Patrick Mahomes and NFL officiating, both better than ever: Mike Sando’s Pick Six – The Athletic

Text messages from coaches around the NFL were flying back and forth Sunday night after a call for defensive holding against the Philadelphia Eagles’ James Bradberry allowed the Chiefs to run down the clock before punching through a chip-shot field goal for a 38-35 victory, their second Lombardi Trophy in three Super Bowl appearances over the past four seasons.

“Terrible! Not one holding called all game!” a game-management coach protested.

“Way to f— up a great game,” a former head coach raged.

“Late flag tells me the K.C. sideline called for it,” an exec speculated.

This Super Bowl edition of the Pick Six column reveals the officiating blind spot that prevented officials from reconsidering the call, as explained by people familiar with the mechanics. The furor over officiating in recent weeks (and decades!) compels such an accounting, but as another coach stressed, the world will move on quickly. The Chiefs will be rightly honored for willing their way to a victory that seemed remote when MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes was limping off the field at halftime, his team trailing 24-14.

With that in mind, we will transition from the latest officiating controversy to an appreciation for what separates Mahomes to this point in his career from the emeritus GOAT, Joe Montana, and even from the current GOAT, Tom Brady. Will the Chiefs’ style of play prevent the franchise from providing Mahomes with the support Montana’s San Francisco 49ers and Brady’s New England Patriots provided to maximize their legacies?

Why NFL was helpless on critical call
Mahomes’ early edge on Montana, Brady
How Mahomes’ scrambling won the game
Who is next in line for Hall of Fame
Canton cases for Eagles and Chiefs
Two-minute drill: New hiring pace?

1. Officials hadn’t called defensive holding all game, but with the score tied 35-35 and the Chiefs in the red zone with 1:54 remaining, deep wing John Jenkins flagged Bradberry for restricting JuJu Smith-Schuster. What gives?

First things first. While the world decried the call, Bradberry himself admitted guilt.

“It was a holding,” he said after the game. “I just didn’t know if he’d call it.”

Referee Carl Cheffers stood by the call during an interview with Pro Football Writers of America pool reporter Lindsay Jones, which is how referees always roll in these situations. It’s easy to see why defending their own is ingrained in officiating culture when the commissioner himself claims things have never been better.

Bradberry’s uncommon grace and Cheffers’ stock answer do not change that Jenkins, a nine-year NFL official, threw a flag in a situation when officials frequently do not throw flags, with legacy-altering consequences.

“You know how many times that route gets run and it is not called?” a veteran offensive play caller said. “It’s a play teams perennially send into the league and never get the call. Guys grab like that all the time. If it stopped the receiver from getting to the ball, I understand, but that was not the case.”

The resulting first down let the Chiefs run down the fourth-quarter game clock sufficiently to leave Philly with only eight seconds after Harrison Butker’s 27-yard field goal.

“What we all want in that situation is for the officials to do their conference and pick up the flag and say, ‘There is no flag on the previous play,’ ” a game-management coach explained. “But the problem is, the crew does not have multiple sets of eyes on that play because the contact occurred before the ball was thrown.”

Jenkins, the deep wing, would have been the only official with eyes on Smith-Schuster and Bradberry when the flag was thrown. Other officials would have shifted their focus to that area of the field once the pass left Mahomes’ hands toward Smith-Schuster.

Because defensive holding is a judgment call, rules prevent the NFL’s officiating command center from using “replay assist” to spur a quick reversal without a formal stoppage. No matter that Fox’s 44 cameras dedicated for game coverage quickly provided replays calling into question whether such a call was warranted.

“There were two restrictions on this play, and neither was enough for a foul in my opinion,” the game-management coach said. “It looks bad because you want competitive plays at the end of the Super Bowl instead of Mahomes kneeling it down to center the ball for the kicker.”

In case you were wondering whether thing change or stay the same, here’s a story I wrote from a Super Bowl 24 years ago. LOL. #nfl #officiating

— Mike Sando (@SandoNFL) February 13, 2023

Twenty-four years ago, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue made a contrarian assertion amid similar outrage over officiating.

“I think officiating is as good as it’s ever been,” Tagliabue said before Super Bowl XXXIII following the 1998 season.

Sound familiar?

“I don’t think it’s ever been better in the league,” Goodell said Thursday.

Goodell’s comments affirm prediction No. 6 in the Pick Six column from last week:

The big change in NFL officiating will be … nothing, unless there is a catastrophic breakdown in the Super Bowl.

Changes come to officiating — to the rules, anyway — when an incorrect ruling affects an important enough team or person. This was the case in the NFC Championship Game following the 2018 season when the Los Angeles Rams got away with defensive pass interference while defeating the Sean Payton-coached New Orleans Saints.

Payton was sufficiently incensed and sufficiently powerful to push through rules subjecting such plays to instant replay. The cure wound up being worse than the malady, however, and the changes were scrapped after one year.

The call against Bradberry isn’t going to spur change when Bradberry himself did not protest it in real time or after the game.

“It was legit early in the down, but a little ticky-tack,” an offensive coordinator from an AFC team said. “It is hard to criticize beyond a couple days. By Wednesday, no one will even remember it happened except Philly players coaches and fans.”

That’s a little optimistic, but when it comes to officiating, some things never change.

2. While Mahomes is not yet in the GOAT conversation, he’s got a leg up on some all-time greats, including Montana and Brady. It’s remarkable, but is it sustainable?

The Chiefs hired an all-time great head coach in Andy Reid. They drafted an all-time great quarterback in Mahomes. These two moves make them a perennial contender. We are going to find out over the coming years how great the Chiefs are as an organization, beyond their coach and quarterback. Because dynasties to this point have always rested on foundations planted deeper than the offensive side of the ball.

The Chiefs ideally would at least loosely replicate what Bill Walsh’s 49ers did for Montana, and what Bill Belichick’s Patriots did for Brady. Those franchises produced dynasties by fielding complete teams with strong defenses. Those teams’ defenses helped Montana go 4-0 in Super Bowls while allowing 21, 16, 16 and 10 points in those legacy-defining games. Brady’s defenses in New England powered the three Super Bowls his teams won in his first four seasons as a starter.

Relatively speaking, Mahomes is running uphill against a strong headwind and still winning the race. The fact that he did it this postseason on one good leg is all the more remarkable.

The table below demonstrates the added burden Mahomes is carrying by comparing his first three Super Bowl teams to the first three for Brady in New England. Mahomes’ teams ranked 27th in combined EPA (expected points added) on defense and special teams over those three seasons. Brady’s teams ranked second across the Patriots’ 2001, 2003 and 2004 championship seasons, according to TruMedia.

Mahomes vs Brady: First Three SB Seasons
QB Mahomes Brady
Cook Index
EPA/Pass Play
Pass Yards
TD Passes
MVP Awards

Mahomes holds a 2-0 lead in MVPs over those seasons while playing for a wide-open offense that has led the league in a range of categories. That includes a No. 1 ranking on the Cook Index, which measures pass frequency on early downs in the first 28 minutes of games, before time remaining and score differential exert more influence on tendencies. The table shows rankings, not statistics, because rankings adjust for era. The bottom line is that Mahomes is doing more.

Can the Chiefs become more like the 1980s 49ers and 2000s Patriots?

“The difference is, when you play the style of offense they play in Kansas City, it makes it harder to play defense,” a veteran coach said. “People will take more chances against you. That is one reason why these colleges have trouble playing defense.”

Another difference: Kansas City had 21 percent of its salary-cap resources allocated for quarterbacks this season, most for any Super Bowl team since the rookie wage scale went into effect for the 2011 season (the Rams had a higher percentage in 2021 if dead money from Jared Goff’s contract were included). The way the Chiefs structured Mahomes’ contract, they could create additional cap flexibility with a simple renegotiation. They chose not to do that this past season and won the Super Bowl anyway. Will they have sufficient resources to bolster their roster this coming offseason?

The Chiefs were not statistically terrible on defense this season. They ranked 18th in defensive EPA and were young in key spots. Kansas City’s No. 32 ranking in special-teams EPA accounts for the No. 29 ranking in combined EPA in the two phases Mahomes cannot control.

The “Quarterback Betrayal Index” we published before the season showed only five established starting quarterbacks over the previous decade getting less support from their own defense/special teams than Mahomes had gotten from his. Drew Brees, Justin Herbert, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers combined for zero Super Bowl victories over that 10-year run from 2012-21. Mahomes had won one, and now he has another.

Mahomes is one of 83 quarterbacks with at least 50 total starts since 2000. He has the best starting record among them, by far, when his teams finish games with negative combined EPA in on defense/special teams. Mahomes is 39-19 (.672) in those games. Brady is next at 88-79 (.527), followed by Peyton Manning at 75-68 (.524). The other quarterbacks won less than 30 percent of these games.

If we focus on more extreme betrayal games, looking only at those when the combined EPA on defense/special teams was a touchdown worse than average, Mahomes stands alone at the top as the only qualifying QB to win even 47 percent of these starts (he is 23-16 in them, for a .589 win rate). Jameis Winston, Mitch Trubisky, Case Keenum, Mark Sanchez and Joey Harrington are a combined 0-77 in these games. Deshaun Watson is 2-17 in them. Derek Carr is 6-45. Eli Manning is 12-63. Even Rodgers and Brees have won only 35 percent of these especially hopeless games.

Kansas City finished this Super Bowl with minus-14.1 EPA on defense/special teams, and still won.

Mahomes is not the GOAT, but he’s doing things previous GOATS did not do. He is Dan Marino and Dan Fouts with championships, and he is only getting started. Let’s see if the Chiefs can reduce the degree of difficulty for him.

3. One more Mahomes note, about those three scrambles for 48 yards.

The Eagles’ Jalen Hurts outgained Mahomes on the ground when designed rushes are factored, but Mahomes was more effective on scrambles, despite his badly sprained ankle.

Mahomes’ three scrambles contributed 3.1 EPA in a game the Chiefs won by three points. Call them one of the differences in the game.

Scramble No. 1 (+0.6 EPA): First quarter, 8:56, 8-yard gain on first-and-10 from the Kansas City 48. It’s the Chiefs’ opening drive. How well can Mahomes move? Well enough to set up second-and-2 from the Philadelphia 44. Would the Chiefs take a shot at the end zone from there? Nope, they popped a 24-yard run instead, and soon Mahomes was finding Travis Kelce for an 18-yard touchdown.

Scramble No. 2 (+1.1 EPA): Third quarter, 10:57, 14-yard gain on second-and-3 from the Philadelphia 18. This scramble sustained the Chiefs’ touchdown drive to open the second half, pulling them within 24-21. Huge.

Scramble No. 3 (+1.4 EPA): Fourth quarter, 2:55, 26-yard gain on first-and-10 from the Philadelphia 43. This one, Mahomes’ longest rush of the season and the fifth-longest of his career, assured the Chiefs would be in range for a high-percentage field goal as they sought to break a 35-35 tie in the late going.

The Eagles could have defended his scrambles better, but after leading the league in sacks with 70 this season, perhaps their upfield instincts took over a few too many times. How badly was Mahomes really hurt? Was he sandbagging? We might never know.

4. The Hall of Fame welcomed five new modern-era players for enshrinement this year. Here’s a look at the favorites next year.

DeMarcus Ware, Darrelle Revis, Joe Thomas, Zach Thomas and Ronde Barber emerged from 15 finalists to secure enshrinement this year.

Positioning for enshrinement in 2024 begins now.

Julius Peppers and Antonio Gates are two newly eligible players with credentials strong enough for first-ballot status.

Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame monitor, which takes into account career achievements in projecting the likelihood of enshrinement, lists Peppers’ credentials eighth among all defensive ends, including those already enshrined. Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Jack Youngblood, Deacon Jones, J.J. Watt, Michael Strahan and Willie Davis stand ahead of him.

Gates ranks fourth among all-time tight ends, behind Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski and Shannon Sharpe, and just ahead of Dave Casper, Travis Kelce, Jason Witten and Kellen Winslow.

If Peppers and Gates make it as first-ballot choices, that leaves three modern-era slots for a group that includes nine 2023 finalists who remain in the mix.

Jared Allen, Torry Holt, Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne and Albert Lewis were the 2023 finalists who came closest to earning enshrinement without making the cut.

Lewis’ modern-era candidacy has expired. He’ll fall to the seniors committee in the future. The other four could be primary challengers to Peppers and Gates for modern-era slots. Willie Anderson, Devin Hester, Dwight Freeney, Patrick Willis and Darren Woodson were also finalists this year, and all remain eligible for modern-era consideration in 2024.

Also newly eligible: Brandon Marshall, whose elite receiving production stacks up well enough for consideration, but whose itinerant career works against him.

The table below stacks Marshall and every other receiver with at least 7,000 career yards entering the 2022 season by elite production. To evaluate elite production across eras, I calculated where each receiver finished in receiving yards as a percentile of the league leader in each player’s eight best-percentile seasons, then averaged the results.

Holt, Wayne and Johnson are all in the top 11. A few current receivers have subsequently passed the 7,000-yard mark but do not appear on this table, which was produced before the season.

5. While we’re discussing Hall of Fame legacies, here’s how I see the candidacies of major players (and non-players) from the Chiefs and Eagles.

Let’s stack these by likelihood of enshrinement if their careers ended right now.

• Andy Reid, Chiefs head coach: He’s a lock for Canton. Fifth on the all-time wins list, he has taken two franchises to the Super Bowl a total of four times with two different quarterbacks, winning twice. He has continually maximized his quarterbacks, showed flexibility by innovating an already successful offense to remain on the cutting edge, and is as solid as can be from a leadership standpoint.

• Travis Kelce, Chiefs tight end: Another lock. Kelce is fourth all-time in receiving yards for tight ends with 10,344 and could pass Gates (11,841) and Witten (13,046), which would leave only Tony Gonzalez (15,127) between Kelce and the top spot.

• Mahomes: Elite production with two MVPs, three Super Bowls and two Super Bowl victories in his first five seasons as a starter has Mahomes on a clear path to Canton. Would he make it right now if his career ended tomorrow? He might. Mahomes has already played more games than Terrell Davis, who made it, and positional value works in his favor. Sunday night certainly helped.

Jason Kelce, Eagles center: The five-time Associated Press First-Team All-Pro remains a top player at age 35. Starting in multiple Super Bowls only raises his profile. He’s 11th among centers in the Pro Football Reference HOF Monitor. Retirement is a possibility.

Fletcher Cox, Eagles defensive tackle: Cox was especially good for about seven of his 11 seasons and was truly elite for a handful of those through about 2018. Is he the second-best defensive tackle of his era behind Aaron Donald? That depends what you think of the next man on this list.

Ndamukong Suh, Eagles defensive tackle: Bouncing from team to team can sometimes hurt a player’s chances, but Suh’s extreme dominance early in his career must be considered. The Pro Football Reference HOF Monitor places him two spots ahead of Cox and seven spots ahead of the recently enshrined Bryant Young.

• Jeffrey Lurie, Eagles owner: Lurie has reached the Super Bowl with three coaches he hired and has also served on important committees, and he is not finished yet. We discussed his potential candidacy after the Eagles qualified for the Super Bowl.

6. Two-minute drill: The Cardinals and Colts still have not hired head coaches; could their timetables become the norm?

Tony Dungy advocated at the NFL Scouting Combine three years ago for the NFL to prohibit the hiring of head coaches until after the Super Bowl. Coaches working deep into the playoffs would be able to focus on game preparations, while a more deliberate process could become a more thorough, inclusive one.

An NFL team exec said he expects the league to consider implementing such a rule beginning with the 2024 hiring cycle.

“Is there really a hot-stove league where you have to hurry up?” this exec asked.

Teams might be heading in this direction anyway. The average number of days between the end of the regular season and head coaches being hired has gotten smaller recently, as the table below shows.

Year Days to Hiring
27.2 and counting

The average for the 2022 cycle excludes Tampa Bay’s hiring of Todd Bowles, because the job did not open until March. The average for the 2018 cycle excludes Indianapolis’ hiring of Frank Reich, because Josh McDaniels backed out of the job, extending the process.

Every hiring this offseason occurred at least 18 days following the end of the regular season.

Team HC Hired Days to Hiring
Frank Reich
DeMeco Ryans
Sean Payton

Kevin O’Connell (last season) and Reich (after the 2017 season) are the most recent coaches hired from Super Bowl teams. With three of five openings already filled this offseason, Arizona and Indianapolis represent the last hopes for assistants from the Chiefs and Eagles.

Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen could land with the Colts, while Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon will interview with the Cardinals this week. …

Nice touch here in the press box at Super Bowl 57. RIP ⁦

— Mike Sando (@SandoNFL) February 12, 2023

The NFL honored longtime reporters John Clayton and John “Moon” Mullin, in addition to team public-relations official Jason Jenkins, with memorial displays in the pressbox Sunday. …

The longtime Detroit News reporter and columnist Jerry Green covered every Super Bowl until his streak ended Sunday for reasons related to his age (94) and health.

“I’ve felt always that the viewer sees the game better on television, the close-ups of the camera work and especially the replays,” Green said for a recent piece in The Athletic.

As a beat reporter covering the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL following the 2005 season, I wasn’t aware while watching from the press box in Detroit that the TV announcers were buzzing about poor officiating.

The officiating angle became a consuming one in the days following that Super Bowl as coach Mike Holmgren told fans at a rally that facing the Pittsburgh Steelers was tough enough without having to contend with the officials as well. I had a clear view of the broadcast feed during this Super Bowl, and a great view overall, as seen below. Fortunately, the officiating was as good as it’s ever been. Which, come to think of it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ever been all that great. Perhaps Goodell was being truthful, after all.

We need Mills Lane to say let’s get it on, c’mon

— Mike Sando (@SandoNFL) February 12, 2023

(Top graphic: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photo: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

This content was originally published here.

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