pocket, extend plays, and make throws to any area of the field from any platform is a true weapon against all coverages, including drop-eight schemes. Plays like this freakish throw against the Las Vegas Raiders back in Week 5 are a prime example:
But there was also an element of patience to his success against drop-eight in 2022. Take this completion against the Buffalo Bills in Week 6, where Mahomes gets to the out route from rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore late in the down:
Or this play against the Denver Broncos, where Mahomes buys time in the pocket, and gets to Jerick McKinnon on a deep in-breaking route late in the play:
Even a completion like this one, a short connection with Travis Kelce for just four yards, shows how Mahomes has refined his game against these coverages. The Los Angeles Chargers drop eight into coverage, but Mahomes takes the quick stick route to his tight end early in the play, putting the Chiefs into a manageable third-down situation:
Now, perhaps Mahomes’ improvement against drop-eight coverages this season should not be a surprise. After all, recall his college days, running the Air Raid at Texas Tech. He saw a lot of drop eight during his final college season, back in 2016. That year, according to SIS charting data, Mahomes attempted 164 passes against drop-eight coverages, the third most in college football.
How did he fare? Mahomes hit on 106 of those throws for 1,375 yards and 9 touchdowns, against just 3 interceptions. That was good for an ANY/A of 8.1.
Now, in case you were wondering when the Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars met back in Week 10, Jacksonville rolled out drop eight on a few different plays.
Mahomes hit on all five of his throws for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns, without throwing an interception.
One of the biggest questions facing the Chiefs entering 2022 was how their offense would adapt to what teams threw at them last season.
It seems they’ve done just fine.