The Panthers challenge of stopping Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

Given that Carolina has never played against Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes before, let me phrase his talent in terms that a Panthers fan can easily understand.

Do you remember Cam Newton’s breathtaking year in 2015, when he accounted for 45 total TDs for the Panthers and was voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player?

That’s Mahomes — every single year. The Panthers are about to have a front-row seat to greatness in full bloom, whether they want it or not.

Sunday’s big question: Can they do anything to slow it down?

After famously sitting on the bench behind Alex Smith as an NFL rookie in 2017, Mahomes burst onto the scene as a starter for the Chiefs in 2018 at an MVP level and never has throttled down.

Only 25, Mahomes will make his 40th career regular-season start against Carolina on Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium. If Mahomes throws at least three TD passes vs. the Panthers, he will become the fastest QB to 100 TD passes in NFL history.

If any Panther picks him off, on the other hand, that player should keep that football forever.

Mahome’s TD/interception ratio this season looks like a misprint: 21 TDs, 1 INT. The Chiefs, who became Super Bowl champions in February by overcoming three straight double-digit deficits in the playoffs due to Mahomes’ theatrics, are 7-1 this season and anchored once again by their young gunslinger.

“He’s got an unbelievable arm,” Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow said of Mahomes, “and he can throw it from a lot of different angles. He can throw on the move, left or right, side-arm. It’s just amazing. At times, you look like you’re watching a guy out in the playground. … He’s really fun to watch. The other guy in the league that kind of does the same thing is Russell Wilson in Seattle.”

Panthers to face 4 QB greats

The Panthers (3-5) don’t have Wilson on their schedule this season. But they do have to face four future Pro Football Hall of Fame QBs — Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers — in the second half of the 2020 season. They have played three of those men multiple times before.

Mahomes, though, is a new one, since Carolina only faces the teams from the AFC West once every four seasons.

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Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes has already won a Super Bowl and an NFL Most Valuable Player award, and he is only 25. John Sleezer [email protected]

Young Carolina players like defensive end Brian Burns — who referred to Mahomes as “Patty” during his group interview this week — and cornerback Donte Jackson have mostly just seen Mahomes play on TV prior to Sunday.

“Everything runs through (Mahomes),” said Burns, whose knack for strip-sacks might be Carolina’s best chance to force a Mahomes turnover Sunday. “We can pressure him. Keep him uncomfortable in the pocket. Hit him a lot.”

Said Jackson, who leads Carolina with three interceptions but has been fighting a nagging toe injury: “There are a lot of quarterbacks in this league that, once you get them off their spot, they’re different guys in terms of the throws they can make and the things they can do. … He’s just one of those rare guys that it really doesn’t matter. … The only thing that really matters is getting him on the ground.”

Patrick Mahomes’ massive contract

I asked Kansas City coach Andy Reid on a conference call this week what made Mahomes special.

“He wants to be the best, but you never know it by the way he carries himself around the building,” Reid said. “He wants everybody to be a part of it. And he’s pure team. But at the same time, he’s got that mental toughness, where he wants to get after you. And when it’s time to compete, he competes. … He doesn’t wait until game day just to do that, either. He’s going to bust his tail all week long. … He doesn’t miss anything. He’s on time and, normally, he’s three hours early. That’s just how he rolls.”

Not surprisingly, the Chiefs wanted to keep Mahomes around for his entire career. They signed him to a 10-year, $503-million contract extension in July, the largest contract in sports history.

Was it worth it? Early returns are promising. Mahomes is making the extraordinary look ordinary again while bringing a lot of people along for the ride.

Kansas City Star columnist Vahe Gregorian noted in our conversation this week — and has written before — that Mahomes begins the answer to almost every question with the word “yeah,” as if to agree with the questioner before he ever gets started with the answer.

This is similar to the famous rule of thumb of improvisational comedy troupes, who are instructed to always say “Yes, and” during an improv scene. The point is to agree with their partner in the scene and eventually spin it into some fantastic concoction neither of them had envisioned.

If you think about it, that’s Mahomes with the football, improvising with his receivers.

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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes scrambled left on this play in the 2019 AFC Championship game, eluded three tacklers and tight-roped the sideline on a 27-yard touchdown run. Rich Sugg TNS

He is “Yes, and” — but in furious, curious motion. Mahomes does something every week that defies description, whether it’s the 27-yard rushing TD he had in the AFC championship game against Tennessee or one of his no-look passes, which he has been throwing since college at Texas Tech. His sense of the field, like his arm, is otherworldly.

Comparisons with Cam Newton

Panthers coach Matt Rhule has never faced Mahomes, either, although he was watching film on him in college.

“When I first went to Baylor, I’m trying to figure out the Big 12 and so I put on Baylor-Texas Tech from the previous year,” Rhule said. “He literally is running all around the field and making these unbelievable plays. … It was like watching a video game.”

That’s the way it used to be with Newton in 2015, remember?

Newton played a different style of quarterback than Mahomes — who mostly scrambles around the pocket with the idea of throwing deep, not running as Newton so often did. But, like Mahomes, Newton was virtually unstoppable in 2015 until it all came crashing down for the Panthers in the Super Bowl against Denver. Newton’s career has never quite been the same.

A Mahomes’ crash will inevitably happen one day, for no one perches on the mountaintop forever. But that day seems very far in the future.

In the meantime, on Sunday, the Panthers have an enormous problem on their hands.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and 13 national APSE awards. He hosted the Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated magazine named as 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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