Patrick Mahomes took his game to ‘another level’ in 2023, teammate Travis Kelce told DailyMail.com, which is less a statement about his season statistics, and rather a comment on the difficulties facing the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback en route to Super Bowl LVIII.
Mahomes’ 27 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions, 67.2 completion percentage and 92.6 quarterback rating in 2023 are obviously respectable, and nearly any quarterback in NFL history should pleased with such a season. But for the reigning Super Bowl MVP who’s averaged an NFL record 296.1 passing yards a game for his career (compared to a career-low 261.4 this season), 2023 almost looks like a blemish on his otherwise superlative career.
‘[Patrick and I] might have talked about it halfway through the year, and were like, ”Man, it’s just not the same year,”’ Kelce said of an offense that ranked 15th in points and ninth in yardage after finishing first in both last season.
”’We got to find different ways to win,” Kelce recalled saying to Mahomes. ”We got to find different ways to have success, no matter what happens throughout the game, and how much we might not have success, we can’t feel that burden. We got to feel that confidence to go down there and finish a game the right way.”’
From there, Mahomes put forth what may go down as his best season ever — one in which he overcame inexperienced receivers and a few injuries along the offensive line, rather than leading the NFL in every passing category.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes runs off the field in Orchard Park after beating the Bills
Travis Kelce believes Patrick Mahomes brought his game to a ‘new level’ in the 2023 season
‘The one thing about Pat is his competitiveness,’ Kelce continued. ‘He’s never satisfied with where he is. He’s always looking forward to how he can keep progressing, keep that steady incline of success going. That’s on and off the field. It’s fun to see him compete and have that desire, year in, year out, day in, day out.’
But the more time passed, the more roster turnover Mahomes has faced on offense.
His coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, left for Washington after the Super Bowl LVII win, while the team lost receivers Tyreek Hill and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2022 and 2023, respectively. And even when the Chiefs drafted talented replacements, Mahomes was well aware it would be awhile for them to get acclimated to Andy Reid’s offense.
‘With rookies, especially in Coach Reid’s offense, it takes time,’ Mahomes said Wednesday. ‘It takes time to learn the way you run routes and the way you’re going to have to read coverage at the same time.’
Naturally, the football-loving public was less than patient. The remaining receivers took the bulk of the blame as the Chiefs went 3-5 from October 29 until their Christmas Day loss to the Raiders in Las Vegas.
Reid has always relied on screen passes, but made them the Chiefs’ bread and butter in 2023
Kadarius Toney has faced his share of criticism in 2023 and his status is unclear for Sunday
But perhaps nobody was criticized more than Super Bowl LVII starter Kadarius Toney, who was called out by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith specifically.
‘In 13 games this season, Kadarius Toney, in second halves this season has a total of seven catches for nine yards,’ Smith said in mid-December as part of a public back-and-forth with Kelce. ‘You know I am not making this up Travis, you know I bring receipts. … Y’all ain’t getting it done. The reigning, defending Super Bowl champions have a plethora of receivers who can’t catch the damn football.’
Smith’s argument didn’t suffer with time: The Chiefs finished 2023 with a league-high 44 drops for an NFL-worst drop rate of 6.9 percent.
And there were other issues for the receivers.
Most memorably, in Week 14, Toney’s catastrophic offsides penalty against the Buffalo Bills negated his would-be game-winning touchdown scamper created by a stunning heads-up lateral from Kelce.
But instead of pointing the finger at Toney — whose status remains uncertain for Sunday’s game against San Francisco — Mahomes deflected blame, voiced confidence in his receivers, and quietly began focusing on new ways to win.
Most notably, Mahomes emphasized shorter screen passes, which are nothing new for Reid — a head coach who popularized the low-risk plays as a way to counteract an overzealous blitzers during his tenure in Philadelphia.
Running back Isiah Pacheco’s development as a receiver has helped ignite the Chiefs’ offense
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Rashee Rice had the difficult task of learning Reid’s offense
Only now, with the strong-armed Mahomes failing to connect with his fledgling receiving corps downfield, screen passes became the Chiefs’ bread and butter in 2023.
In fact, 25.8 percent of Mahomes’ passes in 2023 were thrown behind the line of scrimmage, which is a career high for someone who made a name for himself by throwing bombs to speeders like Hill and Sammy Watkins.
And fortunately for Mahomes, his tinkering coincided with some pleasant late-season surprises on offense.
Second-round pick Rashee Rice impressed in his rookie season for the Chiefs in 2023
Quietly, thanks to the development of rookie wideout Rashee Rice (79 catches, 938 yards) and running back Isiah Pacheco’s progress as a receiver (44 catches, 244 yards), the Chiefs offense is resembling the unit that scored 38 points in the Super Bowl against the NFL’s second-ranked defense a year ago.
‘We were getting better, but we were a play away,’ Reid told reporters of the receiving corp in 2023. ‘That catch, and it seemed like it came down to ”that catch” in three or four games. In some cases, it was guys who I’ve seen make the play before that weren’t doing it at that particular time, but [I] know they have the potential to make it. Those guys ended up picking it up and doing well this stretch here.
‘Then we have a young guy, Rice, Rashee, whose game was getting better every week,’ Reid continued. ‘That’s such a key ingredient when you have a Kelce on the other side, that inside slot receiver. So he kept getting better and better and better, then he started making the plays.’
Now, after critics like ESPN’s Smith spent the season slamming Chiefs receivers, there’s a growing sense of optimism that Mahomes, once again, has all the tools he needs to win.
And even if his stats tell a different story, this may have been the best season of Mahomes’ already remarkable career.
‘I think Pat’s the best quarterback — period,’ right guard Trey Smith told DailyMail.com when asked if Mahomes reached a new level in 2023. ‘I’ll always feel that. Pat’s the ultimate gamer, ultimate playmaker, ultimate quarterback.’