The Kansas City Chiefs are not good right now. It’s jarring for a team that’s had a winning record every year since 2013, won the AFC West every year since 2016, and sprinkled in one Super Bowl win and another appearance the past two years, a period that saw quarterback Patrick Mahomes land the biggest contract in the history of professional sports. The Chiefs are 3–4; following a 27–3 loss in Tennessee to the Titans on Sunday, their playoff chances have dipped to a hair under 50 percent at FiveThirtyEight. Kansas City’s first two losses were in close games against the Baltimore Ravens (losing on a late fumble) and San Diego Chargers, but their past two losses have been gruesome blowouts at the hands of the Buffalo Bills and now the Titans.
“What is wrong with the Chiefs?” and “What is wrong with their prized QB?” will be en vogue questions around the NFL this week. The answers are a little cloudy and not that satisfying. Teamwide, the issue is that a defense that is usually bad has gotten even worse, and more pressingly, that the franchise QB is not playing well. Mahomes’ individual issues are harder to figure out, however, and leave open the possibility that he’s either having an anomalously poor season by his standards or that he’ll snap out of whatever’s wrong in short order.
For as long as they’ve had Mahomes, the Chiefs have regularly fielded a worse-than-average defense by yards per play and points allowed. But their 2021 defense has been a different kind of putrid. Kansas City is giving up 6.6 yards per play, on pace to be by far the worst number for any single-year defense anywhere in the NFL since Mahomes took the starting QB job in 2018.
The problems are apparent at every level on that side of the ball. KC is near the bottom of the league in adjusted defensive line yards, a metric that isolates how well a defensive front plays against the opposing offensive line. The Chiefs’ linebackers have been a punchline for years, but they have been especially grim this season. Highlights abound of Kansas City linebackers falling hook, line, and sinker for play-action fakes and leaving opposing receivers, tight ends, and running backs to roam freely in the middle of the field. Here is an illustrative example:
The secondary has its own major problems. Safety Daniel Sorensen was repeatedly made into toast in the Bills loss. A different defensive back becomes the weak link in each defeat. Against the Titans, it was cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, whom Pro Football Focus said was targeted four times for four catches and 98 yards gained against him. The Titans also found ways to screw with rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, who for some reason found himself covering Julio Jones on one play, which went for a 20-yard completion over the middle.
It’s a bad situation. The defense is one of the worst you’ll ever see in the modern NFL. But while the unit isn’t usually this bad, the concept of Andy Reid’s team giving up lots of yards is not a new one. The reason it’s standing out this year is that the Mahomes-led attack has been less lethal than usual, denying KC the offense that usually serves as its best defense.
On offense, the star QB and his passing game are at the center of all problems. Kansas City is actually running the ball quite well, for a five-yard-per-carry average that ranks fifth in the league. That is fine and good, but the NFL is not a running league these days, and the Chiefs are generally going to be in trouble if their most successful offensive player is running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. A team that has Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill needs to have an otherworldly passing offense, and for the past three years, it has. But this season, the Chiefs are averaging an unusually low 6.2 yards per play and 26 points per game. Something is amiss.
Mahomes is not his usual self. That does not mean “bad,” as even a reduced Mahomes is a pretty good QB. In yards per throw (7.6), touchdown rate (6.5 percent), traditional passer rating (97.9), and ESPN QBR (63.9), he’s still outstripping the league average comfortably. But he’s throwing interceptions on 3.2 percent of his passes, the highest rate of his career and more than triple his rate the previous two seasons. He’s taking sacks on 4.8 percent of his dropbacks, also the highest rate of his career. And despite not facing much pressure, he’s getting rid of the ball more quickly than usual and not throwing it that far.
This is where Mahomes’ season gets hard to figure out. The hallmark of Mahomes’ past few seasons has been his ability to extend plays and rip the ball like a supercharged Brett Favre. You can see indications of that in his stats. His average intended targets from 2018 to 2020 were between 8.4 and 9.1 yards downfield, per Pro Football Reference, rates that had him in the top half of the league even as his throws got shorter over the years. This year his intended target is a career-short 7.7 yards downfield, and he’s spending just 1.9 seconds in the pocket per dropback, easily the shortest rate of his career.
Mahomes has never made many throws into tight coverage, probably because Kelce and Hill are so good at getting open. This year doesn’t look much different, and is even an exaggerated version of the trend. So far, 8.7 percent of his throws have gone into tight coverage, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the lowest rate in the league. He’s also seeing pressure on a career-low rate of his dropbacks (19.2 percent) per PFR. None of that sounds conducive to Mahomes throwing more interceptions than ever—but that’s what’s happened. Maybe the Chiefs don’t trust their offensive line to pass-protect Mahomes long enough for him to do his thing, but it’s not like they have a horrendous line that can’t block. It’s also not the case that his receivers are dropping a ton of passes. The Chiefs’ teamwide drop rate is 4 percent, per PFR, lower than last year’s 4.7 or 2019’s 5.0.
The unsatisfying answer to what’s wrong with Mahomes might just be that he’s a little bit off for no grand reason in particular, throwing a few more bad passes each game after two straight long playoff runs that might have taken a lot out of him. The Titans game was the worst of his career by passer rating, and he said afterward that he was “just pressing a little bit too early in the game,” which put him and his offense in a challenging spot. You could see that manifest clearly when, trailing 17–0, he tried to find a tightly covered Hill and wound up throwing an interception on a ricochet. He’s still a generational player, and his offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, is one of the best-regarded schemers in football. Whether it’s in a few weeks or next season, Mahomes will play like a star again. (He is reportedly OK after taking an ugly hit to his head-and-neck area late in Sunday’s loss.)
That doesn’t mean the 2021 Chiefs will be OK, though. The defense is so horrendous that even a superhuman Mahomes might not be able to drag it into contention. He needs to be at his best for this year’s team to have any chance, and whether he can get there before the Chiefs slide into a deeper hole is unclear. The offense lost a lot of steam toward the end of 2020’s Super Bowl runner-up season, too, and it would need to turn on a dime in the next few weeks for a third-straight appearance in that game to look possible. For the first time in Mahomes’ career, he might have run into a situation he can’t salvage with the force of his right arm alone.