Patrick Mahomes’ response to this particular adversity will define KC Chiefs’ season

·7 min read
Charlie Riedel/AP

Patrick Mahomes took three weeks off.

Hung out with his wife and daughter. Played a little golf. Saw a tight-knit group of friends.

But there wasn’t much of anything in the way of playing football, training for football or even watching football.

For three weeks.

Twenty-one days.

He needed it. He is not outright saying that part, but we can connect some dots — the longest hiatus he took in years, however brief it might seem, came on the heels of one of the most difficult losses of his NFL career. That’s the prize for leading the Chiefs to these types of games annually — some of the results are going to sting.

Some will linger, too. The AFC Championship Game collapse has.

Into the ensuing days. Into the summer. Into training camp this month. And — guess what — it’s still here, the unmentionable but unavoidable.

“The guys saw,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “how hard it is to back-to-back-to-back this thing.”

It’s been a constant search for clues as to whether the Chiefs might move on from this — because the truth is many can’t. There’s a reason only one team in the last 49 seasons has turned a Super Bowl defeat one year into a championship ring the next.

Motivation? More often a hangover.

The Chiefs didn’t reach the Super Bowl a year ago — nobody needs to tell you that — but their crash was every bit as hard. An 18-point lead. The worst half of football their young quarterback has probably ever played.

That game — that result — is going to hover over portions of the 2022 season. Same as a Super Bowl defeat hovered over 2021. And, well, is this going to be some sort of an annual story? Analyzing how the Chiefs will bounce back? That was the initial plan for this column, in the interest of transparency.

There is no escaping how last year ended, no preventing its reminders from popping up from time to time. Maybe the biggest test will be a potential playoff game. (Will you feel safe with any lead in January? These guys are human, too.)

But in that search for some signs of how this might unfold, or how Mahomes in particular might handle it a bit differently than the Super Bowl Runner-Up Jinx a year earlier, I found one.

Actually, Andy Reid found one. His reaction to a question about this very topic tells us the response is genuine, though maybe you have to know Andy Reid, or at least have sat through enough of his news conferences, to fully appreciate it.

How has Mahomes responded to the team’s second-half collapse that cost the Chiefs a third straight trip to a Super Bowl?

“Phenomenal,” Reid replied, and I’m not sure I’d even finished the question before he interjected. “He’s all-in. He’s leading the charge.”

That’s about as much as he preferred to say, but when pressed for details, he exhausted the next 71 seconds. We’ll get to that very shortly, and then some examples from the quarterback himself as he embarks on a new stage of his career, but let’s start with a quick anecdote.

Reid believes he just completed a training camp at one of the most intense paces in the league. He’s famous (or infamous, depending how it might affect you) for difficult training camps. A day into it, new wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster felt it necessary to post on social media that it was one of the hardest practices of his NFL career.

Earlier that morning, Reid had remarked that it was a somewhat light day.

But some 16 practices into the camp, as the team opened the morning with stretching, there was Mahomes, quite literally skipping through the line of players. He didn’t even break stride as he smacked Frank Clark on the back side. He tugged on the back of the jersey of another teammate. He clapped and sprinted his way to the first drill.

A small clue.

In a big picture.

So, a portion of Reid’s 71-second reply: “I’d tell you every day, the ‘Be Great’ is back right there. And demanding that from the guys around him. He’s had energy every day. There hasn’t been a day where he doesn’t have energy out here.

“That’s a good foundation. It surely gets across the message to the new people — it doesn’t matter what side of the ball you’re on. When you look at the way Frank Clark, Chris Jones, Willie Gay, Juan Thornhill ... those guys that were here have said, ‘Look, we gotta take it to another level here.’”

We still don’t know how this will play out in terms of wins and losses by year’s end, but Reid has talked to his team often these past few weeks about having an edge. The Chiefs lost it at some point in that second half against Cincinnati, and the initial steps of preventing a repeat is to stranglehold that edge every day.

Mahomes is the leading example and then some. In the way Reid mentions that, it’s almost as though he too wondered if that’s the degree to which it would shake out.

This is only relevant, though, because it’s the latest example in a string of them. Let’s return to those three weeks. After that break, Mahomes joined Bobby Stroupe, his personal trainer since middle school, and began his offseason training program. He woke early in the morning for his workouts. A break for lunch. Then another physical activity in the afternoon, because, in his words, “I always try to do something in the afternoon so it’s not like I’m sitting around all day.”

A year ago, Mahomes had spent his summer rehabbing a turf toe injury that required surgery. He had to work out during the season instead of building a foundation before it, so he hit his year-best numbers on several markers in the playoffs.

This summer, he surpassed those measurements after only a couple of weeks — with things like the velocity of his rotational movements, his output on squats and other workouts, the speed of his deadlift, and on the list goes. Stroupe is meticulous with his evaluations.

The personal records are nice, but in the most relatable way, or maybe the only relatable way between many of us and Patrick Mahomes, he followed with the reasoning. It’s not to set the personal records in the weight room. It’s not even necessarily about out-working his peers.

Instead, it’s a fear of falling behind.

A fear of failure.

“It’s just kind of a thing where I feel like if I don’t do that,” he said, “I’m not getting any better.

“That’s more motivation for me than going and working out and the goal of I’m trying to bench press this or going to squat that. It’s that I know that I need to begin doing something to get myself better.”

Mahomes has reached this stage of his career — his days as the next big thing are long gone. He’s arrived. He’s the one being chased. Heck, the entire AFC West pushed all its chips into the middle of table on 2022, sick and tired of the Chiefs running roughshod over the division. The Bills are almost built specifically just to beat the Chiefs in the AFC. The fear of falling behind, in other words, is not unfounded.

But over the past two seasons, Mahomes has also reached another stage — where his failures are as magnified as his successes. Mahomes has appeared in four straight AFC Championship Games, but think back to his first. The Chiefs lost in overtime to the Patriots, and Mahomes put forth such a valiant effort against the final link of a dynasty that Tom Brady stopped by the Chiefs locker room after the game to shake his hand one more time.

Few talked about that loss as some sort of hiccup. They were right there. A year later, Mahomes was smooching the Lombardi Trophy.

But in the ensuing two seasons, the success has been expected as much from on the outside as the inside. It’s become Super Bowl or bust, and when it’s bust, there are no shortage of people who see it.

That’s why the response is of such magnitude. It’s not strictly how he reacts this year. More on-field adversity awaits, and it could come sooner rather than later.

Well, maybe.