Bad Habits, the Player Within and Patrick Mahomes II

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Everyone has bad habits. Every person reading this right now has a habit they wish they could get rid of, I’ve got many, to be sure. Two that I’ll admit to publically are biting my fingernails and picking at my cuticles. I’ll be doing something like watching tape and I’ll find myself picking away at one of my fingers. I wish I could get rid of the habit, and I’ve tried, but I’ll always find a reason to come back.

Sometimes we find ourselves accepting our bad habits, for one reason or another. Maybe we have a lot of time before our next project or our next meeting, so we can distract ourselves with other things, only to find ourselves rushing at the last minute again. Chances are, if you’ve been able to succeed even with, or in spite of, the habits, you won’t make any changes.

Habits and muscle memory are a double-edged sword when it comes to playing the quarterback position. Little moves a quarterback uses in the pocket to evade pressure have been learned over time, through years of practices and games, and those habits are beneficial. When you see a quarterback step up, slide around, glide with his feet before making a throw, it’s likely that you’re seeing that player in the backyard as a kid, or in high school, learning the subtle nuances of one of sport’s most demanding positions. But the other side of that coin is this fact: When a player is good enough to play at football’s highest levels, such as upper tier college football, chances are he has been dominant in those backyards and on those high school fields. Any flaws that he picked up along the way, he’s been successful with those, and like the busy professional putting off projects or relying on bad fast food habits to push through stress, if it’s worked in the past, he’ll think it will work in the future.

That brings us to Patrick Mahomes II.

On tape, Mahomes is the proverbial double-edged sword. There are flashes of brilliance and dominance, woven in among some questionable decisions and some moments when you are witnessing the bad habits of years past crystallized into form. Mahomes is, to be honest, a difficult evaluation. There are certainly some “put the pen down” moments – both good and bad – but trying to dig deeper brings me back to these questions: First, what bad habits are you willing to live with at the quarterback position? Second, what bad habits are death knells to the evaluation?

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On this 2nd and 20 play, Mahomes (#5) shows some of the bad habits. In the shotgun, he executes a three-step drop. The footwork is sloppy as he shuffles back into the pocket. The ball carriage is off, as he keeps the football low on his body as he retreats, causing a longer than necessary throwing motion. And, finally, he “steps in the bucket” on the throw, drifting that left leg forward rather than toward the target, causing the pass to sail wide of the intended receiver. The Red Raiders now face a 3rd and long.

Here against Louisiana Tech, Mahomes and Texas Tech face a 3rd and Goal from the 22-yard line. They line up with 10 offensive personnel, and Mahomes throws a vertical route to the left side. Again, we see sloppy footwork in the pocket, and the quarterback makes a throw off his back foot:

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This throw comes from a clean pocket, and Mahomes has room to step into this. Instead, he makes the throw off his back foot, resulting in an underthrown ball. Even though the receiver has separation, he’s forced to come back and wait for the pass, and it is broken up, taking six points off the board.

But what bad habits can you live with, when you can get results like this:

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Against Oklahoma, the Red Raiders face a 3rd and 10 early in the game, but already trailing by 10. The offense empties the backfield, and Mahomes looks to hit a corner route along the right sideline. Again, the QB displays sloppy footwork, poor ball carriage and the weight transfer during the throwing motion is off. But despite of all these flaws, Mahomes drops in an absolute gem of a throw, right over the outside shoulder of the receiver, perfectly placed.

Bad habits while playing QB can be mental as well. Whether it’s trusting your arm too much, forcing throws into coverage when you know (or should know) better, or being slow to react to blitzes or rolled coverage. Sometimes you might lock onto a target and forgo any notion of a Plan B:

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Mahomes locks onto this out route from the snap, never looks off it, and never has an inkling of throwing to another receiver.

And yet…

He tries to lob this throw over the defender undercutting the route, and there’s almost a crazed brilliance to this. When I first watched this play I wrote down a name in my notebook. Zidane. Futbol aficionados likely recognize the name and the moment. Zinedine Zidane was a midfielder for the French national team during the 1990s and 2000s and in the World Cup final in 2006 against Italy, he lined up for a penalty kick:

As the announcer stated: “How casual. How cheeky. Only one of the world’s great, great players would attempt anything as audacious as that.” That’s the feeling I got watching this play from Mahomes. He locks onto his target and rather than come off, he simply tries to float it over the top of the underneath defender. Had he tried to drill this into his target? It’s likely a pick six. In that split second, Mahomes decides to try something different, and while it’s an incompletion, there’s something cheeky and audacious about the throw.

The tricky, almost confounding thing with Mahomes is that the flaws in footwork, or mechanics, or ball carriage, are not always there. Sometimes the footwork on his drops is textbook. So you know that underneath there lies a precise passer:

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Here we see proper footwork on the drop, and the QB stays ready on the balls of his feet as he works through the progressions, before delivering a strong throw with very solid mechanics in both the upper and lower body. That’s the precision passer lying underneath.

There’s something else lying beneath the surface, if you scratch hard enough to look. Mahomes is an electrifying player, who can make plays off structure inside and outside of the pocket that have fans reaching for the rewind button while offensive coordinators reach for the antacids. In a sense, he’s similar to players before him like Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel and Vernon Adams last season, who were able to change a game in a moment. Those are special players on Saturdays, but Sundays remain a question mark. Are there aspects to Mahomes that can translate to the professional level?

Against the Sooners, Texas Tech faces a 3rd and 10 late in the first quarter. Mahomes is alone in the backfield, with three receivers to the left and two receivers to the right. Oklahoma lines up in a 4-2-5 nickel, and they show Cover 1 with a free safety deep and the rest of the defensive backs using off man alignment before the play:

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The outside receiver on each side of the field “runs” a smoke route, taking one step downfield before turning toward the quarterback. The slot receiver to the right and the #2 receiver on the left run vertical routes. Jonathan Giles (#9), the inside trips receiver, runs a deep in cut:

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On the live angle, we see some good footwork from Mahomes as he drops into the pocket and looks to his left, before delivering a strike to Giles on the dig route:

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Now, watching this from the end zone camera, we can see two things: Manipulation, and anticipation. From this angle, we can see how the quarterback moves the free safety out of position toward the vertical route, and away from the dig route. As Mahomes drops he is looking at the vertical route to his left. That moves Steven Parker (#10) to his right, away from Giles. Now when Mahomes pulls the trigger, Giles is still locked up by the underneath coverage, and the QB needs to throw him open. Some quarterbacks might wait to see this, but Mahomes pulls the trigger, anticipating the break and leading him into the open window:

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Here’s another example of Mahomes manipulating defenders, only this time he challenges a much tougher throwing window. The Red Raiders face a 1st and 10 against Louisiana Tech, on their own 36-yard line. They line up with 10 offensive personnel in dual slot formations, with a running back to the right of Mahomes. The Bulldogs line up in a 4-2-5 nickel, showing Cover 1:

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The offense uses an RPO design here, with Mahomes putting the football in the belly of his running back and reading the defense. He’ll have a slant route from Giles this time, who aligns in the slot to the right. The other receivers are all blocking:

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Mahomes takes the snap and as he meets the RB at the mesh point, his eyes are on the left side of the field:

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Now, Mahomes is looking at nothing. The two receivers on that side of the formation are blocking, in anticipation of the potential running play. But by opening to this side of the field, he influences the free safety away from Giles’ slant route. So when the quarterback pulls the football and looks back at the slant, the free safety is a few steps out of position. But there is one last problem:

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The underneath linebacker is in the throwing lane. So Mahomes double clutches, buying himself an extra second, and a better throwing window. He then drills in a perfect throw:

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This is impressive on multiple levels. First, Mahomes is able to move that free safety by looking at the left side first, getting Giles some more room on the slant route. Then, when he comes back to throw the slant, he makes another split-second decision to improve the chances of success. Finally, Mahomes displays the arm talent and velocity to drives this throw into that narrow window. The pieces, when added together, add up to a big score.

I bet you probably didn’t notice that on this play, his footwork was sloppy and the mechanics were off a bit. And if you look back at one of the “bad habit” plays, the corner route against Oklahoma, maybe you noticed the way Mahomes looked off the safety on that play by opening to his left, freeing up space for the corner route along the right sideline.

Because that’s the dilemma with Mahomes. The bad habits remain from time to time. There will be questions about the offense he runs, the style of play, and the many one-read type throws he is making. When you see him lock onto a target as on one of the previous examples, those fears are magnified. But when you see throws like these at the end of the article, some plays where he shows the ability to manipulate defenders and make anticipation throws, you can see the potential. In the right environment, in the right system, and with a coach who can work with the bad habits, Mahomes has a bright future. Perhaps the bigger question isn’t what coach can live with the bad habits at the quarterback position, but rather what organization can trust their coach inheriting those habits in a player with the potential inside Mahomes.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, Seth Russell’s processing speed, or how LSU runs play action.

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All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.

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