You could not, Bill Ray told me last season, make an image like this up. He was a photographer at Super Bowl I, on assignment after an editor at Life magazine made a deal with Chiefs coach Hank Stram to photograph his team and run the pictures if they won. “‘Who knows?’” Ray thought to himself. “It all seemed kind of historic.” In the locker room at halftime, he noticed something he’d never seen before. “It seems impossible now. People smoked all the time, and it was amazing that the star quarterback was doing it.” The quarterback was Chiefs legend Len Dawson. It was 1967. Ray said the key in these situations is to be quiet and unobstructive, so the subject doesn’t move. Dawson’s pose was perfect. Cigarette in his right hand, Fresca bottle under his chair. “I just grabbed the camera,” said Ray, who died this month at age 84. The iconic photo never ran in Life. The Chiefs lost the game to the Packers, and the photo was relegated to the archives. It wasn’t until the internet rediscovered it as part of a Time slideshow six years ago that people even started talking about it, Ray said. Now it gets recirculated on a near-daily basis on social media. Ray’s image of Dawson joined photographs of Marilyn Monroe at Madison Square Garden and President Eisenhower with General Curtis LeMay as some of his most notable works, he said. He was always drawn to major figures, and Dawson was major.
It has been five decades since the Chiefs have been to the Super Bowl, and as long since the Chiefs have had genuine greatness at the quarterback position. It has been that long since any Chiefs player has seemed as cool as Dawson. Patrick Mahomes looked pretty cool on Sunday. It was not just an image—although Mahomes gives plenty of great ones—it was an afternoon of destruction. Another one. He is the first Chiefs quarterback in the Super Bowl since Dawson’s Super Bowl IV win. A 50-year drought is over. Mahomes throws the best passes in the sport, and his Chiefs did what the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens failed to do by eliminating the Tennessee Titans from the playoffs.
Mahomes’s iconic moment was different from Dawson’s, partly because Mahomes is a different player from anyone else. Mahomes took a shotgun snap with 23 seconds left in the first half and the Chiefs trailing by three. He didn’t like his options down the field—the Titans were hellbent on doubling Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and Mahomes knew the Titans defensive line was bunched together, so he had an opening. His first instinct was to run out of bounds, so he darted toward the sideline. He escaped one diving tackle, made the next Titans linebacker miss, and got to the sideline. He remembered the Chiefs had two timeouts, so he decided to cut up the field. At the 6-yard line, he was met by two defensive backs, Tramaine Brock and LeShaun Sims. One overshot him with the tackle; one didn’t tackle well enough. The defensive linemen from earlier, DaQuan Jones, finally caught up to the play, but it was too late. Mahomes was in the end zone. According to Next Gen Stats, he scrambled 64 yards on the play, which was officially a 27-yard run. He reached 16 miles per hour. The Chiefs took the lead and never trailed again. I will now remind you that Mahomes is the best passer in football.
I watched the play from the press box on the same sideline that Mahomes darted down. The play seemed like it was going to end a handful of times, and it never did. Watching it from above, in real time, made me think of the phenomenon Steve Martin described in his book Born Standing Up of having “nostalgia for the present”: This was a legitimate superstar, in a raucous stadium full of fans starved for success. A play that looked doomed five times just kept going until the end zone. I’ve had feelings as a play was developing that I was going to think about it for a long time—the Philly Special was like this—and Mahomes falling into the end zone after embarrassing an entire defensive unit in the AFC title game was like it, too. The play seemed to last forever, and in some ways, it will.
The Chiefs having a homegrown star quarterback is something of a miracle. Ludicrously, they went 30 years without winning a game with a quarterback they drafted until Mahomes did so in Week 17 of the 2017 season. They were in the wilderness for so long. This is not the football equivalent of Ben Simmons finally hitting a 3; it’s the football equivalent of Ben Simmons hitting one of the most important 3-pointers of all time. That’s the significance of the Chiefs drafting a superstar quarterback. In place of a homegrown, elite quarterback, the Chiefs employed a long line of veterans who had a ceiling: Matt Cassel, Alex Smith, and Trent Green were among the most dependable. They got two seasons out of Joe Montana. Four years of Elvis Grbac. If you haven’t noticed, Mahomes, 24 years old, has no ceiling.
You cannot tell the story of Mahomes in 2020 without his head coach, Andy Reid, and vice versa. Mahomes would likely still be special playing for another coach, but the beautiful thing for football fans is that we do not have to find out. Since becoming a starter, Mahomes has been gifted plenty of open throws due to Reid’s schemes and the talent around him. He also takes advantage of those open throws.
Highest percentage of throws at or beyond the first down marker where the intended receiver was open:— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) January 18, 2020
Drew Brees 76.8%
Patrick Mahomes 74.6
Teddy Bridgewater 74.1
Matt Ryan 74.0
Jimmy Garoppolo 73.3
Derek Carr 72.7
Ryan Tannehill 71.4
Lamar Jackson 71.3
A good example of the marriage between Mahomes, Reid, and his supporting cast came in the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs nursing a 28-17 lead. Mahomes scrambled to his left, moved to his right, got off-balance slightly and then found Sammy Watkins, who was open behind Logan Ryan, for a 60-yard score.
The Kansas City Chiefs are seven minutes and 33 seconds from the Super Bowl.— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) January 19, 2020
Mahomes to Sammy Watkins gives the Chiefs a 35-17 lead. pic.twitter.com/nlX2SPjJQh
A few weeks ago, the singer Jason Isbell responded to a story that theorized about the structured nature of music, and how all the good songs have already been written. “There aren’t a whole lot of notes to choose from,” he said. “But there are a whole lot of words.” I’ve thought about this in regard to football and specifically the Chiefs. For a handful of reasons—formation rules among them—you cannot think of a radically different play in football. Even the most incredibly creative plays are derivative of some older version. Hell, the Baltimore Ravens looked like one of the most creative offenses in football in 2019 and they heavily borrowed from decades-old schemes. But in the same way you can make a new song with words, you can make a new play by adding nuance to existing schemes. Mahomes and Reid do this. It’s not just the off-balanced throws, or the different arm angles, which, by the way, are heavily practiced. It’s things like this head-fake on the run:
Mahomes said after the game that he’s preached winning since he entered the league in 2017. Every single player, of course, says this, but Mahomes put up a lot of stats at Texas Tech and didn’t win a lot, so he made a commitment to do whatever it took to win games in the NFL. The thing about this commitment is that his stats are still there. He’s thrown 87 touchdowns between the regular season and playoffs. He is in his second season as a starter. The Chiefs, despite being down double digits in the first half in each of their playoff games, never looked in any real danger because the Chiefs are capable of anything on offense and now have a dependable defense. The Chiefs scored on drives that took two minutes and drives that took seven minutes. Mahomes scored with his arm and his legs. He found targets on every part of the field.
”From day one I’ve been accepted to go out and be who I am,” Mahomes said of this Chiefs offense. He continued: “The best thing about playing for Coach Reid is that he lets you be who you are. He lets you go out there and play the way you want to play as long it’s according to the guidelines of the quarterback position. He lets you be who you are.”
That, of course, is the lesson of this half-decade of football: Let the quarterback be who they are instead of who coaches want them to be. That’s the lesson of Mahomes, or this year’s presumptive MVP, Lamar Jackson. After the game, general manager Brett Veach revisited some comments he made at the combine in 2018. He said Mahomes, who was entering his first season as a starter that fall, was one of the best players he’d ever seen. “People thought I was crazy back at the combine when I said he was the best player I’ve ever seen,” Veach said. “He’s the best player in the game. And it’s not just me saying that—it’s the whole league.”