Through seven full weeks of this NFL season, the league’s best quarterback is a second-year passer who had played in just one professional game before being named a starter this year. Patrick Mahomes II is leading the league in touchdowns (with 22), and he’s the engine behind the Chiefs offense, the most electric unit in football. It’s been a long time since such a young a quarterback has so thoroughly dominated the league—arguably 34 years, since Dan Marino’s iconic 1984 season.
But just how good has Mahomes’s year been compared with all-time great first- or second-year seasons like Marino’s? To answer that, I looked a Pro-Football-Reference’s adjusted net yards per pass attempt index, which is modified to account for era. ANY/A is very similar to yards per attempt, but it also accounts for touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks. ANY/A+ takes ANY/A and compares it with a league average during that era. A score of 100 is exactly average, so higher numbers represent better performances. By the ANY/A+ metric, Mahomes is having the fourth-best passing year of any player in the first two seasons of his career since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Here are the top 25:
ANY/A+ in First Two Seasons Since 1970
Marino is at the top, which makes sense—his 1984 season wasn’t just great for a second-year player, it’s one of the best passing seasons ever. But the two guys who sit just behind him are much less heralded. Despite Nick Foles’s heroics in Super Bowl 52, he will be remembered likely as a career journeyman. And Marc Bulger never quite replicated his 2002 outing in St. Louis. This list helps put Mahomes’s start into context. While he’s taken the NFL by storm, he isn’t the first QB to look like the NFL’s next elite passer at the beginning of his career—and many of the names on this list did not have careers that matched their early output. So, knowing what we do about these passers, let’s take a look at the ghosts of QBs past (and some present) to see what insights we can gain about Mahomes’s future:
The Hall of Famer
Dan Marino, 1984
(16 games, 48 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, 5,084 yards, 108.9 passer rating, 8.94 ANY/A)
If Mahomes is a video game quarterback, Marino was a cheat code. He threw for 5,000 yards in a season just five years after the 4,000 mark had been eclipsed for the first time. He threw 48 touchdowns when the previous season high was 36. Both of those records stood for about two decades.
Marino’s age-23 season still stands as one of the greatest passing years ever by any metric, but as offensive statistics have steadily risen over the last few decades, it can be difficult to fully appreciate what he did that season. Compared with 1984, teams in 2018 are on pace to average five more passing touchdowns and nearly 600 more passing yards than they did in Marino’s sophomore campaign. With that in mind, here is what Marino’s 1984 season would look like adjusted for 2018 averages:
58 TDs, 12 INTs, 6,247 yards (!), 9.90 Y/A
Given the era, Marino’s season is unfathomable. NFL fans are already wild for Mahomes. Can you imagine what we’d be doing if he were on pace to throw for 6,200 yards? (He’s currently on pace for 5,081.) Mahomes’s season has been awesome so far, but it isn’t arguably-the-best-passing-season-ever awesome.
Still, it’s an achievement just to be in the same conversation as Marino. Yeah, yeah, Marino never won a Super Bowl, but he is a Hall of Fame passer, and if Mahomes plays at or near Marino’s level for the rest of his career, that should be considered a huge success.
The Flashes in the Pan
Nick Foles, 2013
(13 games, 27 touchdowns, two interceptions, 2,891 yards, 119.2 passer rating, 9.18 ANY/A)
Marc Bulger, 2002
(Seven games, 14 touchdowns, six interceptions, 1,826 yards, 101.5 passer rating, 7.67 ANY/A)
Foles’s 2013 season is never going to make sense. It is, statistically, one of the most impressive passing performances ever, and one that Foles would never repeat. Immediately after the 2013 season, Foles fell back to earth, putting in just eight more games with the Eagles before bouncing around St. Louis and Kansas City. Of course, Foles eventually returned to Philly and put in another ludicrously improbable run after Carson Wentz tore his ACL, but this season he returned to his same-old, mediocre self. The lesson with Foles is clear: Beware of small sample sizes.
Bulger’s stats aren’t as eye-popping, but his efficient seven games came during a dip in leaguewide passing averages, giving him the third-best season by this criteria. Bulger got onto the field by accident; he came in only after both Kurt Warner and Jamie Martin were injured, and he rattled off five straight wins for a team that had been 0-5 to that point. When Warner came back, Bulger returned to the bench, but he reentered the fray for two more games when Warner went down with a broken hand. Bulger barely qualified for this list, but he played in the same number of games as Mahomes has so far this season, so it’s only right to include him.
Foles and Bulger were both put in positions to succeed immediately. In Philly, Foles had LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson to lean on as head coach Chip Kelly hadn’t yet decided to trade away all of the Eagles’ best players. And in St. Louis, Bulger had Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and the fading system that had once made up the Greatest Show on Turf. Speaking of that offense ...
The Old Sophomores
Kurt Warner, 1999
(41 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 4,353 yards, 109.2 passer rating, 8.31 ANY/A)
Jeff Garcia, 2000
(31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 4,278 yards, 97.6 passer rating, 7.34 ANY/A)
Warner and Garcia were 28 and 30 years old, respectively, in their second seasons in the league. Warner famously played four years in the AFL and in Europe before jumping to the NFL, and Garcia played five seasons in the CFL. Those stints aren’t NFL experience, but they are pro football reps—so they had some advantages over Mahomes, who is doing what he’s doing fresh out of college at age 23.
After the 1999 season, Warner won his first MVP and delivered a Lombardi trophy to the Rams. That Mahomes’s numbers are already ahead Warner’s from that year is a good indication that the Chiefs passer may well be on his way to the MVP trophy. But even that award is no guarantee of future success. After the Greatest Show on Turf era wound down, Warner ended up on the bench. He subsequently bounced around as a backup for the Giants and Cardinals before eventually resurrecting his career in Arizona. He is a Hall of Famer now, but it wasn’t smooth sailing to get to that point.
Garcia didn’t have the Hall of Fame career that Warner did, but he was still solid, making four Pro Bowls and taking three franchises to the playoffs. Chiefs fans will hope that Mahomes doesn’t bounce from team to team like these two did, but the fact that he’s playing at their level despite being less experienced is a good sign.
When You Have Randy Moss and Cris Carter
Daunte Culpepper, 2000
(16 games, 33 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 3,937 yards, 98.0 passer rating, 7.28 ANY/A)
Culpepper had a wild, up-and-down career. In his first season as a starter, he threw for 33 TDs and earned a Pro Bowl berth. Over his next two seasons, he tossed more interceptions (36) than touchdowns (32), regressing badly even before a knee injury cut his 2001 season short. He bounced back in 2003 and 2004, throwing for a combined 64 TDs and making the Pro Bowl in both years, but then in 2005—after Moss was traded to the Raiders—he had the worst year of his career, throwing just six touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Culpepper’s career is a mix of knee injuries, attempted comebacks, Pro Bowl appearances, and disaster seasons. His second year in the league just happened to be one of the great ones.
No sample size is big enough to properly judge Culpepper. Even today, nine years after he retired, I’m still not sure if he was a good quarterback or a bad one. But 2000 was a perfect season for him—the Vikings had Randy Moss at the peak of his powers, Cris Carter still in his prime, and Robert Smith averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
This Culpepper season illustrates the biggest reason for any long-term Mahomes doubt: The 2018 Chiefs are stacked. Tyreek Hill is one of the fastest players in football, Sammy Watkins is a big-bodied outside talent, Kareem Hunt is one of the most promising running backs in the league, and Travis Kelce is a trash-talking, seam-destroying tight end. This is the same Andy Reid offense that made Alex Smith, a.k.a. Captain Checkdown, chuck the football deep like he was Aaron Rodgers. Mahomes isn’t a system QB, or any other pejorative that takes away from what he’s done, but, like Culpepper, he’s set up for success.
The Recent Young Standouts
Dak Prescott, 2016
(16 games, 23 touchdowns, four interceptions, 3,667 yards, 104.9 passer rating, 7.86 ANY/A)
Jared Goff, 2017
(15 games, 28 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 3,804 yards, 100.5 passer rating, 7.72 ANY/A)
Carson Wentz, 2017
(13 games, 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 3,296 yards, 101.9 passer rating, 7.43 ANY/A)
While it’s too early to make any definitive conclusions about these three players, Mahomes is already playing at a much higher level than any of them did in their first two years. And that’s saying a lot: In 2016, we wondered aloud whether Prescott was having the best rookie season in NFL history; in 2017, Goff had one of the most dramatic turnarounds ever after a disastrous rookie year; and had Wentz was an MVP candidate in his sophomore campaign.
Goff and Wentz still look like stars in the making, but Prescott’s future is far less certain. He succeeded in his rookie season, thanks to a supporting cast that included the best offensive line in football, a running game powered by Ezekiel Elliott, and veteran pass catchers Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Last year, as the line began to show cracks, Bryant and Witten slowed; Elliott spent a chunk of the season suspended; and Prescott regressed, throwing for fewer yards and touchdowns as his interception rate skyrocketed. And this season has been similarly underwhelming. It’s too early to gain any wisdom from Goff’s and Wentz’s performances, and Prescott’s struggles should be taken with a grain of salt. But the lesson from Prescott’s season is clear: Even a full 16-game slate is too small a sample size to predict how a quarterback will develop long-term.
In looking at this list, it’s striking how few NFL legends make the cut. Guys like Tom Brady, Joe Montana, and Drew Brees are noticeably absent. Peyton Manning made the list, but he’s all the way down at no. 19. The best passers of all time haven’t always gotten off to the fastest of starts, and those who burned brightest at the beginning of their careers sometimes flamed out quickly.
All of which is to say that, for as amazing as Mahomes has been this season, seven games, or even 16, don’t mean much for projecting how good a player will be long-term. The Chiefs’ young passer is in good company, passes the eye test, and should have a long career in front of him. But history tells us we still have no idea if he’ll end up in the Hall of Fame like Dan Marino, or if his success will prove to be fluke, à la Nick Foles.