We should have seen this coming from Andy Reid, and we don’t have to go back too far in time for the surest sign of what was ahead from him and the Kansas City Chiefs. We just have to go back to what was the best season that a Chiefs quarterback ever had.
It was 2017, the same year that the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes, but Mahomes wasn’t their starting quarterback yet. Alex Smith was, and he threw for 4,042 yards and 26 touchdowns, set a team record with his 67.5 completion percentage, and posted the lowest interception percentage in the NFL (1.0) while leading the league in yards per attempt (8.6) and passer rating (104.7).
There are a lot of teams and coaches who would have looked at Smith’s performance that season and said, How can we ask for anything better than that? But here’s the thing: Andy Reid’s greatest skill as a coach and a football mind — the skill that defines his career, from his time as an assistant under Mike Holmgren with the Green Bay Packers to his 14 years with the Eagles to his tenure with the Chiefs — was that he didn’t bother asking that question. He already had recognized that they could be better and, with Mahomes, they would be.
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There had been a lot of discussion before Sunday night about Andy Reid’s place in NFL history, about what a victory in Super Bowl LIV would mean for his legacy. Once Mahomes chucked the ball into the Miami sky on the final play of the Chiefs’ 31-20 win over the 49ers, that discussion was pretty much rendered moot.
Reid got his Super Bowl. He will be a Hall of Famer. He should have been regarded as one anyway, regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, but the last ounce of doubt, the last viable counterargument, was gone.
Does he erase that last Yeah, but without Mahomes? Probably not. Mahomes is so good that he can nullify Reid’s weaknesses as a coach — the struggle with clock management, for example. But then, the fact that Mahomes was the Chiefs’ quarterback in the first place was Reid’s doing. Maybe Reid wins that Super Bowl only because he had Mahomes, but he had Mahomes only because he knew to make a franchise-altering trade to acquire the No. 10 pick in the ’17 draft for the sole purpose of selecting Mahomes. And he knew to make that trade because of the previous quarterbacks he’d targeted and coached to excellence: Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia, Michael Vick, Smith.
Over all those years, Reid refined what he was looking for in a quarterback and how to extract the most out of a quarterback. He began, as the Packers’ QB coach, by working with Favre, who tested the limits of the position as much as any player ever has. With his powerful arm and nimble feet, Favre could make throws and pull off plays no one else could, but he could be daring up to and beyond the point of recklessness. Because Favre was so hyped up at the start of a game, for example, he tended to overthrow receivers on the Packers’ opening possession. So Holmgren often called plays that he knew would result in those high and wild throws’ sailing out of bounds and not into the hands of a safety or cornerback.
What if there were a quarterback who had Favre’s physical skills but played with just a bit more caution? Reid bet that McNabb was that guy, and the Eagles were championship contenders for the better part of a decade because of that bet. What if a veteran quarterback was available who was stylistically similar to Favre and McNabb, who was athletic but not quite as athletic as either of them, who had the brains and experience to carry out all the requirements of Reid’s West Coast offense? Reid learned his lesson after trusting Mike McMahon as the Eagles’ backup quarterback and, the following season, trusted Garcia instead.
What if there were a quarterback who was faster than both Favre and McNabb, whose arm was as strong or stronger than either of theirs, who was naturally smart and gifted but required a measure of coaching and discipline that he hadn’t yet received in his NFL career? Reid took a chance on Vick, and in those moments when Vick was at his best — that astounding Monday night game in November 2010 against the Redskins, the Meadowlands miracle against the Giants five weeks later — he was the model for the weekly fireworks display that Mahomes delivers now.
What if Reid were charged with rebuilding a franchise, just as he was when Jeffrey Lurie hired him, and what if he needed an established and credible quarterback immediately? And what if Reid understood how NFL offenses were evolving — Chip Kelly, the hurry-up, Colin Kaepernick, the pistol, the spread, systems in high school and college that were creative and innovative and could work at football’s highest level with the right personnel? He traded for such a quarterback in Smith, who had played in Urban Meyer’s spread offense at Utah, who was tall and strong and could move and make most of the throws Reid wanted a quarterback to make. But not all of them. Not quite.
Then he found a quarterback who could, who could be Favre without the recklessness, McNabb without the worm-burners, Vick with a better foundation at the position, Smith with a little more of everything. Then he made sure that quarterback had all the surrounding talent and speed and supplementary pieces he’d need to thrive.