The NFL is valuing youth and innovation more than ever before. A year after the Rams made Sean McVay the youngest head coach in league history, Patrick Mahomes became the youngest MVP winner since Dan Marino. This offseason, an avalanche followed: The Cardinals threw caution to the wind and paired Kliff Kingsbury with Kyler Murray, the Packers ended the Mike McCarthy era, and the Bengals poached the Rams’ quarterbacks coach to be their new head coach. When did the NFL begin to resemble Silicon Valley? Welcome to Wunderkind Week, when we’ll dive deep into how the NFL became a young man’s league.
What goes up must come down, although it doesn’t often seem that way with Patrick Mahomes. Last October, Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters that Mahomes “could throw the ball out of the stadium,” speaking metaphorically about the arm strength of the Chiefs’ wunderkind quarterback. Only it wasn’t as metaphorical as Belichick probably believed. On one July afternoon, Mahomes went to Arrowhead Stadium to see if he could literally throw the ball out of the building. I like to think that the news chopper filming the proceedings was simply cruising above Kansas City and went to investigate the brown spheroids that kept soaring through its airspace.
What goes up must come down, and that’s somewhat alarming for Mahomes, whose stock is currently as high as a football hurtling over Arrowhead Stadium. His first season as the Chiefs’ starter was easily the best debut performance of any quarterback in league history. Mahomes became the third QB ever to throw 50 touchdown passes in a season, was named the runaway MVP, and nearly kept the Patriots from reaching the Super Bowl. (He was no match for a coin flip. You can’t have everything.)
Common sense would indicate that Mahomes is now due for regression. My colleague Danny Heifetz laid out the case for that earlier this month. No QB has ever thrown 40 or more touchdowns in an NFL season and then increased his output the following year, with an average drop-off of 18.8 touchdowns. (Take out Tom Brady’s 50-to-0 injury-related decline and it’s still an average dip of 16.) Factor in that the Chiefs will play one of the toughest schedules in football and that opponents have had a full year to game-plan against Mahomes, and it seems like a step back is inevitable. How could Mahomes keep up that quality of play?
Of course, common sense may be ill-suited to analyze a player who decided it was reasonable to throw no-look passes during NFL games. Mahomes is reportedly working on behind-the-back throws now, like he’s an NFL Street character who broke contain and escaped from a PlayStation 2. (On the topic of Mahomes as a video game character: Common sense also faltered when Madden’s programmers gave Mahomes the strongest arm, best mobile-throwing capabilities, and best accuracy on deep balls of any quarterback in the game—all perfectly reasonable takes—and looked up to realize they had created a character who can’t be beat.)
At 23 years old, Mahomes came into the NFL and did things the league had never seen. What goes up must come down, but if anyone has a trajectory that can defy gravity, it’s the guy who spends his free time throwing footballs over buildings.
Mahomes’s 2018 campaign was inarguably one of the 10 greatest passing seasons in league history. He racked up the third-most passing touchdowns ever (50), the eighth-most passing yardage ever (5,097), and the eighth-highest passer rating ever (113.8). He also recorded the seventh-highest adjusted net yards per pass attempt (8.9—that’s post-merger, minimum 100 attempts) and the 11th-highest touchdown percentage (8.6—again, post-merger, minimum 100 attempts). There have been few seasons as productive as Mahomes’s 2018, and few as efficient. For Mahomes to have been that productive and efficient is absolutely ridiculous. I was going to compare Mahomes’s season to a baseball player’s hitting .350 with 50 home runs, but six guys have done that throughout MLB history. No NFL player except Mahomes has thrown 50 touchdowns while averaging more than 8.5 yards per attempt. (On second thought, batting average is probably akin to completion percentage, and yards per attempt is more like slugging percentage. I’m getting really bogged down in this baseball analogy. Please ignore it.)
Most of the other all-time great NFL passing seasons have been delivered by established veterans. Peyton Manning was 37 when he set an NFL record by throwing 55 touchdowns in 2013. Tom Brady was 30 during his 50-touchdown campaign in 2007. All seven quarterback seasons that topped Mahomes’s 2018 passing yards total came from QBs 32 or older. That group includes Drew Brees’s age-32, -33, -34, and -37 seasons. (Statistically speaking, Brees is the GOAT.)
Mahomes is 23. He’ll turn 24 ahead of Kansas City’s Week 3 game against the Ravens. Zendaya, who just played a high schooler in Euphoria, is about a year younger than Mahomes. Mahomes is six months younger than Baker Mayfield, the reigning rookie of the year, and six months younger than Will Grier, the QB whom the Panthers took in the third round of this spring’s draft to back up Cam Newton. Mahomes is about three weeks older than Shaker Samman, The Ringer’s editorial assistant who may have fact-checked this piece.
Quarterbacks are not supposed to be finished products at 24. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective analyzed 77 QBs who managed at least three above-average NFL passing seasons and found that quarterbacks generally peak at 29 years old, with a clearly defined prime between the ages of 27 and 31. A 2011 post by Brian Burke (now of ESPN) found roughly the same peak, with quarterbacks rapidly improving until age 26 before a plateau that peaks at 29 and drops off after age 30. Rotowire proposed that quarterback production peaks slightly earlier, at age 27, but Mahomes is not yet 27. He’s 23.
Only one under-25 quarterback season even somewhat resembles Mahomes’s 2018: Dan Marino’s 1984 effort, which was his second as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback. At 23, Marino passed for 5,084 yards with 48 touchdowns, both NFL records at the time. Nobody broke Marino’s touchdown record for 20 years, until Manning in 2004; nobody broke Marino’s yardage record until 2011, when both Brady and Brees did. The 1984 Dolphins went 14-2 en route to a berth in Super Bowl XIX, and Marino won league MVP.
It’s incredible to realize that Mahomes’s only reasonable age-appropriate comparison is a seven-time All-Pro and first-ballot Hall of Famer. However, it’s also worth noting that Marino’s records standing for 20-plus years reveals that he never surpassed his own prolific age-23 performance. After 1984, Marino threw at least 20 interceptions in four of the next five seasons; after averaging 9.0 yards per attempt in ’84, he would never even crack 8.2. Marino did lead the league in passing yardage and touchdowns on several occasions, but never won MVP nor made the Super Bowl again.
There seem to be two truths about what’s next for Mahomes, and they cannot coexist. Mahomes is only 23, and thus is expected to get better. But few QBs coming off all-time great seasons have delivered a superior season for an encore. The bell curve of a typical NFL starting quarterback’s career indicates that the rise of Mahomes will continue; the history of NFL quarterbacks suggests that Mahomes can’t ascend much higher.
The first pass Mahomes threw in a 2019 preseason game was as perfect as a throw could be, a 25-yarder that dropped smoothly over the helmet of a defender and into the waiting arms of tight end Travis Kelce. It looked like a casual toss to a wide-open target, not a pass fit precisely into a tight window.
And the videos trickling out of Chiefs camp show Mahomes doing the same stuff that made him a sensation last year. Here’s a casual 60ish-yard pass to the QB’s newest receiver, speedster Mecole Hardman. The way Mahomes unhinges his shoulder to generate throwing power reminds me of an anaconda opening its jaw to swallow a capybara.
Mahomes plays quarterback differently than anybody else ever has. This was clear when he was putting up 700-yard games at Texas Tech; it was clear when he was lighting preseason and Week 17 defenses on fire as Alex Smith’s backup. The Madden ratings aren’t wrong: Mahomes genuinely seems to throw the ball harder and farther than any of his peers, and he’s more comfortable releasing the ball from a variety of arm slots and angles.
What Mahomes does in 2019 could reset the standard for what NFL phenoms are capable of. History tells us that he should come back to earth after an off-the-charts 2018 season. It’s possible that we’ve already seen the best of him, just as the world saw the best of Marino in 1984. If this proves true, Mahomes will still be a legend, but that legend will be limited.
Yet if Mahomes keeps playing at or above the level he did in 2018? If one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever play actually improves in a scheme designed by a passing-game genius (Andy Reid) that’s stocked with dangerous playmakers? Well, then maybe we didn’t just witness one remarkable season; maybe we witnessed the birth of a GOAT.
What goes up must come down, but when Mahomes cocks back and hurls the ball skyward, that momentarily seems untrue. Where footballs thrown by other QBs would drop, his sail on, past the horizon of the stadium rim. Perhaps one of his passes will hit the necessary velocity to escape earth’s atmosphere and become the first football thrown by a human to reach another planet. Logic tells us that Mahomes should regress this fall; I choose to believe that his singular trajectory will lift him even higher.