After his breakout 2018 season, there is no doubt Patrick Mahomes will go down as the greatest player to ever step foot on an NFL field.
OK, OK, maybe there is some doubt, but still he looks to be one of, if not the, top quarterbacks in the NFL for the next decade or two, which is great news for fans of the Kansas City Chiefs. Having a top guy at the most important position in sports means the Chiefs will be consistent Super Bowl contenders for the foreseeable future. But as we’re painfully aware, the offense is just one side of the ball, and the defense prevented the Chiefs from winning the Super Bowl in Mahomes’ first season. With the defense hopefully improved this offseason, all Chiefs fans have dreams of Lombardi trophies next February. So the question is whether Mahomes is partly a cause of the bad defense or not.
No, I’m not talking about the argument that his turnovers put the defense in a bad position. In fact the Chiefs defense in 2018 enjoyed the 2nd most favorable starting field position in the NFL. Despite this they gave up the 5th most points per drive. It wasn’t bad field position that allowed other teams to score lots of points, but the Chiefs defense allowing them to move down the field.
So if it was on the defense, then what did Mahomes have to do with it? What’s the Mahomes Paradox? To build the Mahomes Paradox we will need three building blocks:
The Mahomes Paradox is derived from Simpson’s Paradox, which was conveniently covered in a recent Science Saturday post.
The idea is counter-intuitive at first, but makes sense when you think about it. Consider two hospitals, Hospital A and Hospital B. Hospital A has a higher survival rate than Hospital B when treating patients in both high risk and low risk categories, but Hospital B has a higher overall survival rate because they treat fewer high risk patients and more low risk patients. This may not seem like it has anything to do with football, let alone Mahomes, but bear with me, because this leads us to our second building block.
Passing > Rushing
This is a fact that’s been well known among analytical types for a long time. If you measure how many yards NFL teams gain on the average pass play compared to the average run play, passing plays are much better. This is true for virtually all NFL teams no matter how you choose to measure. In spite of this metric NFL teams insist on running more than they should, so any team that passes more than the NFL average automatically gains an advantage over the competition.
Which brings us to the final building block.
Teams Pass More When They’re Losing
This part should be obvious, because if you’re down 17 points in the 4th quarter you’re not going to be running the ball very much.
Because of how good Mahomes is, the Chiefs offense will be putting up lots of points, which means that the other team will very often be facing deficits late in games, which will lead to them passing the ball more. Since passing is more efficient than rushing, and teams already don’t pass enough, this means that these teams will be calling a more effective run-pass balance out of sheer necessity. Thus the Chiefs defense overall will be facing more of the plays that are more effective and less of the plays that are less effective.
So because of Simpson’s Paradox, even if the defense is good at stopping the pass and the run, their overall numbers could look much worse. This isn’t just a theory, but a big contributing factor to the Chiefs’ defensive struggles in 2018. For example, the pass defense was 13th in passer rating allowed. That’s right, 13th best. Better than teams like the Eagles, Colts, and even the Cowboys.
But because Mahomes was such a monster other teams were passing far more than normal. The defense had the most pass attempts against them in the NFL, which led to them allowing the 2nd most passing yards. This becomes our paradox because, well, what are you supposed to do, tell Mahomes to stop scoring so much? That’s obviously ridiculous. But the more points the offense puts up the more the defense will bend through no fault of their own.
Is there a solution? Perhaps the solution is to do nothing, a paradoxical paradox, if you will.
Thinking back again to 2018, the Mahomes Paradox games, where the Chiefs built a huge lead forcing the other team to pass, all ended up being victories. The game against San Francisco is a typical example of a Mahomes Paradox game. The Chiefs offense had a perfect first half, scoring a touchdown on every single first half possession to go up 35-10 at halftime, but in the second half the 49ers became much more aggressive and managed to score 17 points, making the game look closer than it really was (the final score was 38-27).
The 5 games the Chiefs actually lost were not Mahomes Paradox games. In both Patriots games as well as against the Seahawks and Rams the Chiefs were down virtually the entire game, and when they did have a lead it wasn’t by much. Against the Chargers at home the Chiefs did build some 14-point leads, but that’s still relatively small, because in that particular game every time the Chiefs extended the lead to 14, the Chargers answered with a TD, so they were never down big for long.
In conclusion, while perhaps the Mahomes Paradox didn’t actually hurt the team in the win column, it does seem to have made the defense look a bit worse than it really was.