It’s a race against time for Patrick Mahomes


KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – JANUARY 20: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs throws a pass in the first half against the New England Patriots during the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 20, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

You’d be hard-pressed to top the field of starting quarterbacks for next Sunday’s conference championship games: It’s the Bills’ Josh Allen and three guys who have at least one league MVP and Super Bowl MVP on their resumes: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. 

Of course, the Bills might wind up playing a man who had never appeared in an NFL playoff game until Sunday night. Chad Henne, the Chiefs’ 35-year-old backup, stepped in for a concussed Mahomes and led the defending champs to a 22-17 win over the Browns in the AFC divisional round.

So the dominant question leading up to the AFC championship game is this: Will Mahomes be recovered from his concussion in time to lead the Chiefs against the Bills on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium? 

It’s difficult to say. Mahomes must go through the NFL’s five-step concussion protocol to be eligible for the title game. 

Mahomes tweeted out that everything was fine late Sunday night. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said he spoke with his star quarterback after the game and that Mahomes was “feeling good.”

“He’s doing great now, which is a real positive as we looked at this,” Reid said. “He passed all the deals that he needed to pass, so we’ll see where it goes from here.”

That doesn’t mean Mahomes will play Sunday. It’s not surprising that he and Reid would take the most optimistic view of the situation. But as the NFL asserts in its official concussion protocol, “each concussion is unique, and there is no set time-frame for return to participation.”

Doctors have to consider the player’s concussion history. It was Mahomes’ first documented concussion in the NFL. Still, no two concussions are alike, and they’re hard to predict. Mahomes also injured his left toe in Sunday’s game, which would likely affect his mobility if he played against Buffalo.

The Athletic cited a study of 29 quarterbacks who suffered a concussion between 2015 and 2019. The median recovery time — clearing protocol in time to play a game — was seven days. 

It’ll be seven days for Mahomes, so the protocol has to go smoothly for him to be ready to start the title game next Sunday night. Of course, we’re talking about a superb athlete, and the biggest game of the season. 

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the doctors. Mahomes was scheduled for another evaluation on Monday, in keeping with concussion protocol. Then he had to begin the five-step rehabilitation process for returning to play.

The first step calls for rest and limited activity with team trainers, such as stretching and light aerobics. If Mahomes manages those activities with no recurrence of symptoms, he advances to the second stage, which is aerobic exercise under the supervision of medical staff — running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike, for example.

Phase three is “football-specific” exercise and strength training. It calls for 30 minutes of exercise with team trainers. This is the stage where you’ll often observe a player on the side of the practice field, working with a strength coach. 

Assuming an absence of concussion symptoms, it’s on to phase four, which is non-contact football drills with teammates. Seeing their superstar throwing and catching would no doubt be a boost to the Chiefs. 

Mahomes must be subjected to ongoing neurological testing during the first four phases. If his brain is functioning at the required baseline levels, he can return to full football exercise in the fifth and final stage. 

After progressing through the five steps, Mahomes must be cleared by the team physician. But he also must be separately cleared by an independent neurological consultant (or INA), who is jointly approved by the NFL and the Players Association. 

That’s a lot to get through in seven days. Mahomes can’t return to practice until clearing phases 1-4, so he could play the title game without a single practice. He could be cleared by Wednesday. But it also might stretch right up until the day of the championship game against the Bills. 

Whatever the case, it’s hard to imagine Mahomes being in MVP form in time for the title game. You start to wonder if the fates are with the Bills, who benefited from Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson leaving Saturday’s division round game early with a concussion. 

Of course, Henne wouldn’t be the first backup quarterback to start against the Bills in a big playoff game. Jeff Hostetler had never started an NFL playoff game until taking over for injured Phil Simms in the 1990 NFC championship game. The Giants won.

A week later, Hostetler led the Giants over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.

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