I get it now. I’ll admit to being a little slow on the uptake, but I finally understand what it means to be in the thrall of athletic greatness. In 2003 I moved to Chicago, to a city that was still in the shadow of Michael Jordan five years after he had left the Bulls for good. That shadow continues to linger over the city, as the Bulls have managed just eight winning seasons and one conference finals appearance in the 22 seasons since.
It’s not that I was unaware of Jordan’s greatness. You’d have to have grown up in Novosibirsk to not be aware of Jordan’s greatness, and you’d have to have grown up in Detroit to not have rooted for him at some point. I was a Jordan fan when he was bullied by the Bad Boy Pistons in the 1980s, and I exulted when he at last vanquished them in the 1991 playoffs. I was in awe of him during the Bulls’ dynastic run, and I even followed his struggle in baseball’s minor leagues. I respected Jordan. I admired Jordan. I just wasn’t in love with Jordan. I didn’t grow up with a basketball team of my own—the Kings left Kansas City for Sacramento when I was 9—and while I sort of latched on to the Bulls by default, they never really felt like they were mine.
Beyond that, I was always skeptical of hero worship. Maybe it’s because as a child I read about athletes as much as I watched them, and my sports heroes came from the pages of history: Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis and the members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. George Brett was the best player on my favorite team, and Bo Jackson was an athletic unicorn who was starting to turn his athletic gifts into baseball greatness before he got hurt. On the emotional spectrum, though, my feelings for these players shaded more toward awe than love.
I never knew what it felt like to ride or die with an athlete, to live their triumphs and defeats as if they were your own, to believe with all your might that win or lose, they would never let you down—and they would probably win. The innocence of youth is that you can truly believe in your heroes, that they are not simply good and just and righteous but that they will always prevail in the end. For so long I figured I was just never that innocent, or perhaps never that naive. So when I moved to Chicago, I was unprepared for how much of an impact Jordan had on the city, even in retirement, even as a player for the Washington Wizards, and even as an owner of the Charlotte Bobcats turned Hornets. I could not relate to my friends who grew up with the Bulls, who remember when they drafted Jordan, who can talk about the moment they realized he was a star, then a superstar, then a transcendent talent, and then the greatest basketball player who ever lived. I just assumed that I would never understand how they felt, how they still feel, about a man who might have been a GOAT but who still displayed human traits like jealousy and pettiness, and who put his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else.
But I was wrong. It’s not that I wasn’t innocent or naive, it’s that the right athlete had never walked into my life. And I get it now. It dawned on me suddenly, in the midst of watching The Last Dance this spring along with everyone else, including my group of native Chicago friends who got to relive their glory years each week when two new episodes dropped. Every Sunday night they flocked to our WhatsApp group to reminisce over the revelations in the latest installment. I love that they showed what babies the Pistons were when we finally beat them! Oh man, I forgot about the time Dennis Rodman went AWOL and Jordan had to go get him! Did Jordan throw Scottie Pippen under the bus for delaying his ankle surgery until right before the season? Wait, the Flu Game was really the Food Poisoning Game?
I stayed mostly silent during these nostalgia trips, to the point that my absence was noted. You must be bored by all this Michael Jordan talk.
“Not at all,” I replied. “I get it now.” And then, as the sole Kansas City Chiefs fan in the group, I twisted the knife. “You see, I root for Michael Jordan now.
“His name is Patrick Mahomes.”
It’s time to put in writing what everyone has been thinking for some time. People in the industry have been tiptoeing around this declaration for a while, saying things like “Patrick Mahomes is on pace to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time,” or “Mahomes has entered the pantheon of greatness.”
But it’s time to stop hedging. It’s time to stop using qualifiers or conditionals. It’s time to acknowledge the inevitable, the undeniable. Sure, Mahomes is not the greatest football player of all time yet; that player is still active, and Mahomes will face him this Sunday in Tampa. And something could go terribly wrong that derails Mahomes from his track—believe me, I often fret over this possibility. But God and health willing, he is poised to become the GOAT. Much like with Jordan at the turn of the ’90s, we are watching an athlete vie for GOAT status before he has even reached his prime.
These are heady words, and I don’t say them lightly. I am a Chiefs fan, so I can hardly believe I am saying them at all. But at this point the evidence is overwhelming. What Mahomes has done in the barely 26 months since he played his first game as QB1 in Kansas City—a total of 45 NFL games, counting the playoffs—is utterly without precedent for a player of any age. Let’s take a step back and review what Mahomes has done since he was drafted by the Chiefs in 2017:
- Despite being the backup quarterback behind Alex Smith entering the 2017 season, he put on such a show in training camp that the whispers coming out of Kansas City that summer felt downright irresponsible, even if in retrospect they were somehow understated. The Chiefs knew. They were certain they had something special before Mahomes ever took an NFL snap.
- He finally got a chance to play in a meaningless Week 17 game, and despite the Chiefs resting nearly their entire starting lineup in advance of the playoffs, Mahomes staked Kansas City to a 14-point lead over the archrival Broncos. Mahomes was taken out, Denver evened the score, and Mahomes was reinserted in time to lead the Chiefs on a game-winning drive.
- Mahomes rose to the top of the depth chart after Smith was traded to Washington in January 2018. In his first game as the starter, he threw for four touchdowns. In his second game, he threw for six touchdowns and 326 yards on just 28 attempts. In his third game, he threw for three touchdowns and 314 yards. And in his fourth game, he led a fourth-quarter comeback at Mile High Stadium, rallying the Chiefs from 10 points down in an outing that included a left-handed throw that nearly burned down the internet. Five games into his career, Mahomes had already emerged as the biggest phenom in American sports.
- He was named the 2018 NFL MVP. In his first year as a starter, Mahomes became just the third quarterback ever (after Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) to throw for 50 touchdowns in a season, and just the sixth to throw for 5,000 yards.
- In January 2019, Mahomes took the Chiefs to their first AFC championship game in 25 years, where he led Kansas City to 31 second-half points, including a go-ahead touchdown with 2:03 left in the fourth quarter. When the Patriots scored a touchdown to retake the lead with 39 seconds remaining, Mahomes responded by piloting the Chiefs down the field for a tying field goal. The Chiefs lost only because the Patriots won the coin toss in overtime; the game ended before Mahomes got another chance to touch the ball.
- Prior to going down with a dislocated kneecap in Week 7 last season, Mahomes had thrown for more than 240 yards in each of his first 25 career games, including the playoffs. That’s tied for the longest streak of games with 240-plus passing yards at any point in a QB’s career in NFL history.
- He missed just two games with the injury, and threw for 446 yards in the game that he returned. The Chiefs went on to finish their second consecutive regular season with a 12-4 record.
- After another first-round playoff bye, the Chiefs fell behind the Texans 24-0 in the second quarter of their divisional-round matchup. Mahomes passed for four second-quarter touchdowns to help the Chiefs become the first team in league history to lead a game at halftime after trailing by 24 points. They won by 20.
- The next week, the Chiefs fell behind the Titans by 10 points early in the AFC championship game. Kansas City again led by halftime, with Mahomes scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a remarkable 27-yard run in which he juked half of Tennessee’s defenders and broke tackles from the other half. The Chiefs won by 11.
- In the Super Bowl—the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years—the Chiefs trailed the 49ers 20-10 with under nine minutes to play. Then Mahomes ran Jet Chip Wasp on a critical third-and-15, setting the stage for a furious comeback and another double-digit victory. He was named Super Bowl MVP, becoming the youngest quarterback ever to win that award.
- In all five playoff games that Mahomes has started, the Chiefs have scored at least 31 points. No other team in NFL history has ever scored 31 points in regulation of five straight playoff games.
- The Chiefs scored at least 23 points in each of Mahomes’s first 23 games as an NFL starter. Their official streak of 22 straight games with 23-plus points (they failed to score 23 in Alex Smith’s last game with the Chiefs, a one-point playoff loss to the Titans) was the longest in NFL history.
- Well, it was the longest. That streak ended in Week 5 last season against the Colts, when the Chiefs lost 19-13 with Mahomes hobbled by a sprained ankle. Kansas City started a new streak the subsequent week, and have scored 23-plus points in all 24 games that they have played since. The Chiefs have scored 23-plus points in 46 of their last 47 games. No other NFL team has ever scored 23-plus points in more than 20 straight.
- The Chiefs haven’t lost by more than eight points since Mahomes debuted, and have gone 55 straight games without such a loss. No other team in league history has a streak longer than 46 games.
- Among quarterbacks with at least 150 pass attempts, Mahomes has the highest regular-season passer rating (110.3) and postseason passer rating (106.6) in NFL history.
You might be aware of many of those bullet points. But you might not be aware that Mahomes is quietly having his best season yet.
He isn’t on pace to match his 50 passing touchdowns (he’s on pace for 43), or 5,000 passing yards (4,856) from 2018. But he has approached his MVP campaign’s production while simultaneously playing mistake-free football. I mean almost literally mistake-free: he has just two interceptions all season. The first came on a fourth down in Week 5; Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce admitted afterward that he ran the wrong route. The second happened on Sunday night; wide receiver Demarcus Robinson turned the wrong way. Mahomes is the first player in NFL history to throw 25 touchdowns in a season before recording his second interception. In 2018 he was picked off 12 times and lost two fumbles. (He hasn’t lost any fumbles this season.) In 2018 he was sacked on 4.3 percent of his dropbacks; this season that number is down to 3.1 percent.
The stat that puts this all together is adjusted net yards per attempt, or ANY/A, which takes the ordinary yards-per-attempt stat and accounts for touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks. In 2018, Mahomes averaged 8.89 ANY/A, the sixth-highest single-season figure in NFL history. Last season, he dipped to 8.38, the 18th-highest total ever. And this season, Mahomes is at 8.83 ANY/A—a dropped pass away from his MVP season and the ninth-highest figure of all time. No quarterback has ever averaged 8.35 ANY/A in three different seasons (although Aaron Rodgers is on pace for his third such season this year). Mahomes is on pace to do that in his first three seasons as a starter.
Which leads to this chart that sums up, better than anything else, the degree to which Mahomes is lapping every other quarterback in NFL history:
Highest Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt, Career
The gap between Mahomes and the second-place Rodgers is greater than the gap between Rodgers and the 30th-ranked Marcus Mariota (6.12).
A month ago Mahomes was considered a second-tier MVP contender this season. But while Russell Wilson’s campaign has hit a pothole, Mahomes has thrown for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns in his last three games. With six weeks left to play, he’s now the favorite. If he takes home the hardware, it would mean that Mahomes was named Super Bowl MVP in his only season as a starter that he wasn’t named regular-season MVP.
Mahomes doesn’t have to get better to eventually be acknowledged as the greatest of all time. He simply has to continue doing the things he is already doing. But that’s the thing. He is getting better.
Mahomes is, by acclamation, the best player in the NFL. He is also the greatest player in the NFL, one who carried a franchise that hadn’t won the Super Bowl in a half-century to a title by turning the 2019 Chiefs into the first team ever to win three straight playoff games in which they trailed by double digits. His greatest professional setback—an overtime loss to the league’s most decorated dynasty—was determined by a coin toss, and redeemed in full the next season. He ascended to the pinnacle of his profession on both a personal level (regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards) and a team level (a championship) before his 25th birthday.
Who else has laid claim to both accomplishments, and had sober-minded experts seriously discussing them in the context of eventual GOAT status at such a young age? Not Peyton Manning, who for most of his 20s was considered an elite quarterback who couldn’t win the big one; Manning’s playoff record was 3-6 before he went on a run to win his first Super Bowl at age 30. Not Joe Montana, whose first championship at age 25 preceded his status as the acknowledged best player in football by a few years. Not even Tom Brady, who may be the undisputed GOAT now, and who won a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter—although he was about six weeks older than Mahomes was when he won his first Super Bowl—but who was initially seen as a glorified game manager until he relentlessly improved to reach the apex of his sport. Forget greatest of all time: For much of Brady’s career, there was a dispute over whether he was the GAAQ—the greatest active AFC quarterback.
Even if we move to other American men’s team sports, it is equally hard to find players with Mahomes’s résumé at the same age. LeBron James was the Chosen One from the time he entered the NBA, but didn’t win his first title until he was 27, after leaving Cleveland for Miami. The two greatest baseball players of my lifetime are Barry Bonds, who never won a World Series, and Mike Trout, who is 29 and has yet to win a playoff game.
And even Jordan himself was unable to convert his personal greatness into postseason success from the start. In his first three seasons, the Bulls went a combined 1-9 in playoff games, and he was still getting manhandled by Detroit’s Bad Boys when he was 25. Jordan wouldn’t win his first championship until he was 28.
There have been a couple of players in the last four decades who have won an MVP and a title in their early 20s—principally, Emmitt Smith in 1993 and Cal Ripken Jr. in 1983. But if we elevate our standard from “MVP award winner” to “consensus best player in the sport,” you have to go back at least half a century to find players who achieved the kind of personal and team success that Mahomes has by the same age. In the NBA, it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar winning MVP honors and a title in 1971. In MLB, it’s Mickey Mantle adding an MVP trophy to his four championship rings in 1956, or Willie Mays winning a title in 1954. And in the NFL … well, there honestly isn’t a comparable player to Mahomes, someone who won a title while also being hailed as the best player in the sport before turning 25, going back to when the NFL started handing out MVP awards in 1957.
The closest comps to Mahomes’s level of individual and team success at such a young age come from the NHL, where Sidney Crosby won a Hart Trophy at 19 and a Stanley Cup at 21; Mario Lemieux won a Hart at 22 and a Stanley Cup at 25; and the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, won six Hart Trophies and two Stanley Cups by his 25th birthday. Yet hockey doesn’t have the same cultural and historical prominence in the United States that football, basketball, and baseball possess.
By contrast, there is no more culturally prominent position in American sports than NFL quarterback. Since winning the Super Bowl in February, Mahomes’s impact has been unmistakable. His commercial appearances have become ubiquitous. In July, he signed a 10-year, $503 million contract extension, the richest deal in the history of American team sports. A few weeks later, he bought an undisclosed portion of the Kansas City Royals, becoming the youngest person ever to own a portion of an MLB, NFL, or NBA franchise.
And in June, less than two weeks after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, dozens of Black NFL stars released a 70-second video on Twitter. The players called for the league to acknowledge the deaths of innocent Black people at the hands of police, to condemn racism, and to admit the NFL was wrong in silencing players from peacefully protesting. The video built to a crescendo in which all the players said “Black Lives Matter.” It speaks to Mahomes’s power that he was the player who said those words first.
And it speaks to Mahomes’s growing social consciousness that he said them. While Jordan famously evaded political controversy, Mahomes not only spoke out against systemic racism this year, he further dipped his toe into activism by encouraging voter registration efforts leading up to the presidential election and working with the Chiefs to turn Arrowhead Stadium into a voting site on Election Day. He even agreed to split the six-figure cost of new voting machines with the Chiefs. While Mahomes may be emulating MJ’s legacy on the field, off the field he is taking a page from LeBron’s playbook, using his legendary status to effect social change and carve out a legacy that transcends merely being the best and the greatest.
Before Jordan won his first championship, his talent made it impossible not to recognize that he stood out even in a league of superstars. He wasn’t necessarily the best at every basketball skill; for instance, he never finished a season ranked among the top 10 in free throw percentage, rebounds, or blocks. But what made Jordan the greatest was that he did everything well. He could shoot, he could drive, and he could play defense—all at an elite level. He did not have a weakness in his game.
Much like Jordan, Mahomes’s greatness is perhaps best explained by asking the question, “What is his greatest weakness?” Answering that feels like taking the Kobayashi Maru, a deliberately unwinnable exercise designed to test the character of the person doing it. How can I name Mahomes’s greatest weakness when I can’t identify any weakness?
Arm strength? LOL.
Field vision? Casual football fans are starting to understand something that Chiefs fans have known for some time: Mahomes is more mentally gifted than physically gifted as a quarterback. If I had to choose between grafting Mahomes’s arm onto a quarterback whose feel for the game was average, or grafting his head onto a quarterback who has average arm strength, I would choose Mahomes’s head in a heartbeat. His ability to sense pressure, identify which of his receivers is open, and process where all 11 defenders are to determine which of his receivers will soon become open … that matters more than his ability to flick the ball 70 yards downfield.
Accuracy? Mahomes has been intercepted on 1.36 percent of his pass attempts in the NFL, the lowest interception rate of any quarterback in history with 1,000-plus attempts.
Elusiveness? He has been sacked on 3.7 percent of his career dropbacks, fifth lowest among QBs since sacks started being tracked in 1969.
Running ability? Mahomes’s legs may be the NFL’s best-kept secret, in part because of an asinine bookkeeping rule that categorizes quarterback kneel downs as a rushing attempt. This particularly hurts Mahomes, who kneels more than most quarterbacks because the Chiefs are usually winning at the end of games. Mahomes officially has 687 rushing yards on 149 career attempts, an average of 4.61 yards per carry. But that includes 32 kneel downs for negative-35 yards. Strip away those attempts, and he’s rushed 117 times for 722 yards, good for 6.17 yards per carry. Cam Newton, by comparison, has a career average of 5.04 yards per carry, but only 9 percent of his rushes are kneel downs. Take them out, and his average improves to just 5.65. That’s right: Mahomes is a better rusher than Cam Newton.
Recklessness with the football? Mahomes has lost four fumbles in his entire career. Russell Wilson has lost three fumbles this month.
Consistency? Again, the Chiefs have scored fewer than 23 points in a game once in his entire career. Other quarterbacks play as well as Mahomes at their best. The differentiator is that Mahomes has never—literally never—had a bad game in the NFL.
Super Bowl Champion Pat Mahomes has still never had a bad game pic.twitter.com/sOJF7vYlQB— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) February 3, 2020
Just another insane Mahomes stat, which I will shortly discuss in tomorrow's article.— Moo (@PFF_Moo) November 17, 2020
EPA/play, 2018 - 2020
Mahomes' worst rolling 250 dropback window 0.15
Matt Ryan 0.15
His worst 5-game stretch is being a top 5 QB
Here's a plot of every QB with at least 20 games started since the beginning of 2018, showing average QBR and standard deviation of QBR across all regular-season games. pic.twitter.com/j6g5s24SFi— Patrick Brennan (@paintingcorner) November 19, 2020
Poise under pressure? Go on, blitz Mahomes. I dare you.
Patrick Mahomes (Career by # of Pass Rushers):— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 16, 2020
• 16 of 18 career INT against 4-or-fewer pass rushers (only 2 INT vs blitz)
• 115.8 passer rating vs blitz since 2017 (2nd among QB)
• Avg TTT is faster vs blitz (2.73 seconds) than no blitz (2.91)#TENvsKC | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/LpLIASkIjk
Clubhouse influence? The next teammate, coach, clubhouse attendant, or parking valet who says a bad word about Mahomes will be the first. There are some elite quarterbacks who have a reputation as being difficult. Mahomes is not one of them.
Competitiveness? Mahomes, whose own offensive coordinator called him “a competitive prick” as a compliment earlier this season, counted to 10 on his fingers after scoring a touchdown last season against the Bears. Chicago famously took Mitchell Trubisky with the second pick of the 2017 draft, while Mahomes fell to the 10th pick.
Fun fact: Patrick took his college number 5 and added 10 to it for his current number.— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 23, 2019
Wonder why pic.twitter.com/reAFxsrFRa
Mahomes likewise counted to four on his fingers after throwing his fourth touchdown against the Ravens in Week 3. As his fiancée hinted on Twitter, this may have been because he was ranked fourth on NFL Network’s top 100 list of players during the offseason.
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) July 30, 2020
He has the Jordan competitiveness gene—complete with the shrug!—without having the Jordan kind-of-an-asshole gene.
How many touchdowns for Mahomes? pic.twitter.com/5yzB0EwNfB— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) September 29, 2020
The biggest difference between Mahomes and Jordan, in fact, might be that while Mahomes is a stone-cold killer on the field, his intensity dial doesn’t appear to go to 11 all the time like Jordan’s did. MJ’s monomaniacal focus on winning came at a cost; he alienated teammates and came close to burning out himself. Perhaps this will prove to be naive, but Mahomes doesn’t seem to be burning bridges in his pursuit of greatness. It’s unlikely that we’ll get a The Jordan Rules–style expose of the real story inside the Chiefs’ locker room anytime soon.
Oh, and Mahomes’s unique voice, lovingly-derided for its Kermitesque cadence, is somehow perfectly calibrated to draw defenders offside. That’s right: even his vocal chords are designed for greatness.
There is literally no part of a quarterback’s job description that Mahomes does not excel in. Like MJ, he may not be the best at everything, but he can be the best at anything when he needs to be.
And there is one other way that Mahomes resembles Jordan like few athletes in modern history. As great as he is, he is indisputably even better in the most crucial situations.
There is not a ton of evidence to support the notion of clutch performance as a skill. There are tons of clutch performances, but there are precious few clutch performers—players who demonstrate a persistent ability to play better in high-leverage situations. In general, the best players in any sport when the game is on the line tend to be the best players in that sport when the game isn’t on the line. But perhaps the greatest players in any sport are able to assert their greatness even more in high-stakes moments.
In baseball, there’s Mariano Rivera. The greatest relief pitcher of all time had a career regular-season ERA of 2.21; he had a 0.70 ERA in 141 career postseason innings, a level of performance no pitcher has ever matched over that many innings during the regular season. In basketball, there’s Jordan, whose postseason stats—against the stiffest competition in the sport—are better than his regular-season stats across the board. Jordan averaged 30.1 points and a 27.9 PER in the regular season; those went up 33.4 and 28.6, respectively, in the playoffs. And his iconic moments, from the Shot over Craig Ehlo in 1989 to his final jumper in a Bulls uniform over Bryon Russell in 1998 will remain the stuff of legend for as long as people take the court.
Then there is Mahomes. The reason the Chiefs have never lost a game by more than eight points with Mahomes is that he’s at his best when his team is behind. What he did last Sunday in Vegas—orchestrating two touchdown drives to give Kansas City the lead in the fourth quarter, the second of which saw the Chiefs travel 75 yards on just seven plays and Mahomes throw the game-winning score with 28 seconds left—has become so commonplace that it is all but expected. The only reason Mahomes doesn’t have more fourth-quarter comebacks is because the Chiefs trail so rarely in the fourth quarter. Dating to the start of the 2019 season, they have trailed by 10-plus points in a game eight times. They came back to win six of them.
Patrick. Mahomes. Is. Clutch. pic.twitter.com/BGsgjPsIqu— Ethan Douglas (@EthanCDouglas) September 21, 2020
And while Mahomes has a short postseason résumé so far, he has more heroics in five playoff games than most quarterbacks do in their entire careers. He already has more playoff wins after trailing by double digits (three) than Rodgers does (two). Mahomes has averaged 295 yards per game in the playoffs, a hair off his regular-season average of 304, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 6.5 is better than his regular-season mark of 5.2—even though the Chiefs have played from behind in four of the five games and the defenses generally knew what to expect.
Mahomes doesn’t just play his best when behind, though. He also plays his best on third down. In his career, he has had the ball in his hands 63 times on third-and-13 or longer; he has converted 19 of those plays, or 30.2 percent, for first downs. By comparison, Russell Wilson has had 92 such plays in the last four years. He converted five.
On third-and-18 or longer, Mahomes has converted eight first downs in 22 tries—an incredible 36.4 percent success rate in what is practically a Hail Mary situation for many other quarterbacks. Since 2017, Mahomes has more successful third-and-18 conversions than Rodgers, Brady, Wilson, Drew Brees, and Lamar Jackson combined. Those five have seven in 108 attempts.
Your daily dose of Mahomes pic.twitter.com/aGhMWhiMqP— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) November 18, 2020
Put together the two situations—a third-and-long in a playoff game—and you get the Jet Chip Wasp, the most famous play of last season:
The common thread between playing from behind and throwing on third-and-long is that in both situations, the defense can sell out to stop the passing game. And yet in those situations, Mahomes is even better than he usually is. When Mahomes isn’t at his best, he is still an elite quarterback. When he is at his best, he’s breaking the game of football.
If there is one legitimate criticism of Mahomes’s performance, it’s that he has been surrounded by elite talent, both on the sidelines (with head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) and on the field (with the All-Pro Kelce and the fastest man in football, Tyreek Hill, serving as his primary targets). But if the main knock against Mahomes is that he needs coaches and teammates to win a championship … well, welcome to team sports. Michael Jordan didn’t win a title until he had Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant. The cover charge for a ring is too high for even a superstar to pay without help.
Evaluating an individual’s greatness shouldn’t be dependent on team context, but when it comes to determining the GOAT, it is. To ascend to the rarified heights of not just greatness, but the-best-who-ever-did-it greatness, public perception inevitably becomes fixated on hardware. Wilt Chamberlain’s transcendent statistical track record is considered empty calories compared to the handfuls of rings that Bill Russell earned with the Celtics. LeBron’s case for overtaking MJ as the basketball GOAT ultimately resides less on his stats than on his number of titles—which is why he did more to reignite that conversation in September and October than he had in the two years prior. And while Brady has a case as the GOAT based on his individual accomplishments alone, what makes him the undisputed GOAT comes down to the rings which now adorn a second hand.
So Mahomes will need help to make his GOAT case over the next 15 to 20 years. He’ll need to keep adding jewelry to his fingers until he can overtake Brady with everything else on his résumé. And it says something about how quickly Mahomes has put himself on this track that it’s fair to question whether an offsides penalty and a coin toss could have huge implications in determining the respective legacies of the current GOAT and his greatest threat. That may sound extreme, but consider that right now Brady holds the championship edge, six to one. If the Chiefs had won the 2019 AFC title game and gone on to beat the Rams in the Super Bowl, Brady’s edge would be five to two. If I set the over/under on future Mahomes titles at three … are you sure you’d take the under?
Instead, Mahomes needs five more titles to catch Brady. While that’s a daunting task, it also gives Mahomes a career goal that is worthy of his talents. And the Chiefs are well-positioned to stay in the championship picture for years to come. For a defending champion that has won four straight AFC West titles, the Chiefs aren’t particularly old; not one of the 21 players who have started at least four games this season has turned 32, and only three—Kelce, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, and safety Dan Sorensen—have even turned 30. Reid is a rejuvenated 62 and just signed a contract extension through 2025; general manager Brett Veach, who has displayed a great eye for spotting talent in the draft (he championed the move to trade up in the first round to take Mahomes) and a knack for masterfully juggling the salary cap (so that the Chiefs, unlike the Saints, aren’t about to run headlong into a salary cap brick wall this offseason), did the same. If Kansas City wins it all three months from now, Mahomes will dominate the zeitgeist, and we’ll be talking about the Chiefs’ quest to become the first team in the Super Bowl era to win three straight titles.
Which would give Mahomes one more thing in common with Michael Jordan. Thirty years from now, I can only hope that I’m able to relive his legend in a 10-part documentary series about a Chiefs dynasty. It might not have as much off-field tension as The Last Dance, but I am confident that it would still make for riveting television. Dominance creates its own drama. All-time greatness is never boring.