Thursday night saw just about every NFL fan’s worst nightmare come true. Patrick Mahomes dislocated his right kneecap on a first-half sneak during Kansas City’s win over Denver. The injury is expected to keep Mahomes out for at least three games after an MRI showed no additional damage, a league source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday. Mahomes was replaced by backup quarterback Matt Moore on Thursday night.
It’s a crushing blow to a 5-2 Chiefs team expected to compete for the No. 1 seed in the AFC and a trip to the Super Bowl. Their path to those goals is now murkier. Even if you’re a fan of a rival team, Mahomes is unadulterated football joy. It’s awful to see that taken away.
Everyone loses, at least on some level, with Mahomes sidelined. You don’t need me to tell you that the Chiefs are a drastically different team without their star passer. In taking a step back and trying to look at the big picture, I’d like to get a sense of what might happen next and how the 2019 season might shift after the Mahomes injury. Let’s start with the Chiefs and work our way out:
The Chiefs will move forward, at least at first, with Moore
If you’re a Chiefs fan looking for some vestige of hope, let me start with this: Moore has generally been an underrated quarterback during his time in the NFL. He was basically a league-average player on a middling Dolphins team in 2011, only for ownership to push for a more exciting option the following offseason to help sell tickets, which led the franchise to draft Ryan Tannehill. Moore then spent four years on the bench, but when he came back in for an injured Tannehill in 2016 and then Jay Cutler in 2017, he was again generally a competent quarterback, with one bad start against the Ravens as an exception. With better luck, Moore might have had a few seasons as a viable starter. That’s not Mahomes, but it’s better than most teams have waiting in the wings.
It’s fair to note that Moore is 35 and was starting to work as a scout for the Dolphins before the Chiefs signed him in August as a replacement for the injured Chad Henne. I’d also make the case that Moore didn’t get to spend his career playing under Andy Reid, who has made backups like A.J. Feeley and Kevin Kolb look like viable starters while coaxing career seasons out of Alex Smith and Michael Vick.
Moore looked bad for most of his debut Thursday night, which isn’t necessarily surprising. He likely hasn’t had any reps with the first-team offense. Research I’ve done in the past suggests that backups tend to play better when they start a game from the beginning (and presumably have had some practice time with the first team) as opposed to coming in off the bench, which usually results in about a 10% penalty in terms of effectiveness. Moore didn’t throw at all during the 2019 preseason and sat out the 2018 campaign, so he hadn’t thrown a competitive pass since November 2017.
If any quarterback was going to come off the bench and take over a job, it’s difficult to imagine a friendlier situation than the one Moore inherits. The Chiefs have arguably the most creative offensive mind in the league with Reid. I ranked Kansas City’s weapons as the second best in the NFL before the season, and that was before they acquired LeSean McCoy, who has added depth to their running back room. Sammy Watkins is dealing with a hamstring injury, but when you start your receiving corps with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, it’s going to make your quarterback’s life easier.
Of course, Moore might be toast. Losing your starting quarterback also doesn’t just mean that you’re down to your second-string passer; it means that you’re one hit away from relying on your third-string quarterback. While I recognize that the Steelers just won a game with Devlin Hodges, nobody hoping to compete for a playoff spot wants to rely on their third-stringer. The Chiefs can hope to get by with Moore for the weeks while Mahomes is missing, but that’s a dangerous game to play, to which the Steelers can attest.
The Chiefs have undrafted rookie Kyle Shurmur — yes, the son of Giants coach Pat Shurmur — on their practice squad. They probably don’t want to be one moment away from turning things over to Shurmur for any length of time. With that in mind …
They should look into adding a veteran quarterback
There are actually quite a few veteran options the Chiefs could plausibly consider acquiring via trade. They have a full complement of 2020 draft picks minus a fifth-round selection, which went to the Jets for Darron Lee. They’ll send the Seahawks a second-round pick for Frank Clark, but they’re due a second-rounder from the 49ers as part of the Dee Ford trade. Both picks appear likely to come in the bottom of the round.
Whom could the Chiefs target? The short list starts with a familiar face:
Nick Foles. Reid drafted Foles in Philadelphia, and the former Super Bowl MVP credited Reid with saving his career after his disastrous stint with the Rams. The 30-year-old never really got started in Jacksonville, as Foles went down with a broken collarbone after two drives in Week 1. Gardner Minshew has won hearts and minds since taking over the starting job, and it’s unclear whether the Jaguars will hand the job back to Foles when he returns from injured reserve. It’s easy to put two and two together here.
Foles is a great football fit, but the timeline doesn’t make sense here. If his initial timeline was accurate, he won’t be back until Week 11. The Chiefs likely expect to get Mahomes back at or around that time, at which point they could move forward with Mahomes as their starter and Moore as the backup. They realistically need a quarterback who can at least step in on an emergency basis for Moore now. Foles also doesn’t make financial sense, given that he has $20.1 million in practical guarantees coming due next season.
Marcus Mariota. Timing is everything! The Titans benched their longtime starter for Tannehill this week in the hopes of sparking an offense that has scored one touchdown in its past five halves of football. Mariota has produced a pair of impressive performances against the Browns and Falcons this season, and he has thrown only two interceptions on 159 pass attempts, but the hyperconservative Mariota has averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt in four Tennessee losses.
Mariota is in the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, and as the former second overall pick, it’s a significant chunk of change. The Titans owe him $13.5 million in prorated guaranteed salary over the remainder of the season, all of which would come off the books if he were traded to another team. That’s too much to pay, given that Mahomes could be back in a month.
The Titans organization might not love the optics of trading a guy who had been considered a franchise cornerstone for a late-round pick. The good news, at least relative to Foles’ deal, is that Mariota is in the final year of his contract.
The Titans also likely still fancy themselves as contenders in the AFC South, and if they do, they probably don’t want to rule out the chances of Mariota playing again this season. Tannehill hasn’t completed a full 16-game season since 2015. He’s hardly a sure thing to start all 10 of Tennessee’s remaining games. Tennessee didn’t frame Mariota’s benching as a permanent decision, and if Tannehill struggles, I suspect the Titans would want the option of turning back to Mariota. If coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson have decided that they’re truly done with Mariota, it’s only then that I would figure a Mariota trade makes sense.
Andy Dalton. The Bengals are 0-6 and going nowhere. Playing behind a porous, injury-riddled offensive line and without star receiver A.J. Green, the 31-year-old Dalton is having his worst season since 2011 by both passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt. Dalton has $10.4 million in prorated base salary remaining in 2019 and $17.5 million in unguaranteed salary waiting in 2020, the final year of his extension.
The Bengals will presumably pursue a quarterback with their 2020 first-round pick, which would likely bring an end to Dalton’s tenure in Cincinnati. They also moved up in the fourth round this year to draft Ryan Finley, so it would make sense for the Bengals to move on from Dalton and evaluate Finley over the rest of the 2019 season, albeit behind a compromised offensive line.
I can’t see the Chiefs wanting to spend that much money for a quarterback who might not be that much better over the next few weeks than Moore, given that the latter already knows the playbook. The Bengals typically don’t sell veterans during losing seasons and have publicly disavowed any interest in trading Green, so I wonder if they would be inclined to move on from Dalton.
Eli Manning. Speaking of Pat Shurmur, his former starting quarterback is currently an expensive backup behind Daniel Jones in New York. Barring an injury to Jones, it’s likely that Manning has played his last game in a Giants uniform. Manning has just under $7.5 million in prorated salary left on his deal, but he also hasn’t looked good in several years.
I can’t imagine that the Chiefs would go after Manning unless the Giants cut their former starter, which would allow the Chiefs to sign Eli for the league minimum.
Colt McCoy or Case Keenum. Washington is on a slow train to Dwayne Haskins as its starting quarterback, and with the first-rounder taking first-team reps in practice this week, a 1-5 Washington team would have two viable NFL quarterbacks backing up the rookie when they only need one. McCoy was reportedly favored by deposed coach Jay Gruden, which could make him disposable.
McCoy didn’t look good in his only start, which did come against the Patriots’ defense. Keenum began the season as Washington’s starter and came back into the lineup for the Week 6 win over the Dolphins, but he’s reportedly struggling with shoulder and foot injuries. You would imagine that the Chiefs could get one of the two Washington quarterbacks for nothing more than a late-round pick.
Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Rosen. The Dolphins announced that Rosen was their starter for the remainder of the season coming out of their bye, but after a dreadful performance against Washington, they benched him in the fourth quarter and then reinstalled Fitzpatrick as their starter for Sunday’s game against the Bills. For a team actively tanking, Fitzpatrick’s modest utility remains a waste of time. He has only $970,000 or so in prorated base salary remaining on his deal, so he would be the low-cost option if the Chiefs don’t have any cash left in their 2019 budget.
Rosen has now looked awful in Arizona and again in Miami; he has played for two terrible teams behind the two worst offensive lines in football across their respective years. Reid has taken on reclamation projects before, and while Rosen might just be a colossal bust, there’s a chance the Chiefs could coax something more competent out of him with a better offense. I don’t think you can insert Rosen in the lineup ahead of Moore, but he would step in as the backup in lieu of Shurmur.
Rosen also has just over $6 million remaining in his contract over the next three seasons, so the Chiefs could theoretically find a backup for years to come and a possible trade candidate down the line. The Dolphins clearly expect to take a quarterback with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, and they don’t appear to think very much of Rosen. If they’re ready to cut bait and the Chiefs think Moore is a viable starter, they could take a shot at the former first-round pick.
Colin Kaepernick. The arguments against teams signing Kaepernick in the past have been flimsy or downright inaccurate, as Kaepernick’s representation pointed out last week. No quarterback with Kaepernick’s résumé has ever been unable to get another job at this age. Let’s not rehash those arguments again.
There are teams that have clearly ruled out Kaepernick. The Chiefs don’t appear to be one of them. In 2017, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said he wouldn’t hesitate to sign Kaepernick if his football people wanted the former 49ers star. I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare Kaepernick’s absence to that of Vick for obvious reasons, but when the former Falcons standout left prison, Reid signed Vick to serve as a backup with the Eagles.
Reid took a quarterback who had struggled to fit into a West Coast offense with the Falcons and coaxed out the best season of Vick’s career. Reid’s ability to mold his offense to his quarterback’s strengths is unlike anybody else in football, given that Reid started 2010 with Kolb as his starter and instead spent most of the year with Vick in charge. None of the other quarterbacks on this list have anything close to Kaepernick’s upside. Kaepernick’s college coach, Chris Ault, was also a consultant with the Chiefs from 2013 to 2015.
Kaepernick, 31, wouldn’t require any trade compensation, and he would come at a smaller salary than the likes of Dalton, Manning or Mariota. Outside of Jim Harbaugh returning to the NFL, I can’t imagine a more logical situation for a team to pursue Kaepernick than this one.
Alternately, the Chiefs could look to supplement elsewhere
On the other hand, history tells us Reid doesn’t have a habit of going after quarterbacks in midseason. He has never signed a quarterback after Sept. 1 and then started that quarterback in the same season, despite having passers like Donovan McNabb go down with serious injuries. I would argue that the Chiefs find themselves with a unique circumstance given the variety of options available and the upside of Kaepernick being available on the free-agent market, but it’s also telling that the Chiefs signed Moore, not Kaepernick, when Henne went down injured in August.
Stephania Bell explains that the Chiefs’ medical staff had to relocate Patrick Mahomes’ kneecap and what the next steps are for Kansas City’s QB.
With Mahomes missing for the next few weeks, the Chiefs could try to firm up the other elements of their roster while waiting for their star quarterback to return. A moribund Chiefs pass rush finally showed signs of life during the blowout victory over the Broncos, but Denver is stuck with a statuesque Joe Flacco and one of the worst sets of tackles in the NFL while Ja’Wuan James is injured. This defense isn’t suddenly fixed after one game in Denver.
The Chiefs could look toward adding help at cornerback, with Cardinals star Patrick Peterson as the most notable option. ESPN’s Mike Clay ran through a number of other cornerback options earlier this week.
Given the issues with Kansas City’s run defense and the likelihood that the Chiefs won’t be able to eliminate the opposing running game by getting out to huge leads, Kansas City could look for help along the defensive line. The highest-profile trade option there would be Leonard Williams of the Jets, but a more plausible candidate would be someone like Tampa Bay’s Beau Allen.
The AFC West could be up for grabs
The Chiefs are still prohibitive favorites to win the AFC West and are now two wins ahead of the 3-2 Raiders, who sit in second place. They also beat the Raiders handily in Week 2, giving them possession of a crucial tiebreaker between the two. With Mahomes out for several weeks and the Chiefs facing the Packers and Vikings over that time frame, though, the Raiders could certainly see a scenario in which they have a window to get past the Chiefs in the divisional race.
I don’t know whether the Raiders would feel excited enough about their chances to trade one of the picks they have coming due from the Bears as part of the Khalil Mack trade, but it might be enough to tip them into the buyers category in advance of the Oct. 29 trade deadline.
The Texans are in great shape to get a first-round bye
After beating the Chiefs in Kansas City, Bill O’Brien’s team was already ahead of K.C. in the line for a first-round bye. The Texans entered Week 7 with a 45% shot of finishing as the first or second seed in the AFC, with the Chiefs trailing as the conference’s third-most-likely team at 36.8%. The Patriots, unsurprisingly, lead the pack at nearly 93%. Kansas City will temporarily see its chances rise with the win over the Broncos, but it is far more likely to slip up over the next few weeks with Mahomes out.
It’s bad news (for the) Bears
Although Mahomes is set to return later this season, the reigning league MVP is going to miss much-anticipated tilts against the Packers and Vikings over the next two weeks. That’s not going to help the 3-2 Bears, who trail both teams in the NFC North and are likely to face a Chiefs team with its starting quarterback in tow when Chicago goes up against Mahomes in Week 16.
Thursday Night Football will only seem like more of a bad idea
Players hate Thursday Night Football. While studies haven’t shown an increased risk of injury in games played on short rest, the Cardinals-Seahawks game from November 2017 comes to mind as one clear example of a Thursday night game producing serious injuries. Players already find it understandably difficult to manage the wear and tear throughout an NFL season on regular weeks; it’s almost impossible on a short week of football.
While fans also complain about the quality of play on social media, the reality is that they also keep tuning in. There have been some stinkers on Thursday night, with this week’s game firmly in that category, but the Eagles-Packers and Rams-Seahawks games that preceded the Broncos-Chiefs tilt were two of the most exciting games of the season. The NFL has no intention of getting rid of Thursday Night Football.
At the same time, we just saw the dangers of the league’s desire to add another night to its television package. The league MVP came into a short week with a preexisting ankle injury. Mahomes sprained his left ankle and injured his right knee, so it’s difficult to directly link the two injuries, but it’s impossible to say whether the Chiefs would have made the same playcall on fourth-and-1 if Mahomes had been healthy enough to scramble without discomfort. For what it’s worth, Thursday night was the first sneak Mahomes had attempted in 2019 after just two sneaks in all of 2018.
While it’s true that Mahomes could have injured his knee on a random Sunday, he didn’t. Players who were already reminded of just how perilous Thursdays can be have another example. In a year in which players such as Jalen Ramsey and Ezekiel Elliott have held out (or feigned back injuries) to keep themselves healthy in advance of getting what they want, I wonder if we’ll eventually see a player who refuses to play on Thursdays and negotiates a contract with such a clause. Whether you’re a fan or a player, anybody who was watching Chiefs-Broncos can’t feel good about Thursday night games after seeing what happened to the league’s most exciting player.