Patrick Mahomes
Jamie Squire//Getty Images

WHEN Brett Veach followed Andy Reid to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, he accepted a position as the team’s “pro and college personnel analyst,” a vague, undefined front‑office role that doubled as a blank canvas, a dream job for an upwardly mobile football scout. Veach worked under general manager John Dorsey, an archetypal football grunt with a general’s baritone voice and a habit of wearing the same gray sweatshirt, and Chris Ballard, a handsome, well‑coiffed director of pro personnel with a bright future. Veach did a little of everything—college scouting, pro personnel work; the job description was basically Let’s see what you got—but above all else, he watched tape of football players.

If you think you understand how much tape football scouts consume in a given year, you’re almost certainly wrong. It is an astonishing, astounding, almost sickening amount. When Dorsey came to Kansas City, the organization’s scouts spent the seventeen days before the NFL Scouting Combine watching tape of college players— marathon sessions that began at 5 a.m. and sometimes lasted late into the evening, like a training camp for scouts. Dorsey was the type of football man who believed that salvation could be found through film work, that if you couldn’t discern an answer about a player on tape, it probably didn’t exist. In the old scout’s view, the only way to find talent—the only way to build a championship roster that could win a Super Bowl—was to grind tape, three, four, five games at a time, so much tape that if you looked up at the clock and realized five hours had passed and your brain wasn’t completely numb, well, maybe you were onto something. This is what happened to Brett Veach one day in early 2016.

Veach no longer held a vague title. He’d been promoted to codirector of player personnel, and he was looking at an offensive lineman from Texas Tech who was projected to go in the NFL draft that spring. Among the first games he watched was Texas Tech’s 56–27 loss to LSU in the Texas Bowl on December 29, 2015. It wasn’t much of a game. LSU had All‑American running back Leonard Fournette and NFL talent all over the field. But as Veach watched, he kept finding himself drawn to the quarterback from Texas Tech, who was slinging sidearm passes and scrambling around and fighting like hell to keep his overmatched team in the game. Veach once joked with colleagues that he has an internal “excitometer” that surfaces when he watches football players, a crude measurement system that existed in his mind and his gut. On the day he first witnessed Patrick Mahomes, the system overloaded.

Mahomes had just finished his sophomore season—just two years removed from Whitehouse High. He’d thrown for 4,653 yards as a sophomore and put up big numbers in the Red Raiders’ Air Raid offense, as most Texas Tech quarterbacks did, but owing to his quiet college recruitment and the fact he wasn’t eligible for the draft for another year, he wasn’t exactly on NFL radars. “Who is this guy?” Veach thought.

To Veach, the question became an obsession. Who was Patrick Mahomes? What was his story? Why was he at Texas Tech? Did he have the right size? How old was he? Would he be in the draft next year? It eventually led Veach down a rabbit hole—more tape and more ridiculous throws and more questions—and one day that spring, as he later recalled, he was grinding Mahomes tape on a quiet weekend inside the Chiefs’ offices when Andy Reid happened by. Reid was curious about what Veach was up to. Veach had a simple answer: He was watching the next quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Patrick Mahomes
A decade ago, Kansas City Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach was the team’s “pro and college personnel analyst,” a vague, undefined front‑office role that doubled as a blank canvas.

ONCE Brett Veach found Patrick Mahomes, he couldn’t shake him. There was something about the way Mahomes’s body worked, how his right arm could unleash thunderbolts from the most awkward angles, how he was built sturdy like a running back—with a backside that once helped him earn the nickname “Fatrick” at Texas Tech. Veach had less than a decade of scouting experience since joining Reid in Philly, but the more he watched, the more he was certain: Mahomes was the best football player he’d ever seen. He had spent the fall of 2016 combing through Texas Tech film, culling clips and sending them to Reid. He used his salesman’s touch to lobby Dorsey, who would have final say on the Draft. At one point, late in the fall, Veach put together around ten Mahomes highlights and flooded Reid’s phone. OK, Reid texted back, that was enough. Wait until the season is over.

The Chiefs finished 12‑4 and won their first AFC West title since 2010—before another crushing home playoff loss to the Steelers in January. But at some point in the new year, Reid came across one of the first media mock drafts for the upcoming 2017 NFL draft. He texted Veach to come to his office, where he had a printout of the first round. Did he realize Mahomes wasn’t even listed?

The doubters saw a “system quarterback”—a description reserved for college quarterbacks who were said to benefit from playing in a high‑powered or innovative spread‑passing attack. It was an epithet that dated back to at least the early 1990s, when the University of Houston had multiple quarterbacks put up historic numbers in a run‑and‑shoot passing attack, and it followed all Air Raid QBs, too, especially after a series of Texas Tech quarterbacks had failed in the NFL. The doubters also saw a project that had adventurous footwork and questionable decision‑making. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay wrote that Mahomes “misses entirely on too many open targets because his mechanics are all over the place.” The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock had Mahomes ranked as the fourth‑best quarterback in the draft, behind Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (who had just quarterbacked the Tigers to a national championship), and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky. When Mahomes heard back from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a panel of executives and scouting experts who assign grades to prospective players, he was told he was, at best, a second‑round pick. When Sports Illustrated profiled Mahomes in early March, the headline read: “The Draft’s Rorschach Test.”

Patrick Mahomes
Brett Veach was immediately drawn to a young Patrick Mahomes, who was fighting like hell to keep his overmatched Texas Tech squad in the game.

If you looked closer, or stared harder at the inkblot, you might have noticed there were explanations for the flaws: Mahomes had been playing quarterback for only five years, and he’d been a full‑time football player for only one. It wasn’t even until after his sophomore season, following a talk with Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, that he realized he had a chance to play in the NFL. “I think if you focus on football for one off‑season, that you’ll get drafted,” Mahomes recalled Kingsbury saying. So he quit baseball for good. Mahomes did have sloppy footwork. That was obvious. Sometimes he’d just drift backward and throw off his back foot for no reason in particular. Other times, he’d chuck a ball up for grabs, like he was playing the children’s game 500. “There’s some dumb throws,” Mahomes said that spring. But the backyard mechanics made his 65 percent completion percentage all the more impressive.

To fully appreciate Mahomes, you just had to watch him, the way he would feather an accurate throw in the strangest of situations, the way his mind could make split‑second calculations on the field, so a reckless throw was actually a well‑considered risk. There was one clip from his junior season, from a nonconference game against Louisiana Tech, where Mahomes scrambled to his left near midfield, planted his right foot in the ground, and flicked a ball 50 yards in the air— despite never turning his body or squaring his shoulders to the target to gain power on the throw. It was, Mahomes would say, a nod to his days as a baseball shortstop.

‘Does that mean you can remember every play you’ve ever played?’ Steinberg asked. ‘Yes,’ Mahomes said. ‘Somehow.’

The 2017 NFL draft was set to begin April 27 in Philadelphia. Mahomes had three and a half months to prove himself and move up draft boards. So in January, his agents, Leigh Steinberg and Chris Cabott, sent the quarterback to the Exos training facility in Carlsbad, California, where he began daily workouts with former NFL quarterback coach Mike Sheppard—the same Mike Sheppard who had once recruited Andy Reid to BYU.

On a field two miles from the Pacific Ocean, Sheppard ran Mahomes through drills to refine his technique: They worked on taking snaps under center. Sheppard emphasized holding the ball higher during five and seven‑step drops. Mahomes was a willing sponge. On one of their first days together at Exos, Mahomes wanted to take his shirt off and soak in the sun. When Sheppard protested, Mahomes respectfully acquiesced, slipping his shirt back on. “He was a likable dude,” Sheppard said. Mostly, though, Sheppard wanted to teach Ma‑ homes what the NFL sounded like, so they zeroed in on the different languages of NFL schemes. They went over the verbiage of the West Coast offense, pioneered by Bill Walsh. They studied the “number system” of the “Air Coryell” offense, the vertical passing attack made famous by the San Diego Chargers and their head coach Don Coryell. They covered so much ground that Sheppard came to realize that Mahomes was more than a big arm. “He was smarter than maybe anybody knew,” he said.

Mahomes had earned a 3.71 grade point average at Texas Tech, but when Steinberg and Cabott first met him, they learned of his photographic memory—the same eidetic recall he’d used in travel baseball and high school football. “Does that mean you can remember every play you’ve ever played?” Steinberg asked. “Yes,” Mahomes said. “Somehow.” If NFL teams were concerned that Mahomes was a system quarterback—specifically one from a simplified scheme that almost exclusively used the shotgun formation—Steinberg believed they just needed to see how his mind worked. When Mahomes met with the Arizona Cardinals before the draft, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians put his memory to a test. On a board, he drew up six plays and two or three pass‑protection schemes; then he showed Mahomes video of some blitz packages and offered audible calls that would allow him to switch the protection, depending on the look. Just two hours later, Mahomes was out on the field, and Arians blurted out a protection‑and‑blitz package. “Rightie! Rightie!” Mahomes said, fixing the protection. “Holy cow,” Arians thought. Then he did it again. Mahomes had already mastered something that might take another quarterback a year.

Patrick Mahomes
The rap on Mahomes? Before the 2017 NFL Draft, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay wrote that the quarterback “misses entirely on too many open targets because his mechanics are all over the place.” Getty

The secret was starting to get out. The Cardinals (who had the thirteenth pick) liked Mahomes. So did Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula, who sought to give his front office complete autonomy to make their own choice at No. 10. The New Orleans Saints, who picked one spot after the Bills, were thinking quarterback, too, and when Saints coach Sean Payton traveled to Lubbock, Texas, he was taken by Mahomes’s talent—and his smile: “Man,” Payton thought, “this is the best quarterback I’ve ever evaluated.” The Chiefs, meanwhile, were picking twenty‑seventh and still hadn’t picked a quarterback in the first round since 1983, when they drafted Todd Blackledge seventh overall out of Penn State—after John Elway and ahead of Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Blackledge was famously a bust, the black sheep of the Class of 1983, never starting a full season and finishing with more interceptions than touchdowns, and for the next generation the Chiefs more or less stopped taking chances on young QBs.

Back in Kansas City, however, Dorsey and the front office were starting to plot. On January 17, Veach had run into Cabott at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl—a predraft scouting event—and revealed a secret: He loved Mahomes. The conversation started a daily back channel of texts and updates that lasted for another three months. Steinberg and Cabott saw Kansas City as an ideal landing spot. Steinberg had known Chiefs owner Clark Hunt since Hunt was a ball boy. Andy Reid was renowned for his work with quarterbacks. The Chiefs had a good starter in Alex Smith, but even the Mahomes family believed he might benefit from a year of development on the bench. And then there was the city: Steinberg saw Kansas City as a “scalable” town for a kid from Tyler, Texas—a place where Mahomes might fit into the culture and connect with a fervent fan base. Steinberg thought of the cliché “Midwest nice.” It fit Patrick Mahomes. “It’s a city where you know the fan base loves football,” Mahomes said. “You want to be a part of a city that’s just all in for you.”

Of course, just as Steinberg and Cabott believed, Mahomes was moving up. If the Chiefs were going to land him, they couldn’t wait until the twenty‑seventh pick, so as the draft approached, the front office looped in Hunt. First, they brought him to the team’s war room to look at Mahomes’s film. (“I don’t watch tape on many players,” Hunt said. “But that was a special situation.”) Then, about six weeks before the draft, Hunt joined Reid, Dorsey, and Veach on a conference call. All throughout the process, Veach had been consumed by the thought of what if? What if Mahomes could learn from Andy Reid? What if he could utilize his skills in a West Coast offense?

What if you surrounded him with speed and skill? What if the Chiefs finally drafted a quarterback? On the call, another question came into focus: What if the Chiefs traded up with another team to get Patrick Mahomes? The front office laid out the various trade scenarios for Hunt. (“The hot zones,” Veach said later.).

Around the same time, as the calendar pressed toward April, Andy Reid picked up a phone and called Mike Sheppard, his old friend from BYU. In seconds, Sheppard understood what Reid was after. Reid deemed it a “due diligence” call. The Chiefs liked Mahomes, he said; he just had some questions. Of course, that kind of call usually lasts about fifteen minutes, and when Reid was still on the phone close to an hour later, still asking questions about Mahomes, Sheppard sensed something different.

“This is more than just a due‑diligence call, isn’t it?” he asked. Yes, it was.

“I think he’s Brett Favre,” Reid said.

Patrick Mahomes
“I think he’s Brett Favre,” said Kansas City’s head coach, Andy Reid, about a pre-NFL Patrick Mahomes. Since then, they’ve won two Super Bowls together. Getty

ON THE morning of the NFL draft, as Veach headed off to work, his wife, Allison, wished him good luck and handed off a small note, a message scribbled by their six‑year‑old daughter, Ella.

Pat No Matter What.

The note was a reference to the 2014 film Draft Day, which stars Kevin Costner as an NFL executive navigating the emotional twists of the first round while trying to land a future star named Vontae Mack. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it wasn’t a perfect analog to the Chiefs’ predicament—nor was it a particularly good movie— but the note offered the kind of good vibes that Veach needed. “Go, Chiefs,” his wife said.

The same morning, John Dorsey was calling Doug Whaley, the general manager of the Buffalo Bills. Their communication had started months earlier, around the NFL Scouting Combine, and just days earlier they had agreed to the basics of a possible trade, in which the Chiefs would package the twenty‑seventh pick, a third‑round pick, and their first‑round pick in 2018 to move up to the Bills’ spot at No. 10. Now Dorsey wanted to keep the lines open. “Don’t get scared now,” he told Whaley.

The NFL draft can feel like an impenetrable black box. Teams protect their intel like diplomatic cables. Smoke screens are everywhere. Dorsey, for instance, had invited the top five quarterback prospects to visit Kansas City before the draft, just so Mahomes would not stand out, and he kept dropping the name of Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster into conversations with other executives. But this meant that nobody in the Chiefs front office could be certain how it would go. The Saints lurked at No. 11, and Dorsey was certain they wanted Mahomes. The Cleveland Browns (always in need of a quarterback) had the first pick and the twelfth. Nobody seemed to know anything about the Chicago Bears at No. 3. But if the Chiefs could move up to No. 10, Dorsey was really worried only about the Chargers at No. 7—who could stash Mahomes behind an aging Philip Rivers.

Veach, meanwhile, worried that the Saints and the Cardinals, picking at No. 13, had the draft picks to trade up higher than No. 10, if they were so motivated. But there was one piece of NFL fine print working in the Chiefs’ favor. NFL contracts for rookies contain a team option for a fifth season, and it just so happened that the slotted money for the fifth‑year option fell off substantially from the tenth pick to the eleventh. Thus, it made financial sense for the Saints and Cardinals to sit tight and not trade up. The Chiefs, Veach thought, could catch the entire league by surprise.

Back in Texas, Mahomes was still hopeful about Kansas City. He had left his predraft meeting with the Bears convinced they might take him, and he heard similar sentiments from other coaches, but as the draft approached, he had his agents deliver a message to the Chiefs front office, using the inside info they’d gathered from other teams: If the Chiefs wanted to draft Mahomes, they needed to move up to at least twelfth. It wasn’t perfect intel—Mahomes didn’t know how much the Saints coveted him—but it was a confirmation of sorts for the Chiefs: “I wanted to be here,” he said later.

On draft day, Mahomes skipped an invite to sit in the green room at the draft in Philadelphia and instead held a party for his family and friends at Lago del Pino, a stylish Tex‑Mex restaurant tucked into an idyllic backdrop of pine trees on Lost Pine Lake in Tyler. As the draft began, Mahomes took a seat on a sofa on the second floor of the restaurant. Steinberg clutched a piece of paper with possible scenarios. Cabott looked at his phone and saw a text message from Veach. It was the Texas Tech logo.

The draft began as expected: The Browns took defensive end Myles Garrett. But then came a surprise: The Chicago Bears traded up one spot to take North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky at No. 2, which astounded executives across the league. Trubisky had started just one season at North Carolina, and the Bears had flattered Mahomes in their meeting. Bears GM Ryan Pace would say one difference was Trubisky’s perceived ability to process information, which he compared with that of the Saints’ Drew Brees. 

Back in Texas, the selection of Trubisky rippled through the party. As Adam Cook, Mahomes’s high school coach, would later recall, it was at that moment that Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury made a prediction: “Watch them Chiefs,” he said. The Chiefs, too, were hopeful when Trubisky went off the board. But they still had to worry about the Chargers at No. 7. That could throw a wrench in the entire plan. They also still had a trade to finalize, and when the Chargers opted for Clemson receiver Mike Williams, Dorsey went to work, sorting through the trade details with Whaley one more time. The deal, in principle, was done, and when the Bills went on the clock at No. 10, Dorsey called back.

“Let’s get it done,” he said.

Whaley still wanted to wait on other offers before turning in the trade to the league. Inside the Chiefs’ draft room, they could only wait. One minute, then two, then three. Finally, Whaley called back. Veach tapped out a second text to Cabott, who looked at his phone at the party in Texas. It was another Texas Tech logo. Pat Sr. began to cry.

In the final moments before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the pick, Reid rushed to call Alex Smith, and Mahomes sat on a sofa at Lago del Pino, flanked by his mother and Steinberg. Nothing would ever be the same, not for Mahomes or the Chiefs or Kansas City. At one point that night, Mahomes got a text from Brett Veach.

It was a photo of a note.

Pat No Matter What.

Original story by Mark Dent And Rustin Dodd via Esquire US


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