Why Kelce is playing mind games with Mahomes



August 23, 2018 - 9:48 AM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was asked Wednesday if his role in the offense is different this season with Patrick Mahomes quarterbacking instead of Alex Smith, and the first thing he said was this:
“I mean, not really. We’re still under (coach) Andy Reid’s scheme. So a lot of the things that we were doing last year are very similar to what we’re doing this year.”
That is absolutely technically true. But a qualifier was offered: “The biggest difference is understanding the game through Pat’s mind.”
Which, in a sense, is everything.
It speaks to the flourishes and tweaks and wrinkles in the scheme now contoured to Mahomes. It means the difference in where, when and how the ball might be delivered. It’s about a difference in mindset if a play breaks down. And any number of other custom settings.
So after spending his entire NFL career trying to get into “Alex’s head,” Kelce and the rest of the Chiefs’ receiving targets are charged to do the same now with Mahomes as he enters his much-anticipated first season as a starter.
The mind-melding will be a process, of course. And it will develop at a different pace for all.
Not to mention Mahomes’ need to get in the heads of his would-be targets, something he has said repeatedly that he finds easy to do with Kelce (and which would seem like a fascinating place to go). Kelce’s background as a quarterback gives Mahomes a meaningful perspective on the broad view.
“He’s another quarterback on the field; he really knows this offense,” Mahomes said early in camp. “He knows what he needs to do to get open. He knows what he needs to do to get other people open.
“And I think that’s a very underrated aspect of his game, (knowing) how to move defenders in order to get other people open.”
So whether it’s by a glance to each other at the line of scrimmage or just being able to count on who will do what when or ad-libbing to extend a play, the cultivation of that chemistry across the field will determine how much this offense can do.
In his first year in the Chiefs’ system, for instance, Sammy Watkins has yet to catch a pass from Mahomes and was targeted on an interception and near-interception on Friday at Atlanta. Call that coincidence, call it meaningless in a preseason of generic plays, but call it a fact so far.
Meanwhile, perhaps Mahomes’ 69-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill on Friday most dramatically embodied a simultaneous turning of the mental keys.
On a ball thrown farther in the air than any in the NFL last regular season, a 68.6-yard heave that Smith and few mere mortals could make, Hill kept zooming downfield knowing that Mahomes had both the ability and nerve to uncork it that far.
Whereas Smith would be more inclined in that situation to run, toss a higher-percentage pass or throw it away, Hill knew Mahomes could go for broke from about any angle or footing over about any distance in the field of play and maybe even right through a few defenders.
For that matter, everyone else best know that, too.
“That’s kind of the transition of getting into Pat’s mind and being able to be … where he needs me to be or where he feels most comfortable to throw the ball,” Kelce said. “And, yeah on those deep passes, man, just keep running.”
While less overtly spectacular than the Hill TD, the fusion between Kelce and Mahomes is almost palpable. And it showed up in a more reliably impressive way against the Falcons.
Seeing that Kelce split to his right had drawn man-to-man coverage on a third-and-11, Mahomes hit him on a corner route for 14 yards with a high-and-away pass that was basically indefensible.
“You have to have that thing lined up, and you have to have trust in your guy,” Reid said.
That came a week after Mahomes had overthrown Kelce on the same route — albeit run to the left instead of the right. And it’s part of an ongoing suggestion of something special brewing between the first-year starter and the three-time Pro Bowl tight end, who has developed into one of the best in the game at his position.
(Speaking of which: “I’ll let critics take care of the whole ‘Who is the best?’ (matter),” Kelce said. “I’m going to go ahead and just try to be the best I can for the Chiefs on every single down”).
“It’s not just that route,” Kelce said. “It’s every route in the playbook that we would want that kind of chemistry, that kind of timing with.”
But the play reflected some deeper stuff.
It came from them talking about what went wrong the last time, and Kelce learning more of what Mahomes likes.
It stemmed from Kelce thinking about what Mahomes sees from the backfield and the extra reps they took.
And it was delivered through Kelce trying to “take bits and pieces” from every conversation he hears offensive coaches have with Mahomes and other receivers.
It also comes from a lot of film time, and from a sense of Kelce maturing into a leader of this team, and a fundamental base of being a three-year starting quarterback for his high school team in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
“That’s a huge advantage that I can have over the defense,” Kelce said.
And in getting in Mahomes’ mind.

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