This past August, the NFL Network released its annual list of the top 100 active players, as voted on by the players themselves. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, after ranking no. 1 on the list the summer before, had lost his perch atop the catbird seat following his “worst” season, one in which he threw for 4,839 yards and 37 touchdowns. In his place was Tom Brady—perhaps a questionable choice when ranking the best players right now, but unimpeachable as a lifetime achievement award. At no. 2 was Aaron Donald, who as a defensive tackle can never have the impact of a top-tier quarterback but, relative to his position, was as dominant as any player has been this century. At no. 3 was Aaron Rodgers, coming off back-to-back MVP awards: fair.
But Mahomes didn’t drop to no. 4 on this list. He tumbled all the way to no. 8, behind Cooper Kupp, Jonathan Taylor, T.J. Watt, and Davante Adams. And this wasn’t a one-time snub. After winning league MVP honors in his first season as a starter, Mahomes ranked fourth on this list in 2019. After winning Super Bowl MVP honors in his second season as a starter, he again ranked fourth in 2020. Which means that Mahomes has ranked—as voted by his peers on a much-hyped show created by the NFL’s own mouthpiece—among the top three players in the NFL exactly once in his career. He dropped seven spots on the list in one year as a consequence of a season in which he led his team to a tie for best record in the AFC, engineered two scoring drives in the last two minutes against Buffalo to win one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history, and, as he had in every season that he’s been the starting quarterback, kept the Chiefs’ season alive to the final moments of the AFC championship game, losing in overtime. Clearly, his season was a huge disappointment.
The NFL Top 100 was just the final indignity that was inflicted on Mahomes this past offseason. When Kansas City made the coldhearted but entirely rational decision to trade Tyreek Hill for draft picks (and the extra cap space his absence would free up), well, it was Christmas morning for the hot-take artists on cable sports talk shows. Mahomes would be exposed, they said. The Chiefs were no longer the class of the AFC West, let alone the NFL. Broncos Country, Let’s Ride.
For Chiefs fans who were privileged enough to have been at ground zero when Mahomes went supernova and have watched every snap since, it would have been easy to take these slights personally. But it is a testament to Mahomes’s greatness that the predominant emotion most of us felt wasn’t outrage but bemusement. We didn’t waste our time feeling that our quarterback was being disrespected because we’d already determined long ago that Mahomes had ascended beyond needing the respect of his peers and critics, that he had left the plane of mere mortals and was already rubbing shoulders with the all-time greats. We’ve been focused on elevating him to the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks—Mahomes already has as many playoff victories in his career (eight) as Dan Marino, for God’s sake!—and wondering whether he can ultimately surpass Tom Brady as the GOAT. Sure, the Chiefs’ divisional competition was supposed to have gotten better this offseason, adding players like Adams (a better player than Mahomes, according to the NFL Network’s Top 100), Russell Wilson, and Khalil Mack, but Chiefs fans maintained a quiet confidence that Kansas City would continue to rule the AFC West. Perhaps that was hubris—but we had Patrick Mahomes. Everyone else didn’t.
Indeed, there was no reason to worry; those who predicted regression for the Chiefs look quite silly now. Even without Hill, Mahomes threw for a career-high 5,250 yards this season, the most in the NFL, and he also led the league with 41 touchdowns thrown (along with four more on the ground). He will almost certainly win his second MVP award, probably by a near-unanimous vote (he won 49 of 50 first-place votes for first-team All-Pro). A year after the Chiefs went 12-5 and earned the no. 2 seed in the AFC, they went 14-3 and earned the no. 1 seed. (Since Mahomes became the starter in 2018, exactly one AFC team—the 2019 Baltimore Ravens—has had more victories than the Chiefs in any given season.) The Chiefs had the division essentially wrapped up before Thanksgiving and officially clinched with three games still left to play.
The AFC West spent a billion dollars to stop the Chiefs and it's over for them before Thanksgiving.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) November 21, 2022
As a Chiefs fan, I’m not bothered that Mahomes hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves. The one time he earned the league’s ultimate respect by winning the MVP award, the only thing on my mind when native Kansas Citian Paul Rudd announced the winner (by turning around to reveal the “MAHOMES” already stenciled onto his designer suit) was that I’d gladly trade that MVP award for the coin flip that had decided the AFC championship game two weeks before. Or as Tom Brady has put it, “You think I play this shit to go to Pro Bowls?” Awards are nice; trophies are better. But the casual way Mahomes is sometimes dismissed as merely another NFL star—and not the galactic core around which all the other stars revolve—offends me as a football fan, for the same reason it would offend me as an American if someone were to claim that there are 37 states and the Constitution has 91 amendments: because it’s so obviously not the truth. So perhaps this season will be seen as a tipping point when people will finally learn to accept the reality staring them right in the face.
The 2022 season should have eliminated whatever reasons people had manufactured to downplay Mahomes’s greatness before. After his performance over the previous four years, Mahomes should have had nothing to prove this season, but he proved himself anyway. For the first time since he established himself in the NFL, he entered a season with lowered expectations, and he not only met his exacting standards, he also exceeded them. So now, finally, it’s time to stop overthinking things. It’s time to stop reaching for a hot take, to stop ignoring the evidence directly in front of us, to stop acting even the tiniest bit like Skip Bayless. Patrick Mahomes is the best football player in the world. He has been from pretty much the first moment he took a snap in the NFL. And no one else is particularly close.
Mahomes was a comet in 2018, a force of nature that NFL defenses were neither expecting nor prepared to deal with. He threw for 240-plus yards in each of his first 25 games, tying the longest such streak in NFL history for a quarterback at any point in his career. The Chiefs scored 26 or more points in every game they played that season and in 22 consecutive games overall, the longest such streak in NFL history. (Only two other teams have scored 26-plus points in even 13 straight games.) The Chiefs in 2017 under Alex Smith began a streak of scoring 21-plus points per game, which Mahomes extended to 28 consecutive games in 2018; no other team has reached 25 in a row. Their streak was broken in a 19-13 loss to the Colts in 2019 (during which Mahomes had his ankle stepped on by a lineman and was clearly hurt all game). After that they immediately started another streak of 28 straight games of at least 21-plus points scored. The first game of his career for which you can make a compelling case that he played at a below-average level was probably in Week 5 of the 2021 season, the 58th game of his career, when the Chiefs lost to the Bills 38-20.
And I think we all just became inured to the consistency of his greatness. It would be newsworthy if Mahomes were occasionally performing at a level that no other quarterback ever reached. But when his worst is comparable to many starting quarterbacks’ best, there are only so many times you can say, “Patrick Mahomes did something that no other quarterback has done” before people get bored. Or, perversely, his failures become more notable precisely because they are so rare. “If Patrick Mahomes did what [insert quarterback X] just did, we’d all be raving about it” has become a meme unto itself. When The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman wrote about Mahomes last month, he called this phenomenon “greatness fatigue.” Indeed, what makes Mahomes the best player in football isn’t that he makes absurd plays. It’s that he makes absurd plays all the time. Plenty of NBA players can hit 40-footers; what makes Steph Curry unique is that we’ve come to expect it from him.
Anyone can make a highlight-film play once, which is why highlights alone are an inadequate method for evaluating players. But putting highlight-worthy plays in the context of 40 dropbacks a game is precisely what statistics are meant for: to give you the whole story. And statistically, Mahomes is in his own category.
In five seasons as a starter, his lowest season-long completion percentage is 65.9 percent; his fewest TDs thrown is 26; his career high in interceptions is 13; his career high in sacks is 28; his career low in rushing yards is 218. Without even mentioning Mahomes’s best statistical category—he has thrown over 4,000 yards in all five of his years as a starter—we can put those numbers together as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of the worst parts of Mahomes’s career: 65.9 percent completion percentage, 218 rushing yards, 26 TDs, 13 interceptions, 28 sacks. Here is a list of every quarterback in NFL history who had even one season that matched or bested the combined worst performances of Mahomes’s career:
- Lamar Jackson (2019)
- Josh Allen (2020)
- Kyler Murray (2020)
Mahomes, of course, has reached or surpassed those marks five times in five years. He is a unicorn. He is one of one.
But perhaps you don’t trust raw old-school statistics and prefer something more analytical, something that takes context into account, so that we don’t reward Mahomes for being a compiler who puts up empty numbers in meaningless situations. In that case, we can turn to EPA, expected points added, which measures the true value of every play given the down-and-distance data. EPA gives us the true measure of Mahomes, revealing that traditional statistics actually underrate him.
From 2018 to 2022, 28 quarterbacks have been involved in at least 1,500 plays. Here is how the top five rank in EPA:
Top Five QBs by EPA, 2018-22
The chasm between Mahomes and no. 2, Garoppolo, is larger than the difference between Garoppolo and no. 21, Matt Ryan (.093). “Aha!” you say, shrewdly noting the presence of Philip Rivers in the chart above. “But what if we eliminate garbage-time scenarios and look only at how quarterbacks play when the game is still in doubt?” We can limit our search to only plays in which the win probability of each team was between 10 and 90 percent. Here is that list:
Top Five QBs by EPA (Non-Garbage-Time Edition), 2018-22
The difference between Mahomes and Rodgers is greater than the difference between Rodgers and no. 17, Kyler Murray (.101).
OK, but how about the postseason? Surely Mahomes’s performance drops off when he’s facing the stiffest competition in the most stress-filled situations. Given the small sample sizes involved, for this chart we will look at every quarterback’s postseason performance going back to 2010 (as far back as we have EPA data). Twenty-seven quarterbacks have been involved in at least 100 postseason plays outside of garbage time (winning percentage between 10 and 90 percent). Here are the five best:
Top Playoff QBs Since 2010
That’s right: Outside of garbage time, Mahomes averages 0.325 EPA during the regular season … and 0.325 EPA during the postseason. No one else comes close, whether it’s in September or January.
And just for fun, here is the chart of how quarterbacks with 600-plus plays since 2010 have fared in third-down situations outside of garbage time in the regular season:
Guess Who’s the Best Third-Down QB Since 2010
The four guys behind Mahomes on this list are four of the best quarterbacks of this century. On third down, Mahomes has been more than twice as valuable as all of them. He has literally lapped the field.
Some visuals may help get the point across. Here is that third-down efficiency chart, with data from rbsdm.com, for all qualified quarterbacks who come in with an EPA at or behind Brees at .231:
And here is the same chart with Mahomes included. He’s in a different stratosphere:
What makes all of this so incredible and so terrifying to the teams trying to take Mahomes down is that he has maintained his greatness even while changing his very nature. He is a significantly different quarterback today than he was four years ago—not because he can no longer play the way he did in 2018 (launching a ball 50 yards down the field and having it land on a dime) but because he can do other stuff as well. Stuff he didn’t need to do in 2018. Stuff that he has to do now because the league practically invented an entirely new way of playing defense in an effort to contain him.
Much like baseball manager Lou Boudreau essentially invented the shift in the 1940s to combat Ted Williams, football teams radically changed where they positioned their defenders in 2021, both before and after the snap. After Mahomes had shredded blitzes for years, defenses stopped bothering with that—no quarterback was blitzed on a lower percentage of dropbacks in 2021 than Mahomes. Terms like “two-high shells” and “putting a cap over the offense” came back into vogue, as defenses were determined not to let Mahomes throw over (or Hill run past) them. Not content to send only four rushers after the quarterback, some teams took out a lineman and dropped eight into coverage, blanketing the field with defensive backs while also leaving room for a spy to keep Mahomes from breaking containment.
This led to the only slump of Mahomes’s career to date: During a five-game stretch from Week 5 to Week 9 last season, Mahomes averaged just 5.95 yards per attempt while throwing as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns. Included in that stretch were a 38-20 loss to the Bills and a 27-3 loss to the Titans, which are notable because they remain the only two regular-season games of his career that the Chiefs lost by more than one score. (If you throw in the Chiefs’ loss to the Bucs in Super Bowl LV, of the 91 NFL games Mahomes has played in, he has lost just three of them by more than one score.) Over the last three games of the slump, the Chiefs scored 36 points combined; take those three games out, and the fewest points scored by the Chiefs in any three-game stretch with Mahomes is 67. He looked mortal for a solid month.
But then he adjusted, which is to say that he simply took what the defense was giving him. They’re going to stop blitzing and drop eight into defensive coverage and dare you to play it safe? Unlike Ted Williams, who stubbornly refused to concede to the shift for his entire career, Mahomes learned to go with it. It’s not that he’s no longer capable of playing hero ball; it’s that the midrange game has become the better-percentage move. Here’s a chart of Mahomes’s average depth of target, as measured by intended air yards per pass attempt, by year:
Mahomes’s Average Depth of Target by Year
|Rank among QBs
|Rank among QBs
|6 of 33
|9 of 32
|12 of 35
|24 of 31
|23 of 33
The 50-yard bombs aren’t missing; they’re simply locked away for the right moment. In their place are more crossing patterns, 12-yard outs, and, because this is an Andy Reid offense, creative screen passes that let running backs roam free. The final result looks about the same in the box score, but the journey to get there is very different. The Chiefs offense isn’t necessarily better than before, but it is more flexible and resilient—on the rare occasions their game plan isn’t working, they have backup options and fail-safes. For a team that has the luxury of knowing it’ll make the postseason even before the season begins, having a variety of ways to attack the best teams in football is critical. And diversifying the offense allowed the Chiefs to trade one of the best wide receivers in the NFL and actually get better.
The thing you have to understand about the 2022 Chiefs is that this was a rebuilding year. It was as close as a team that employs Patrick Mahomes will ever get to ripping out the foundation and starting over. And they still finished tied for the best record in football.
Phase 1 of the Patrick Mahomes Experience ended after last season’s heartbreaking loss to the Bengals in the AFC championship game, which left the franchise at a crossroads: Should it try to keep the team’s star offensive triumvirate of Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill together as their salary cap obligations rose and the rest of the roster got older, or break them apart in an attempt to make the team younger and cheaper?
This was hardly an easy decision: Kelce and Hill had been the two dominant pass-catching options on the Chiefs’ roster going back to 2017, before Mahomes was even throwing to them. And with the exception of Hill in 2019 (when he missed four games), both Kelce and Hill had over 1,000 receiving yards every year from 2017 to 2021—no other Chief reached even 700 receiving yards in that span. Tearing the best receiving duo in the NFL apart with Hill still in his prime at 28 was a gut check for the franchise.
But faced with the decision of whether to pay Hill $30 million a year, Chiefs GM Brett Veach believed he could put Hill’s cap space and the extra draft capital he’d garner in a trade to better use. Veach traded Hill to the Dolphins for a first-rounder, a second-rounder, two fourth-rounders, and a sixth-rounder, and then he spent the money earmarked for Hill on two replacements: JuJu Smith-Schuster, who got an incentive-laden contract that could pay him up to $10.8 million for one year, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract.
The trade was a bet that Smith-Schuster and Valdes-Scantling would replace the touches that went to Hill and that the draft picks and remaining cap space would help the Chiefs continue to reshape a defense that needed to be only mediocre to keep the team positioned as a Super Bowl contender. And above all, it was a bet that Mahomes could take basically any wide receiver and turn him into an asset. Along with Hill, wide receivers Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson left the Chiefs after the 2021 season—leaving Mecole Hardman the only wide receiver to catch a pass for both the 2021 and 2022 Chiefs. (It was a rare win-win trade in the NFL, with Hill proving to be every bit the game-altering wide receiver that the Dolphins thought he would be: Hill finished second only to Justin Jefferson in total receiving yards, with 1,710, and he helped turn Tua Tagovailoa from a vaguely disappointing top-five pick in his first two seasons into the guy who led the NFL in yards per attempt, with 8.9 in 2022.)
But even without Hill, the Chiefs didn’t miss a beat because of Mahomes. Smith-Schuster filled the role of possession receiver, catching 78 passes for 933 yards, while Valdes-Scantling gave the Chiefs a swing-for-the-fences option. He caught just 42 passes on 81 targets but averaged 16.4 yards per reception, ranking fifth in the NFL. (Those receivers’ combined numbers—1,620 yards and five TDs—were still less than what Hill had by himself in Miami.) Kelce showed no concession to age at 33, setting career highs in receptions (110) and TDs (12), but Mahomes spread the ball like cream cheese on a bagel. Twelve different Chiefs had at least 100 receiving yards, after no more than nine players had reached 100 yards in a season with Mahomes before.
Even with the additions of Smith-Schuster and Valdes-Scantling, the Chiefs saved roughly $10 million in cap space relative to where they would have been with Hill. And the draft picks acquired for Hill set up a 2022 bonanza, one that has the potential to extend the Chiefs’ dreams of a dynasty for years to come. The Chiefs wound up making 10 draft picks in April, and all 10 of them—including three seventh-rounders!—were on the 53-man roster at the end of the season. After missing the first half of the season with a hamstring injury, first-round cornerback Trent McDuffie was the best rookie cornerback in coverage this side of Sauce Gardner; a fellow first-rounder, defensive end George Karlaftis, who finished the season with 5.5 sacks in his final seven games, has a motor that just won’t quit. Wide receiver Skyy Moore, safety Bryan Cook, linebacker Leo Chenal, and cornerbacks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson all filled important roles, and seventh-rounder Isiah Pacheco won the starting job at running back by midseason and led all rookies with 633 rushing yards from Week 10 on. Quietly, the Chiefs had the seventh-youngest roster in the entire NFL this season and their youngest in the Patrick Mahomes era; they have ample cap space this offseason and a full allotment of draft picks in April. They didn’t rebuild; they just reloaded.
It helps, of course, that Mahomes’s talent is so transcendent that it draws other players in: Everyone wants to play with him. You think Smith-Schuster feels like he made a mistake in signing with the Chiefs for one year to rebuild his value on the open market? He will reenter free agency this season as a 26-year-old who caught a career-high 77 percent of passes thrown his way and averaged 9.2 yards per target, his highest number since his rookie year. If, say, you are a former first-round pick who is oozing talent and athleticism, but you haven’t been able to make it work with the team that drafted you, is there anywhere you’d rather be traded to than Kansas City? Well, let’s ask Kadarius Toney, the Giants first-rounder from 2021 whom the Chiefs picked up midseason for third- and sixth-round picks.
Toney’s hamstrings limited him after the trade to the Chiefs—he missed three games and played less than 10 percent of the snaps in two others—but in his short time on the field, his impact has already been felt: He’s been incorporated as the team’s punt returner, he had 171 receiving yards on just 17 targets, and he scored a rushing touchdown in Week 18. As the postseason looms, look for Reid to deploy Toney—and, if he recovers from an abdominal injury in time, fellow speedster Hardman—as dual secret-weapon, jet-sweep, double-reverse gadget players. Possibly at the same time.
Jerick McKinnon was an injury-prone journeyman running back about to turn 29 when the Chiefs signed him for peanuts before the 2021 season. They viewed him as a potential threat in the passing game, both for his skills in pass protection and as a screen option. And in the postseason, he had 150 rushing yards and 165 receiving yards in three playoff games. The Chiefs managed his workload to keep him healthy in 2022, and after he was turned loose in the receiving game late in the year, he became the first running back in NFL history to catch a touchdown pass in six straight games.
Put it all together, and in a season when offense was down across the NFL—teams scored an average of 21.9 points per game, down nearly 5 percent from the 2021 average of 23.0 points per game—the Chiefs scored their most points (496) since 2018, leading the NFL again. They ranked first in offensive DVOA again. They converted first downs into another fresh set of downs more than 78 percent of the time for the fifth straight year; the other 31 teams combined have performed this trick just 12 times this century. And thanks to an All-Pro season from defensive tackle Chris Jones and the sage wisdom of venerable new defensive line coach Joe Cullen, a rejuvenated pass rush got after the quarterback for 55 sacks, ranking second in the NFL, up from 29th last season. The overall team defense was upgraded to acceptably mediocre (they finished 17th in points allowed) and is getting better: Although they allowed 24.6 points per game before their Week 8 bye, they allowed just 19.7 points per game afterward. And with a playoff bye week to rest, the roster enters this weekend’s game against the Jaguars as close to fully healthy as it’s been all season. This is the NFL, so no playoff game is a gimme, and the Jaguars just won a game in which they’d trailed 27-0. So I’m taking nothing for granted. But realistically, the Chiefs are perfectly set up to play in their fifth consecutive conference championship game. Only one team has had a longer streak. That team, of course, is the New England Patriots, who played in eight straight from 2011 to 2018. The Patriots remain the standard that the Chiefs will be compared to. Tom Brady remains the standard Mahomes can be compared to.
But the silver lining of Brady’s seemingly unreachable record of seven rings is that it has allowed me to worry less about Mahomes’s ultimate destination and just enjoy the journey. I don’t know what the future will bring, whether he can stay active and productive into his mid-40s, throw for another 65,000 yards, and win six more titles. I just know that watching Mahomes now, week in and week out, is not simply a winning experience but a joyous one. Each game brings with it the promise, typically fulfilled, that in the next three hours I will witness an iconic play, whether it’s a no-look underhand toss to his running back for a 56-yard touchdown or a scramble to the pylon in which Mahomes stays inbound by briefly balancing his entire body weight on his left palm. Call it the game within the game: When I sit down to watch the Chiefs, it is with the unspoken question, “What will Mahomes do today that I will remember for the rest of my life?”
There is nothing that compares to—and no way to bring back—the emotions that Chiefs fans felt early in the 2018 season. There is nothing in sports that compares to seeing a phenom take over before your very eyes—especially when that phenom plays for your team, you’ve waited your entire life for this, and it’s actually happening. I was fortunate enough to record that moment for The Ringer in real time, after a 15-day span in which Mahomes went from a publicly hyped (and privately even more hyped) quarterback who had yet to take a snap in a meaningful game to the biggest story in football after throwing 13 touchdowns and making multiple unprecedented throws in his first three games of the season. I wrote the rough draft of that article in the time waiting for the Chiefs’ Week 4 Monday Night Football matchup in Denver against our biggest and most-hated rival; the draft was headed for rewrites after Mahomes looked mortal in the first half and the Chiefs trailed the Broncos by 10 points early in the fourth quarter.
Patrick Mahomes’ LEFT-HANDED throw whaaaaaaattt?? pic.twitter.com/VTtSd7X4Ge— Jeff Rosen (@jeff_rosen88) October 2, 2018
And then Mahomes led the Chiefs on consecutive touchdown drives and threw a completed pass on third down with his left hand, and the legend had, impossibly, grown even larger. And we knew. We knew then that everything had changed, that suddenly no dream was too big.
Here’s what I wrote: “Mahomes isn’t giving us Chiefs fans the view from the summit, at least not yet. But he’s giving us a view of the summit, that moment when explorers cross a continent and first bear witness to the purple mountain majesties, peak after peak stretching as far as the eye can see. Suddenly, there’s no hurdle that seems too high, no goal that seems out of reach. If this is not our year, then some year soon will be. Because the way Mahomes is playing, the Chiefs aren’t just a threat to go to their first Super Bowl since before Pat Mahomes Sr. was born. They’re a threat to win it. And they should remain a threat to win it for many seasons to come.”
I quote this not because essentially every word of it has proved true but because it felt so obvious. It didn’t require any great leap of foresight or intuition to predict what was going to happen. It simply required me to open my eyes, watch what Mahomes was doing, and do the simple math that only one of the greatest football players ever to wear shoulder pads would be capable of the things he was doing.
That feeling—of endless possibility, of a limitless future, of a near certainty that the best was yet to come—could not last forever, and it did not. And that’s OK: If it weren’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it wouldn’t be so special. But it’s been replaced by something even better, if less emotional: the Zen of living in the present, of enjoying the now, of watching the best football player in the world at the peak of his powers. He’s tasted the ultimate success and also endured disappointment and setbacks, and he’s emerged on the other side a better man for it. That was the sowing; this is the reaping. These are the glory years.
I don’t know how long this will last. I don’t know whether the Chiefs will win the Super Bowl this year or even whether they will beat the Jaguars on Saturday. And I certainly don’t know whether Mahomes will win seven more championships or none at all. All I do know for sure is that, right now, I get the opportunity every single week to watch and root for the best player in the sport, maybe the best player the sport has ever seen, with all of his potential realized: a football man in full. Every moment we get to witness him is a blessing. That is enough. Truly: That is everything.