KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes’ world as a starting quarterback without Travis Kelce consists of one game, a meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers late in the 2021 season when Kelce didn’t play because he was getting over a case of COVID-19.
Mahomes threw three touchdowns to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to a 36-10 win. But there’s not much Mahomes can apply from that game to his current situation. The Chiefs had Tyreek Hill then. Their leading receiver that day was Byron Pringle.
Neither of those players remain with the team. So Mahomes and the Chiefs are about to head into the unknown in Thursday’s game against the Detroit Lions at Arrowhead Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Kelce won’t play because of a knee injury he suffered in practice during the week.
One of the players who will be asked to help make up for Kelce’s absence, wide receiver Skyy Moore, wasn’t certain what the offense might look like without their longtime tight end.
“It’ll be a little bit different,” Moore said. “Everybody will be able to fill in the gaps. Obviously, that’s a Hall of Fame tight end, but we’ll be able to do our job and pull across the finish line.”
Mahomes had a great statistical game against the Steelers in 2021 without Kelce, but some of his key numbers are down throughout his career on plays when Kelce hasn’t been on the field.
Mahomes’ career QBR is 79 with Kelce in the game versus 65 without him. His average yards per attempt is 8.2 yards with Kelce, 7.2 without. The average air yards of his passes is 8.0 with Kelce, 6.1 without.
The Chiefs have gone heavy with the multiple tight end formations favored by Andy Reid. They were third in the league in number of plays with two or more tight ends on the field last season.
The Chiefs would still have the ability to frequently go with multiple tight ends. They have two other tight ends, Noah Gray and Blake Bell, on their active roster. They also have two on their practice squad, and could promote one or both to the active roster in time for the Lions game.
But without Kelce, their strength would seemingly be in a deep wide receivers group that includes seven players, including Kadarius Toney, who recently returned to practice after tearing a meniscus on the first day of training camp.
Mahomes has been able to adapt to a changing cast of skill players throughout his career. In 2018, Mahomes’ first season as a starter, the lead back was Kareem Hunt and their main wide receivers were Hill and Sammy Watkins.
All are gone and Mahomes has continued to thrive. Last season, his first without Hill, Mahomes won his second MVP award.
His one constant has been Kelce. Without him, Mahomes is facing his biggest adjustment of all.