The NFL may be without its reigning Most Valuable Player for a while.
Patrick Mahomes, one of the league’s most electric young stars and a frontrunner to defend last year’s MVP award, left Week 7’s clash with the Denver Broncos with a knee injury. The third-year quarterback had to be helped off the field in the second quarter after a fourth-and-inches sneak gave the Chiefs a fresh set of downs — but cost them the heart of their offense in the process.
Mahomes was quickly ruled out for the game after walking to the locker room. Replays showed his team’s training staff working on his knee before picking him up from the turf.
Early reports said it was a dislocated kneecap, but that there were no fractures in the afflicted leg. While no timetable has emerged for Mahomes’ recovery, head coach Andy Reid told sideline reporter Erin Andrews he thought his star was “going to be OK,” and that the quarterback told him he was “going to be fine, Coach.” But the situation on the field and Kansas City’s willingness to rule him out for the game shortly after entering the locker room suggest this may be a malady that keeps him off the field for more than three quarters.
Even if he only misses a game or two, his absence will be a significant blow to the Chiefs, who have two big cross-conference matchups looming. Losing Mahomes, no matter for how long, sucks for Kansas City. It also sucks for anyone who likes a unique brand of football that occasionally borders on superhuman.
No quarterback in the league can replace what Mahomes does
Mahomes’ big arm and penchant for highlight-reel plays made him a perfect fit in Reid’s freewheeling offense. Surrounded by lightning-quick wideouts and a do-everything tight end, the 2017 first-round pick was a revelation in his first season as a starter last fall.
Mahomes’ ability to scramble out of trouble and improvise put him on a God Tier among NFL quarterbacks in just one full year behind center. He could extend plays long enough for his receiving help to find gaps, then launch pinpoint rifle shots downfield as though he were standing still. He’d fake out defenses with no-look passes. He could convert third downs with his left, non-dominant hand.
That led to a 5,097-yard, 50-touchdown campaign in 2018 and a runaway MVP award. And somehow he was more prolific through the first six weeks of 2019. He’d set career highs in passing yards per game (350.7) and yards per pass (9.1) while on pace for a career low in interception rate (just one in 230 attempts, and it was kinda due to some nonsense). On Thursday, he became the first player to pass for 7,500 yards in his first 24 games — besting Kurt Warner’s old record of 27.
But there was one big concern looming in the middle of that big start. An ankle injury suffered in the opening week of the season resurfaced in each of his last three games, robbing him of some of his mobility and leading to his three worst starts of the year as the Chiefs went on a 1-2 skid. He was looking to snap a two-game losing streak — and had completed 10 of his 11 passes — when he was forced out of game in Denver.
That turned the offense over to Matt Moore, who is absolutely not Patrick Mahomes.
What can Matt Moore do in Mahomes’ stead?
Moore has traditionally been one of the league’s better backup quarterbacks. He’s only started more than five games in a season just once in a 12-year career, but he’s got a respectable 15-15 record in those games, split between the Panthers and Dolphins.
However, his last start came in 2017 — a season where he threw more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four). He’s also 35 years old now, so it’s fair to expect a little bit of dropoff from an aging passer who had thrown only a single pass in his last 22 games. He didn’t even expect to play football this year; he’d spent much of the offseason as a member of Miami’s coaching staff and was only signed by Kansas City in August after Chad Henne suffered a season-ending injury.
But Moore has also never played with a receiving corps as talented as the one he’ll sling passes to in western Missouri. He’ll have the chance to work with a pair of All-Pros in wideout Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. Rookie Mecole Hardman is averaging more than 18 yards per catch and hauled in a 21-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes before the QB left the game. Sammy Watkins hasn’t been able to match his Week 1 explosion (nine catches, 198 yards, three touchdowns), but should provide additional support once he’s back to full strength after missing the last two games. Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson are both depth options who are each capable of putting up 100+ yard games.
Reid and the Chiefs are going to give Moore a chance to shine while Mahomes recovers. The question is whether he can be the guy who outplayed Ryan Tannehill and had a 105.6 passer rating for the 2016 Dolphins, or if he’s the quarterback who’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and averaged an Osweiler-ian 6.7 yards per attempt in the two-plus years since.
Who else can the Chiefs sign or promote to either back up Moore or replace him?
The current free agent quarterback market is thin, though the XFL Draft just dug up a bunch of names who’d likely jump at the chance to sling passes to Hill, Kelce, and Hardman. Former starters who aren’t signed heading into Week 7 include:
There is another name who could give a contending Chiefs team a boost behind center. Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played a snap in the NFL since 2016, but has reportedly kept in game shape while waiting for a team willing to even give him a workout. He still wants to play football — but the question is whether Kansas City will be willing to reach out to the famously divisive former NFC champion.
If Mahomes isn’t set to miss much time, the club could look in-house for its backup to Moore. Rookie Kyle Shurmur, an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt, would be an easy promotion from the practice squad should the club need a stopgap solution and want to plug a developmental prospect into a bigger role.
What does this mean for the rest of the NFL?
Should Mahomes miss extended time, this division is back up for grabs. That’s good news for the Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos. The Chiefs’ AFC West rivals will have the chance to pull the defending division champion back to earth, a process started by the club’s recent two-game losing streak. Oakland, out to a surprising 3-2 start, could affirm Jon Gruden’s expansive rebuild by pushing their way to the top of the division. A Mahomes injury would likely give Los Angeles a much-needed break after the franchise shot itself in the foot repeatedly to start the season 2-4.
Denver probably has too many flaws to overcome this year, but hey, maybe the Broncos will surprise us.
This injury, as bleak as it is for the Chiefs, is also great news for the NFC North. Their next two games are circled dates on the calendars of the Packers and Vikings, respectively. While this means the cruel indifference of the football gods has robbed us of the first (and possibly only) Patrick Mahomes-Aaron Rodgers shootout as well as a showcase against Minnesota’s solid defense, it also means the top of a stacked division may only get stronger.
And then there’s the rest of the AFC, which looked like a two-team race after Week 4 but now appears firmly in New England’s control. Any losses the club takes under Moore’s guidance will dig a deeper hole in the battle for homefield advantage come playoff time. While a Week 14 trip to Foxborough will provide an opportunity to close that gap, the Patriots’ easy schedule and dominant defense may make Thursday’s injury too big an obstacle to overcome in the race for the top spot in the conference.
The Chiefs will have to wait and see what the prognosis is for their MVP. Mahomes is due for an MRI Friday, at which point we’ll better know his recovery timetable. But even if he misses a week and Green Bay’s trip south, this is a massive loss not only for Kansas City but also anyone who loves watching a borderline superhero throw footballs into orbit.
We’ll have more updates as they become available.