Talk about escapability. Patrick Mahomes was the one who got away.
The Arizona Cardinals had their heart set on taking the Texas Tech quarterback with the 13th pick in the 2017 draft, but the Kansas City Chiefs were fixated on the same player, trading up to leapfrog the Cardinals and select him 10th.
With Mahomes off to a record-setting start this season, former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians still feels the sting.
“We were going to draft him; he was our guy,” said Arians, now a CBS analyst. “[Former Kansas City general manager] John Dorsey knew it and snuck ahead of us and got him.”
That was a masterstroke. Mahomes, in his first year as a starter, has been phenomenal for the 2-0 Chiefs. He followed his four-touchdown performance in an opening victory against the Chargers with six more touchdown passes at Pittsburgh last Sunday. The 10 scoring passes through Week 2 are the most by any NFL quarterback through his team’s first two games.
If Mahomes were to throw for three or more scores against San Francisco on Sunday, he would eclipse Peyton Manning’s league record of 12 in his first three games of 2013.
What’s more, in that win over the Steelers, Mahomes became the youngest quarterback to throw at least six touchdowns in a game, doing so a day before his 23rd birthday.
“You could look at the first game and say, ‘All right, he got off to a good start. Let’s see what he can do on the road in Week 2 against [Ben] Roethlisberger and the Steelers,’ ” said Rich Gannon, a onetime Chiefs quarterback and NFL most valuable player. “He just literally put on a performance. It was a freak show.”
Not everyone was blown away. In his three seasons as Texas Tech’s starter, Mahomes saw his touchdown numbers increase every year, from 16 to 36 to 41. He threw for a record 734 yards in a game against Oklahoma in 2016, breaking another record with his 819 all-purpose yards in that game.
“I’m not an expert, don’t get me wrong, but I know football pretty much,” his mother, Randi Mahomes, told The Times this week. “My boss was talking to me about it, saying, ‘Gosh, this is so exciting. You know, in the NFL, they don’t just throw six touchdowns in a game.’ And I was like, ‘But Patrick’s always done that.’ ”
Just another ho-hum outing for a guy who is carving his way into the hearts of Kansas City faithful.
“With this guy, you never feel like, ‘Well, we’ve fallen behind and we can’t make up ground,’” Gannon said. “You could fall behind by a couple, three scores and not panic with a guy like this.”
It helps immeasurably that the Chiefs are so loaded with offensive playmakers such as running back Kareem Hunt, who led the league in rushing as a rookie last season, catch-everything tight end Travis Kelce, former Rams wideout Sammy Watkins, and — the player who haunts the dreams of defensive coordinators — the blistering-fast Tyreek Hill.
As he showed almost 20 years ago with Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia, Chiefs coach Andy Reid specializes in patiently preparing young quarterbacks to step into the fray, and then draws up plays that fit their skill set.
“There’s always plays that coach Reid just draws up every single week,” Mahomes said. “I always say that they always work. He just gets on the board in his room and just starts drawing plays. The possibilities are endless.”
It was Mahomes’ expertise on the dry-erase board that had bowled over the Cardinals coaches.
“I loved his mental makeup more than anything,” Arians said. “He’s top four on the board I’ve ever had, up there with Peyton and Andrew [Luck]. Amazing recall.”
Mahomes, a marketing major, wasn’t just an Academic All-American, but Big 12 scholar athlete of the year in 2016, the first Red Raider athlete to earn that honor.
In the run-up to the 2017 draft, Arians put Mahomes to the test on the board, drawing up five or six plays and two or three protections. They watched some video on safety blitzes, and Arians gave him a few audibles that would enable him to change the protections at the line of scrimmage.
“So probably two hours later, we’re out on the field and he’s throwing,” the coach recalled. “I walked up and said, ‘Man protection. Weak safety’s blitzing,’ and he said, ‘Rightie! Rightie!’ I was like, ‘Holy cow, he’s right!’
“Maybe 10 throws later, I walk up and I’m the strong safety in slide protection and he says, ‘Rip! Rip!’ He was right again.
“I’ve had a couple starters that it took two years to fix those protections. This guy did it in one meeting.”
Even non-experts notice the arm. Mahomes has a howitzer, the ability to get the ball virtually anywhere, whether he’s dropping back, rolling out, or making the most of a broken play. No part of the field is safe.
Coach-turned-broadcaster Rick Neuheisel had Kliff Kingsbury on his Sirius radio show recently, and the Texas Tech coach talked about something that made him rub his eyes in disbelief.
“It happened in practice in college,” Neuheisel said, recounting the story. “Patrick threw the ball, after scrambling out of the pocket, 83 yards in the air to a receiver that was coming from the other side, then caught it in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Eighty-three yards in the air.
“Just planted and whipped it. The only thing missing was Babe the Ox,” he said, referring to Paul Bunyan folklore.
Agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents Mahomes, has heard all the stories. He has tried to dial down the excitement so Mahomes can play without all the pressure on his shoulders. The mantra Steinberg uses, and texts Mahomes after games, is, “Trust the process.”
“I spent the entire offseason trying to lower expectations,” Steinberg said. “So many times, a young quarterback goes out and throws an incompletion, throws a couple of interceptions, and people call him a bust.”
Then there’s the guy who goes out and throws 10 touchdowns with no interceptions.
“Well, guess what,” Steinberg said. “The secret’s out.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer