AVENTURA, Fla. — Tom Brady broke his routine for a private meeting after a playoff game last season to tell Patrick Mahomes what he thought. Brett Favre called Mahomes “virtually flawless.” Kurt Warner called Mahomes the “most complete quarterback we’ve ever seen.”
Three Hall of Famers, each going out of his way, and that’s not the one that most sticks in Patrick Mahomes’ memory. That would be a year ago this week, when he accepted the MVP award in front of a room full of stars at the annual NFL Honors show on the eve of the Super Bowl. He took the trophy from Paul Rudd, nailed the speech, then walked off the stage … and the first person he saw was Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers, the future Hall of Famer. Rodgers, the man who once (half) jokingly said it would be an insult to compare his younger self to Mahomes.
“That was one of the guys I tried to model my game after when I was in college and high school,” Mahomes said. “To have that moment, where a guy like that is congratulating you right when you walk off the stage, it’s pretty cool.”
The idea that Mahomes is a transcendent player is not new. The idea that he has been the single greatest change agent — the force multiplier pulling so many others through — as the Chiefs have walked briskly away from a blooper-reel postseason history is not new.
Mahomes led them to their first home playoff win in 25 years, which gave them their first AFC Championship Game at home in the 47-history of their stadium. Then this year, he pushed them to their first Super Bowl in 50 years.
Which means it’s time for an absurd but true statement: Mahomes, just 24 years old and with 11 percent as many career starts as Brady, is one of the greatest players in modern football history.
A win Sunday would give Mahomes the objectively best first two years as a starter of any player since Jim Brown and, at least in theory and sports-talk debates, be enough for an eventual Hall of Fame induction regardless of what he does from age 25 on. That’s a ridiculous thing to say, except it’s true. So is this:
There is a non-zero percent chance that we are watching the best player the sport has ever seen, from beginning to end, all in Kansas City.
“I hope I get to play there the rest of my career now,” he said.
We can do this statistically: He already has more wins (including postseason), more yards and more touchdowns in his first two seasons as a starter than any quarterback in league history.
We can do this factually: He is one win from becoming the youngest quarterback in NFL history to be an MVP and Super Bowl champion.
We can do this with impact: Mahomes is having the best postseason by a quarterback since Pro Football Focus was invented in 2006 in terms of grade and expected points per play.
We can do this aesthetically: He is the planet’s only human capable of the 9 seconds of chaos touchdown against the 49ers last year, left-handed against the Broncos, fourth-and-9 against the Ravens, the jump pass against the Titans and the run in the AFC Championship Game.
And we can do this strategically: All of Mahomes’ wild highlights can muddy the stubborn and counterintuitive fact that he is among the league’s best both inside the pocket and out, when blitzed and when not, and against pressure and clean.
“What I don’t think people give him enough credit for is that he actually plays quarterback,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “There’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of quarterbacks in the league that will say no to (the first read) and then it just becomes street ball. He gets rid of the ball on time. He puts it where it needs to be. He hits a lot of throws in rhythm.
“And when he needs to take his shot, he knows how to buy time in the pocket and do it. So, he’s a superstar in every way you can possibly imagine and he’s going to be tough to deal with.”
In other words: There is no good way to defend him, only various strategies that focus on taking one thing away and praying against a dozen others.
But if we’re talking about Mahomes’ eventual place as the best quarterback to ever do it, the bar is deservedly high, which means nits can and should be picked.
Here’s a funny one: Mahomes’ regression this year meant the Chiefs averaged 30.4 points in his 16 starts, including the playoffs, and his QBR was the 27th best in the 14-year history of the statistic. Also, in their four games (again, including playoffs) with relative full health, the Chiefs are actually scoring on more possessions (61 percent) and scoring more points per possession (3.78) than they did in 2018’s record-setter of a year (52.6% and 3.12).
It’s telling of Mahomes’ ability and future that the most solid criticism about him is that he plays in perhaps the NFL’s best situation for quarterbacks. Andy Reid is among modern football’s greatest offensive minds, and Mahomes is surrounded by the league’s fastest receiver, another who would be the fastest player on, like, 27 teams, the world’s best or second-best tight end (depending on what you think of George Kittle), and an offensive line good enough to finish fifth in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus despite an absurd number of injuries (more on that later this week).
The most common knock on Brady’s place as the game’s greatest is that Bill Belichick can win without him, so with Mahomes it will be Who couldn’t succeed in this context?
Well, we do have a crude-but-useful way to measure this.
In Alex Smith’s last season as KC’s QB1, the Chiefs had essentially the same starters on offense, with the notable exception of running back Kareem Hunt’s only full season, when he led the league with 1,327 yards rushing.
That season the Chiefs averaged 25.9 points per game and 6.1 yards per play, finishing fourth in Football Outsiders’ catch-all offensive DVOA metric and blowing a 21-3 lead at home in their only playoff game.
In Mahomes’ 33 full games as QB1, the Chiefs have averaged 32.7 points and 6.6 yards per play. They have finished first and third in DVOA and won three playoff games (matching their total from the previous 25 years), with the chance for one more.
For perspective, only five teams (excluding the Chiefs) since the merger have averaged more yards per play in any single season, and only nine more points.
So even with a lessened run game and an almost comical run of injuries this season, not to mention more opportunities for opposing defenses to game-plan, Mahomes has pushed the Chiefs through the league’s and life’s most difficult path — from good to historically great.
No offense in the league has been better than the Chiefs with Mahomes, and nothing wins in the NFL like offense.
OK, some disclaimers. The heavy lifting on Mahomes becoming one of the league’s best is done, but the most difficult part of him becoming the best in history is still to come.
The most obvious part of that is health. Football is a nasty game, and quarterback is a dangerous job description, even as the league has heightened its protections around the position.
But there is also subtlety here: He will likely sign the biggest contract in league history this offseason, which will obviously be deserved but also make filling out the rest of the roster more difficult (again, more on this later in the week).
Eventually the Chiefs won’t be able to afford the help, in other words, and Mahomes’ career is likely to outlast that of the 61-year-old Reid’s.
That’s the thing, though. Every crumb of what we know about Mahomes as a worker says he’ll stay sharp, and what we know of him as a person says the best coaches and players will want to be on his side, and what we know of him as a player says he’ll be good enough to be the best player at the most important position and push his team to the biggest games.
It’s only two years in, essentially, but his career so far is how the career of the best to ever do it should begin.