Patrick Mahomes and the art of throwing short of the line to gain

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) passes the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals during the third quarter of the AFC Championship game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

• Mahomes on short-of-sticks throws: He is the highest-graded passer when throwing short of the first-down marker with the Chiefs, the only team with a positive EPA per pass figure on such throws in 2022 (including playoffs).

• Unmatched value: Mahomes has generated the highest wins above replacement (WAR) per season in the NFL since 2018.

• Ankle injury? No problem for Mahomes: Hampered severely with a high ankle sprain, Mahomes still made four big-time throws and generated positive EPA per pass on 47 dropbacks in the AFC championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins

Throwing short of the first-down marker is generally a losing play for an NFL offense, as it results in negative expected points added on average.

Unless your name is Patrick Mahomes.

In Mahomes’ five seasons as a starting quarterback, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offenses have posted negative EPA per pass just once (2021) when targeting short of the sticks. Since 2018 (Mahomes' first starting season), this has happened just eight times — and only 25 times since 2006 (start of the PFF era).

It shouldn’t come as a shock, but Mahomes’ four instances of positive EPA on such plays ranks behind only the two greatest quarterbacks of the past 20 years, Tom Brady (6) and Peyton Manning (5). That means in the 17 years of PFF data, players not named Manning, Brady or Mahomes have accomplished the feat just 10 times. Other notable signal-callers to pull it off include Drew Brees (2), Aaron Rodgers (2), Philip Rivers (1) and Ben Roethlisberger (1), along with Lamar Jackson during his 2019 MVP campaign, Josh Allen in his breakout 2020 season and, somehow, Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015 and Jay Cutler in 2008.

Manning pulled off the feat in five of six starting seasons between 2007 and 2013 (injured 2011 season notwithstanding) and represents the closest consecutive stretch of play equivalent to Mahomes. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid had never had an offense earn positive EPA on throws short of the first-down marker until Mahomes came along.

Why does this matter? Well, the majority of passes in the NFL are short of the sticks, so being able to maximize these plays helps move the chains on the perceived routine or easy throws. While there is a good amount required from receivers to generate positive outcomes on these throws, the fact that we see arguably two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time at the top of this stat — and Mahomes in that company — says a lot about the decision-making of said passers.

Take the “routine” play below in the Chiefs' conference championship game win over the Cincinnati Bengals, for example. The play feed would say Mahomes simply threw short of the sticks and wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling generated the necessary yards after the catch to gain the first down. However, the Bengals' inverted Cover 2 scheme gets Mahomes to hold the ball and scramble as they cover his initial reads. While cornerback Mike Hilton doesn’t cover the flat well after the scramble, most quarterbacks don’t go through a full progression and then come back to their initial read and throw it. Mahomes extending the play and finding an open receiver short of the sticks with room for added yards after the catch is a common occurrence for him.

This play led to the first touchdown drive of the game for either team and perhaps showed Mahomes getting comfortable playing on an injured ankle for the first time. On plays where Mahomes was forced off his spot, he threw only one incomplete pass in the game, which was a drop, and earned an 82.2 grade. While Mahomes missed on a few passes we’d normally see him complete, likely due to his ankle, and had an ugly fumble late in the third quarter, his play otherwise was stellar. Mahomes made four big-time throws (PFF’s highest-graded plays), resulting in his two touchdowns and a dropped touchdown pass to Kadarius Toney.

Mahomes’ performance against the Bengals was a microcosm of his season and career, even with a high ankle sprain. Only one time did he put up a negative EPA per pass figure in a game this season, and he has done so just 11 times in his career. While it wasn’t a perfect outing, he still flashed the magic we’ve been accustomed to over the past five seasons.

Mahomes was special once again, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that when watching him play. The start he’s had to his career rivals Brady’s in the Super Bowl era, falling short only in Super Bowl wins to the now-retired future Hall of Famer.


Unlock the 2023 Fantasy Draft Kit, with League Sync, Live Draft Assistant, PFF Grades & Data Platform that powers all 32 Pro Teams

$31 Draft Kit Fee + $8.99/mo
$89.88/yr + FREE Draft Kit