Andy Reid has long been regarded as one of the most inventive offensive minds in the NFL. The 49ers might find out why on Sunday.
Reid’s success with Brett Favre in the 1990s led to his first head-coaching job with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he groomed Donovan McNabb and later Michael Vick. He guided Alex Smith to back-to-back AFC West titles the past two seasons, which had never been done in Chiefs’ history.
Now, Reid might be painting his masterpiece to start his 20th campaign as a head coach. His first-time starter Patrick Mahomes is entering Sunday against San Francisco as toast of the NFL after throwing 10 touchdown passes, the most through the first two weeks in league history.
“We’ve got two games of him,” Kyle Shanahan said, “and he’s played unbelievable.”
Mahomes, who turned 23 Monday, tossed six touchdown passes Sunday against the Steelers, becoming the youngest to ever do so. He threw four more in the opener against the Chargers. Both games were on the road, setting the stage for the prodigal son to make his first career start in Kansas City on Sunday, where expectations couldn’t be higher for the Chiefs against San Francisco.
Reid, who’s seen his share of strong starts from quarterbacks, is doing his best to quell some of the outside enthusiasm for his new quarterback despite his team averaging 40 points over two weeks.
“I understand the excitement. I get it. I mean, everyone’s excited,” Reid said in a conference call. “He’s gone through two games. He’s heading for game three and he’s just trying to get ready for a good football team. I know it’s not very colorful, but that’s about what it is.”
The 49ers (1-1) squandered a 17-point lead to the Detroit Lions late during their first victory of the season Sunday. They allowed 347 yards and three touchdowns to Matthew Stafford.
But things could be even more difficult against Mahomes and his explosive playmakers such as speedy wideout Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt. The mixture of Reid’s system and his talented group of players has created the league’s highest scoring offense.
“Watching Andy for a long time, he always has some neat, cool things,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know where they come from. He’s in there looking up a lot of stuff because they do some unusual things. Sometimes I’m predicting it came from a high school team, maybe a college team.
“They have the speed at every angle to run those things and really put defenses in a bind because if you hesitate with a 4.3 receiver, and they have three of them, that is a huge issue,” he said of receivers who run faster than a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. “If you just play all the 4.3 receivers all day, they’ve got a pretty good back and a pretty good tight end who can get after you, also.”
Mahomes’ quick development can be traced back to Smith, the 49ers’ longtime quarterback who was traded to Kansas City after he was displaced by another promising quarterback in 2012, Colin Kaepernick. Smith proved to be a strong influence on Mahomes, as he was with Kaepernick, before getting traded to Washington last offseason to allow Mahomes to become the full-time starter.
The Chiefs traded up to the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NFL draft for Mahomes even after Smith helped the team to a 12-4 record and division crown the previous season. Smith remained the starter in 2017, allowing Mahomes time to learn how to prepare for the spotlight.
It’s the same philosophy the Patriots took with Jimmy Garoppolo, who sat three and a half years behind Tom Brady before getting dealt to the 49ers last October. Like Mahomes, Garoppolo benefited from an incubation period behind an established veteran.
“I think it’s tremendous for a quarterback to sit his first year,” Garoppolo said. “You kind of try to put yourself in that situation, how to learn from it, what you would do if you were in the spot they were in. There’s a ton of things that you could benefit from and I think if you use it properly, it’s good for you.”
Said Reid: “Not everybody does it like Alex. That’s the thing. ... But to have a guy like (Mahomes) be able to come in and to follow somebody that does it perfect, in preparation, then that’s something special.”
The 49ers considered drafting Mahomes, perhaps making him their franchise quarterback months before the Garoppolo trade materialized. They met with him before the draft.
But Mahomes was a difficult prospect to evaluate. He came from a spread system at Texas Tech where most of his reads were predetermined and throws were simplified. Garoppolo, on the other hand, was featured on tapes Shanahan gave his scouts while explaining what he looked for in quarterbacks.
Until recently, quarterbacks coming from similar college offenses have struggled to adapt to the NFL. Mahomes and Rams quarterback Jared Goff are exceptions.
“It is tough to evaluate,” said Shanahan. “You can evaluate talent and (Mahomes) has a ton of that. You can evaluate the person, who we loved. Handled himself great. Seems very intelligent. Seems like a very good kid. Everyone can see his arm strength. Everyone can see the ability. But, it’s tough because in a lot of those systems, not just there, you don’t get to see everyone really play the position just going through progressions and everything like that, staying in the pocket all the time.”
Shanahan is hoping his offense can turn a corner this week. The 49ers have struggled in key areas like the red zone and on third down so far with Garoppolo under center.
Garoppolo over the first two games completed just 56 percent of his passes, down from 67 percent last season. His quarterback rating has dropped from 96.2 to 77.4. But Reid is confident the 49ers’ young quarterback will bounce back, largely because of the mutual respect he has for Shanahan.
“I think he’s a good football player. And he does a lot of things well,” Reid said of Garoppolo. “He had an opportunity to work under one of the best to ever play in Tom and under a system that Bill (Belichick) has put together that’s phenomenal. And now he’s with a guy in Shanahan that’s unbelievable, who’s had a great career of grooming quarterbacks and being one of the real top offensive minds in the league. He’s in a good place and he’s a good football player.“