Patrick Mahomes became the NFL’s best quarterback by refusing to specialize in football

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

Patrick Mahomes became the NFL’s best quarterback by refusing to specialize in football:

At Whitehouse High outside Tyler, Tex., Patrick Mahomes did not think of himself as a quarterback first, if at all. He told inquiring coaches his favorite sport was whatever was in season. He started at point guard as a freshman and quietly harbored a dream to play for Duke. He pitched and played shortstop for the baseball team and turned down a signing bonus after the Detroit Tigers drafted him. He played defensive back as a freshman and didn’t earn the starting quarterback position until early in his sophomore year.


He used his developmental years to cultivate a broad spectrum of tangible and intangible athletic capabilities. He gained a profound, intrinsic sense of how to wield his body in competition. He learned how to be the best quarterback by not playing quarterback.


Had Mahomes chosen to specialize, it is likely he never would have become a quarterback — his father, Pat Mahomes Sr., was a major league relief pitcher, and Mahomes’s best early success came as a pitcher.

The selection process isn’t the only benefit of waiting. Epstein said that several studies have shown athletes who play multiple sports require less time to become elite in the game they ultimately choose.

“[This] seems particularly to be true for athletes who play multiple ‘attacking’ sports,” Epstein wrote in an email. “That is, anything that requires you to build anticipatory skills — the perceptual expertise that allows you to react faster than your reflexes would allow because you’re essentially seeing things unfold before they actually happen.”

In Mahomes’s most luminous moments, a direct line can be drawn to the sports he played as a teenager in the winter and spring. He completes passes from various arm angles with precision, a skill Mahomes said he honed manning shortstop. He zings throws under pressure or without looking at his intended target, a feat he once made routine on the hardwood.

“We welcomed teams to press and trap us when he had the ball,” said Ryan Tomlin, Mahomes’s high school basketball coach. “He would throw no-look, diagonal passes across the court to a spot to where he knew a player was going to end up being. Which is exactly what I watch him do today. He’s just seeing things really before they happen, and he knows who’s going to be where, and he knows where the ball is going to be. Just things you can’t teach.”

Mahomes was an unselfish point guard with an unorthodox jump shot who managed to score when needed, a sneaky defender who, Tomlin said, was “fast without being fast.” He would often get out of position on defense, but Tomlin trusted Mahomes to sneak behind a ballhandler and make a steal. Mahomes credited basketball with enhancing his spatial awareness.

“You can tell by his vision he’s played basketball,” Chiefs quarterback coach Mike Kafka said.

When Mahomes reached the NFL, he leaned on footwork and technique picked up on the diamond. His proficiency at off-platform and across-body throws, he said, traces back to baseball. The bubble screen is a staple of Kansas City’s offense, and the play requires a quarterback to make a rapid-fire throw laterally, without even gripping the football’s laces, in a move similar to turning a double play in baseball.


Mahomes’s unusual style scared off college recruiters and, later, teams in the draft. What some NFL scouts and executives saw was a raw quarterback with unorthodox mechanics and shoddy footwork. What those evaluators missed was a genius athlete who understood his biomechanics on a deep level after developing, to his benefit, outside the Quarterback Industrial Complex.


Mahomes sat his rookie season behind Alex Smith, but he validated Veach’s evaluation immediately. During training camp, Mahomes led Kansas City’s third-string offense against its third-string defense. His performance quickly became legend.

“It was like a phenomenon with Pat, where we run back to dorms and we would put the threes vs. threes on just because we wanted to see the throws he was making,” Veach said. “That doesn’t happen. You have training camp dog days. The veterans, they’re in the tent and they’re watering down. The vets would stand there … to watch the kid go against the threes. You knew you had something.”

David Epstein makes a similar point in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.


  1. Bill says:

    I’m not sure if this point is really demonstrated. When I was a kid growing up in a northern state, everyone did four seasons of outdoor and indoor sports in gym class. The elite kids did the same thing, because there wasn’t the same obsessive focus on one sport. What Mahomes did sounds like what everyone did.

    I think the more important factor is whether either or both of your parents (or grandparents) were collegiate or professional athletes. Often, the apple falls pretty close to the tree.

  2. C. Matt says:

    One very underrated aspect is allowing, at an early age, unstructured play. Watched a documentary on Leonel Messi where his youth coach (when Leo was around five years old or so) stressed that the best instruction they could get was no instruction – let them play pick-up, experiment, get comfortable with the ball, (or stick & puck, or whatever), do little tricks. It may look pointless, but simple things like Tiger bouncing a golf ball off his club creates a type of feel and connection that really cannot be coached. Same thing I am sure with Harlem Globetrotter type playing around with the ball. Formal instruction can come later.

  3. Bingo Boingo says:

    The trend towards overspecializing the kids definitely has produced substantial damage downstream. Well rounded people are rare. Whether it’s systems engineers incapable of understanding how they fit in the system that is the business employing them or the notorious MIT graduates that can’t figure out how to make light happen when given a bulb, a battery, and one piece of wire… the kids don’t seem alright.

    Too much “follow your passion” and not enough “eat everything on your plate” is producing a flood of adult looking kids that can’t function as capable individuals.

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