A strange and discomfiting phenomenon has infiltrated Kansas City Chiefs games this season: Their quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, has been throwing the football to players not on his team.
He has thrown it to mythical creatures (Giants, Titans) and birds (Eagles, Ravens), frontiersmen (Bills, Cowboys) and Footballers (Washington). In all, Mahomes has accounted for 11 interceptions — as many as during the 2019 and 2020 regular seasons combined, and one away from the total he threw in 2018, his first season as a starter.
It’s also as many as, sigh, Sam Darnold has tossed this season, and more than Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield and Daniel Jones, none of whom are considered especially vigilant protectors of the ball. Ryan Tannehill, who has been intercepted 13 times, leads the N.F.L. in that category.
Across his rocket-fueled career, Mahomes has tended to defy time and space and all good sense by attempting — and completing — passes that other quarterbacks wouldn’t try, and has done so without suffering punitive consequences: In each of the last two seasons, only Aaron Rodgers had a lower interception rate.
All these interceptions, part of Mahomes’s first extended slump since becoming Kansas City’s starter in 2018, have caused varying degrees of angst among the team and its fans. But a deeper look reveals he is only partly to blame for the surge of giveaways.
2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis
He has had fewer big-time throws.
Mahomes’s interceptions seem worse — or at least more conspicuous — because of how Kansas City’s offense struggled during the first half of the season.
Pro Football Focus has a statistic it calls Turnover-Worthy Plays that accounts for passes that have a strong chance of being intercepted or for times when a quarterback demonstrates poor ball security. Mahomes’s rate this season is 3 percent (about the N.F.L. average), which hardly deviates from that of other seasons: 3.2 in 2020 and 2018, 2.5 in 2019.
Mahomes, though, has thrown a far lower percentage of what Pro Football Focus deems Big Time Throws — passes with excellent location and timing, and, often, thrown deeper downfield and into tighter spaces. Only 3.1 percent of his throws this season have been considered Big Time, compared with 7.4 in 2020, 5.7 in 2019 and 7.8 in 2018.
Defenses have loaded up against him.
The main reason for the decline of explosive pass plays is that opponents have been deploying variations of two-high-safety coverage, taking away the deep crossing routes that Kansas City loves and daring the Chiefs to run. That tactic discourages Mahomes from throwing downfield and forces the team, which lacks a credible running threat, to play a more methodical style.
“The theory behind it is that sooner or later you’re going to make a mistake or become impatient,” the former N.F.L. safety Matt Bowen, now an analyst for ESPN, said in a telephone interview. “You’ve seen that from Kansas City, because it’s hard to go 12 plays. It’s hard to do that as a play caller. It’s hard to be patient as a quarterback.”
As a result, Mahomes has averaged just 4.9 air yards per completion, tied for the second fewest in the league, according to Pro Football Reference.
After Kansas City’s 27-3 loss at Tennessee in Week 7, Mahomes acknowledged the challenge of playing more deliberately, saying he had to adjust to “not getting bored with taking a profit.” Bowen said he had noticed Mahomes’s unnecessary movement in games earlier in the season when the quarterback would leave a clean pocket to extend plays when he didn’t need to, for instance.
Kansas City’s defense created deficits for Mahomes to erase.
It’s possible that the team’s horrific defense, which tied Washington for the most touchdowns allowed (27) through Week 7, had put pressure on Mahomes to feel like he needed to score points to compensate. After that Tennessee game, Mahomes mentioned the importance of suppressing the urge to go for a “14-point play.”
Two weeks later, when the Chiefs beat Green Bay at home, Bowen started to detect a difference. Mahomes, he said, was thriving within their offensive structure, throwing in rhythm and staying patient as he went through his progressions. He also showed more of a willingness to check down, throwing nine passes — though one was a 38-yard touchdown in the end zone — to running back Darrel Williams in their Week 10 win at Las Vegas. In his last three games, Mahomes has thrown just one interception, in Week 11 against Dallas, and it deflected off tight end Travis Kelce’s hands.
He has had bad luck.
And here’s where that dreadful luck comes in.
According to the N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats, six of Mahomes’s 11 interceptions have come on passes that had at least a 75 percent chance of being completed. Five of those such interceptions — including Micah Hyde’s pick-6 for Buffalo in Week 5 — hit a receiver’s hands first.
It is possible, then, that for a guy who has played in three straight A.F.C. championships and the last two Super Bowls, and is the youngest quarterback to have been selected most valuable player of both a Super Bowl and the league, fortune just swung the other way.
But only for a spell. The Chiefs have won four in a row and have taken over the A.F.C. West lead, putting Mahomes on a pace for more customary results.