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Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes vs. Bills’ Josh Allen: Who has the strongest arm?

  • Covered Chiefs for 20 seasons for Kansas City Star
  • Joined ESPN in 2013

There’s a reason Monday night’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs (5 p.m. ET, Fox) has the highest over/under (57.5 points) in the league for Week 6: two explosive offenses led by the NFL’s second- and fourth-leading passers, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, respectively. Stats aside, the pair are in a tier by themselves when it comes to one specific attribute: arm strength.

Coaches know it, teammates know it, fans know it. And clearly, so do they.

Allen showed interest in a throw-off with Mahomes during a guest appearance on the “Pardon My Take” podcast in February — which Mahomes reciprocated. They were serious enough to schedule an event, Allen said on “Good Morning Football” back in August, but they were forced to postpone it because of COVID-19 restrictions. Still, EA Sports’ Madden NFL 21 picked a side, giving Allen the strongest “Throwing Power” rating in the game.

We may never see either quarterback fully uncork a pass in a real game — both estimate they can throw it at least 80 yards. And with Mahomes ranking No. 2 in the NFL and Allen No. 6 in pass attempts of 20 or more yards since 2018, don’t be surprised to see Monday’s game turn into a showcase of their cannon arms.

Quarterback guru Jordan Palmer, who has worked with both, has a unique perspective on their arm talent.

“What we haven’t seen yet [in 2020] is [Bills receiver Stefon] Diggs running a curl on the left, and Josh breaks a tackle and rolls to his right,” Palmer said. “And Diggs just takes off toward the goalpost and Josh throws one 78 yards across his body — which is totally doable.

“Remember the first ball that Patrick really threw deep to [Chiefs receiver] Tyreek [Hill]? The defensive backs settled their feet because they were so far away from the quarterback that [they thought] there was no way he’s going to throw it. … There’s two guys that can do that — it’s Patrick and Josh. I’m not talking about hitting a deep ball. … I’m talking about the ‘Oh my god, did you see that?’ and everybody is talking about it for two weeks.”

The stats

Since Mahomes took over as the Chiefs’ full-time starter and Allen entered the league in 2018, they have the longest air distance passes tracked by NFL Next Gen Stats. Mahomes’ longest such throw, the touchdown to Hill that Palmer referenced, against Atlanta in Week 2 of the 2018 preseason, traveled 68.6 yards:

Allen threw a 57-yard completion to Zay Jones that traveled 63.9 air yards in Week 2 of the 2018 regular season:

Allen has regular-season bragging rights there, but when it comes to scoring throws, Mahomes has been better, leading the NFL with seven touchdown passes of 40-plus air yards since 2018. Allen has one TD on such throws over that same span, tied for 18th.

The case for Mahomes

In the summer of 2019, in the days before training camp and with very few people around, Mahomes stood on the Arrowhead Stadium playing field, took a couple of steps for momentum and heaved a football over the vast seating area that rises three levels high. Just for the fun of it.

This doesn’t mean Mahomes has the strongest arm in the NFL, but it was an impressive feat just the same. His arm strength never fails to get the attention of his teammates.

“He’s got a big arm,” Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman said. “Going backward, sideways, no matter. I think he can throw it 50-plus every time. I’m very confident he can get the ball to me no matter where I am on the field.”

Mahomes’ big arm has been on display again this season. He threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Hill in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers that traveled 53 yards in the air, and he threw it while running 11.2 mph. It’s only the third TD pass over the past four seasons in which a QB threw the ball 50-plus air yards while running 10-plus mph.

His 49-yard touchdown pass to Hardman in the end zone in Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens was thrown off his back foot because of pass-rush pressure.

“This kid, he does all kinds of different things during practice,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “With that arm and with his athletic ability, the ball can be thrown from any platform. He’s shown that. He’s proven that.”

Mahomes has thrown passes of more than 80 yards just fooling around in pregame warm-ups. As Palmer mentioned, the Falcons defending Hill on the throw in that 2018 preseason game appeared to give up on the play at one point, thinking Mahomes couldn’t get the ball that far.

Hardman knows how they feel. In an offseason practice last year, when he was a rookie, he would quit running hard when he got to a certain point down the field, thinking he had no chance to get the ball. Mahomes even took to Twitter to remind the rookie that few places on a field are inaccessible to his passes.

“It’s a different kind of league, a different kind of player,” Hardman said. “It definitely took a minute to get used to the arm strength. It’s not something you’re used to. It took until training camp until I got a grasp of it.”

The Chiefs still marvel at the throw in Atlanta and the dimension it adds to their offense.

“That’s the cool thing with him,” Chiefs offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. “Nothing is impossible. I mean, the ball fluttered and still went 65 or 70 yards in the air. That beyond-deep threat is always available with him.

“You just don’t expect to see that in a game. You can see it in practice, where a guy can run 5 yards, crow-hop and chuck it. … You don’t usually get to see a guy fully uncork it in a game situation. That touchdown pass was pretty fun to see and it’s good to put on tape. Defenses have to know with Tyreek Hill’s speed and [Mahomes’] arm, you may have to guard 70 yards deep instead of 50. That can be a good thing for our offense.”

Few quarterbacks can match Mahomes’ arm strength, but Allen is one who might.

“Obviously Josh has an extremely strong arm,” Mahomes said this summer during an appearance on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “But I’ve yet to see someone have a stronger arm than me, so maybe we can line up — I know we talked about having a throw-off — and then we can prove who really has the strongest arm.

“I have ultimate belief in myself. He does have a strong arm, but I’ve put it out there 80, 85 yards. If he beats that, he beats it.”

The case for Allen

The Bills made Allen the No. 7 overall pick in 2018 in part because of how his arm strength would fare in the cold temperatures and swirling winds of Orchard Park, New York. In his first career start, he showed his arm is plenty strong in normal conditions as well with what is still his longest completion in terms of air yards: the throw to Jones.

Palmer said the most impressive aspect of Allen’s arm strength is the effortlessness — “easy gas” as NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah calls it.

“It never looks like he threw it really hard — he doesn’t grunt when he rips it,” Palmer said. “His arm is the type of arm that when I have a group of other NFL starting quarterbacks, every day he’ll make one or two throws and the guys will giggle.”

Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can’t point to a particular play Allen made in practice.

Not to say there haven’t been any; at this point, it has become routine.

“He’s got a rifle, obviously,” Daboll said. “You see it every day. … I’m not going to compare him to any of the guys I’ve been around, but when he lets it go, it’s up there — and I’ve been around a few of them that have some pretty strong arms, but his is up there. He’s naturally gifted with his ability to throw the football. You’re kind of born with it, I think.”

Allen says the farthest he has ever thrown a ball was 83 yards in Wyoming — but he admits he got “a little help” from the 7,200-foot elevation.

“I know [Mahomes] has a cannon as well, so for the meantime, we’ll just let everybody guess at who throws farther,” he said.

The problem was never Allen’s capability to get a ball where it needed to be; before the 2020 season, it was his ability to do so efficiently. During his first two seasons in the league, the Bills quarterback completed 27% of his passes that traveled 20 or more yards downfield. That figure is up to 69% this season, good for fourth in the NFL.

His coaches trust him to make those throws this season, as Allen ranked second in the NFL in passing yards entering Week 6.

Despite his uncanny arm strength, Allen has worked to make sure he isn’t the type of passer to beat up his receivers’ fingers, like former strong-armed greats John Elway, Dan Marino and Brett Favre.

“I feel like that’s what really surprised me was the amount of touch for the speed that it’s coming,” Bills rookie receiver Gabriel Davis said. “It’s still got some good spin on it — it’s real easy to catch.”

So will a friendly throwing competition happen?

“I think at some point it will,” Allen said. “I don’t think it’s the smartest thing to do it the day before or the day of the game. But I’m sure we’ll have the discussion when we’re out there and we see each other.”

Said Mahomes: “I’m usually in Texas and he’s usually in, I think, California, so we’ll see what happens with that in the future. But I’m always up to any challenge.”

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