clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Patrick Mahomes Has Earned a Place Among the NFL’s Greats

The Chiefs quarterback now has two Super Bowl rings to go with his two MVP awards—all by age 27. Where does that place him in the pantheon of the NFL’s legendary quarterbacks?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Patrick Mahomes is finally alone. He’s sitting at his locker inside State Farm Stadium on Sunday night. His is the first one you pass when you walk into the Chiefs locker room. He’s finished with the award presentations, the TV interviews, the press conferences, the declarations of “I’m going to Disneyland!,” and the small talk with Paul Rudd. There’s plenty of dancing left to do and Champagne still to pop, but Mahomes sits down and pulls out his phone. It’s the millennial version of a cigarette break, an iPhone-induced dopamine infusion amid the chaos around him.

Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire approaches Mahomes, daps him up, and then reaches above the quarterback’s head. Edwards-Helaire rips the “Mahomes” nameplate clean off of the locker. It seems like Edwards-Helaire intends to keep it.

It’s not hard to understand why someone would want a souvenir from this game, especially since Mahomes’s name was written all over Kansas City’s 38-35 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. Mahomes has earned his second Super Bowl MVP, completing 21 of 27 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t commit a turnover and was not sacked. Mahomes had six incompletions on Sunday, but three of them either should have been caught or were miraculous throwaways mid-sack. Across the entire game, Mahomes essentially had two bad throws. That was reflected in his ESPN Total QBR score of 96.4 out of 100. And yet the Chiefs went into halftime down 10 points after a stretch in which he was on the field for just four plays across more than an hour of real time.

“I don’t want to say we played tight in the first half,” Mahomes said after the game. “But you didn’t see that same joy that we play with and I said [at halftime], ‘I want you guys to just know that everything we work for is for this moment. You have to enjoy this moment. You can’t let the moment overtake you.’”

Joy is perhaps Mahomes’s defining trait. Mahomes has plenty of other iconic qualities. He’s got the unbelievable arm, the shortstop throwing angles, the ludicrously low-speed scrambles. He way too frequently throws without his feet touching the ground, and it way too frequently works. His voice is a little odd. He runs like Pablo Escobar pulling his pants up in Narcos. He can throw left-handed or underhanded or really anything that is required to not take a sack. There’s a thousand things about Mahomes that feel unique to him. But the one thing that ties all of them together is that everything about this guy is fun.

We are witnessing a generational athlete at the peak of his powers, and not only is he one of the most talented and accomplished and dominant players in the history of football, but he also has the wisdom at just 27 years old to know that he, his teammates, and everyone watching should just be soaking in this moment, a lesson he seemingly learned from a childhood spent around his father’s Major League Baseball clubhouses.

“[Patrick’s] seen the greats,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He strives to be the greatest. Without saying anything, that’s the way he works. He wants to be the greatest player ever. That’s what he wants to be.”

Mahomes will never be the greatest ever—not after Tom Brady’s Bucs beat him head-to-head in the Super Bowl two years ago. But Mahomes is already way further up the list of all-time NFL greats than you might think.

Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time. But after Kansas City’s victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Patrick Mahomes, at just 27 years old, has a case to be on the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks. It may sound like sacrilege to suggest that Mahomes is already one of the best four passers in football history after just five years as a starter. But a comparison of Mahomes’s résumé against those of the game’s all-time greats is convincing.

Mahomes is now 2-1 in the Super Bowl and has made five consecutive AFC championship games. That’s the same number of conference title games Peyton Manning reached in his entire career. Mahomes has two Super Bowl rings at 27. John Elway didn’t get his first until he was 37, after losing three Super Bowls in his 20s. Mahomes has two Super Bowl wins in five seasons. Dan Marino (zero), Brett Favre (one), Aaron Rodgers (one), and Drew Brees (one) combined to win three Super Bowls in more than 70 seasons. If Mahomes never played another football game, he would likely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Yet that might not even go far enough to quantify what Mahomes has already achieved.

Let’s assume the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks is Tom Brady, Joe Montana, and—because I can hear my grandmother scolding me if I leave him off this list—Johnny Unitas. Who deserves the fourth spot? Mahomes now absolutely belongs in the conversation.

Debates about who is the greatest at anything inevitably lead to questions about what “greatest” actually means. Is it the most accomplished or the most talented? Is it about stats or trophies? How do we value personal achievements versus team successes? But none of those clarifications matter with Mahomes. He already ranks among the all-time greats in all of those categories. Mahomes has melted the traditional framework we use to measure quarterbacks like Aegon the Conqueror melting down swords in Game of Thrones to build the Iron Throne.

If we’re just talking about team success, Mahomes is on an all-time pace. He’s the second-youngest quarterback to ever win multiple Super Bowls, after Brady. In the regular season, Mahomes already has the best record through his first 80 starts in NFL history (64-16). Mahomes has already won 11 playoff games, which ties him for the eighth most of all time with Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, and Rodgers. If Mahomes gets three more postseason wins, he’ll trail only Brady and Montana as the greatest playoff QBs of all time.

If we’re talking about individual honors, Mahomes is in elite company. He’s just the third NFL player to win multiple MVP awards by age 27, joining Brett Favre and Jim Brown. He is the sixth player ever to win multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. The only people to accomplish both of those things—winning multiple Super Bowl MVP awards and multiple MVP awards for the regular season—are Brady, Montana, and Mahomes. And Brady and Montana didn’t win a regular-season MVP award until they were in their 30s.

If we’re talking about statistical dominance, Mahomes certainly fits the bill for inclusion among the GOATs. Among every quarterback in NFL history through their first 80 regular-season starts, Mahomes has the most touchdown passes, the most passing yards, and the highest average net yards per attempt (which is a fancy way of saying yards per pass attempt accounting for touchdowns, sacks, and interceptions). He is the first player in NFL history to lead the league in passing yards and win the Super Bowl in the same season.

It is difficult to compare players across eras. This era of quarterbacking is easier for a dozen reasons, from rules that are designed and enforced to protect quarterbacks and increase scoring, to offensive schemes that skew far more pass heavy than they did even 20 years ago, to quarterbacks who arrive in the NFL as far more polished passers after growing up in an era of year-round football and passing camps. There was just one 5,000-yard passing season from the creation of the NFL through 2007. Since 2008, there have been 14 (including two from Mahomes: 5,097 in 2018 and 5,250 this season). Even Mahomes acknowledged as much in December in an interview on the New Heights podcast with Travis and Jason Kelce. He said that he considers Marino’s 1984 season, when Marino threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns, as the best single season by a QB in NFL history. But considering Mahomes leads every notable stat for passers who are this far into their careers, there is no doubt Mahomes is the most statistically prolific player of this era.

In terms of pure talent, Mahomes is clearly on the list with Rodgers, Favre, and Elway as the most gifted passers we’ve ever seen. Debating who was the best doesn’t make as much sense as following the obvious lineage of the gunslinger genre that Elway more or less invented. Elway made unbelievable 50-yard cross-body throws before that was commonplace. Favre was doing wild shit like this in his 40s. Rodgers is a Jedi. Mahomes is a modern marvel with the big arm, incredible mobility, and ingenuity to make the most improbable throws look routine. For my money, considering the stakes and degree of difficulty, this Mahomes incompletion in the Chiefs’ Super Bowl loss to the Bucs two years ago is the best pass in a football game ever. Mahomes’s talent should never be up for debate.

But what pushes Mahomes into all-time territory is how his greatness consistently comes up in the moments his team needs it most (like Kirk Cousins, but the opposite). There is a difference between knowing Steph Curry is a good 3-point shooter and watching Steph Curry sprint to the corner of the court, seeing him catch the basketball, and feeling deep within your bones that his 3-point shot is going to go in. It’s the feeling of watching Tom Brady with the ball while trailing in the fourth quarter. It is Peyton Manning pointing at a defense’s safety and calling an audible during a two-minute drill. It’s Aaron Rodgers throwing a Hail Mary, knowing his odds of completing the pass are 20 times higher than anyone else’s. Mahomes is clearly a part of this lineage in NFL history and American sports. It’s Tiger wearing red on a Sunday, Jordan never even needing a Game 7 in the NBA Finals, or Mike Tyson in his prime.

So take your pick: team success, personal achievement, raw talent, the eyeball test. Whatever you pick, you cannot easily exclude Mahomes from the top four in any of those categories even if he never plays another football game after Sunday night. And if he were to step away, how many players in any sport have ever had that sort of résumé?

It’s not a long list. Tiger Woods established himself as the best golfer in the world by his second year on tour and held all four major golf trophies simultaneously by his sixth year as a pro. Wayne Gretzky won the MVP in his first eight seasons in the NHL. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had more national championships (three) than losses in college (two) and then won an NBA championship and three MVPs in his first six seasons as a pro. Joe DiMaggio won two MVPs and five World Series titles in his first seven years and then left to serve in World War II.

Mahomes may never be the greatest quarterback ever—after all, Brady beat him head-to-head in the Super Bowl. But he is in an extraordinary position for second place. “I’m not going to say dynasty yet,” Mahomes said after the game. “But we’re not done.”

Mahomes is the last player to arrive back in the Chiefs’ locker room. Being the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl comes with power, but also responsibility (and contractually obligated media availabilities). His teammates have been enjoying the celebration without him. The defensive backs were smoking cigars, the defensive linemen were taking selfies on Steve Spagnuolo’s phone—everyone enjoying a low-key sort of high.

Twenty seconds after Mahomes walks in, it’s a dance party. The aroma of cigars is replaced by—or at least mixed with—the smell of Champagne. “7.62 God” by Pooh Shiesty is blasting (Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt did not seem familiar with Mr. Shiesty’s work). Champagne is flying in every direction. And since Ant-Man Paul Rudd is here, maybe the Champagne is spraying in every dimension, too.

Mahomes walks toward the defensive side of the locker room and begins dapping each of his teammates up one by one; he briefly disappears before returning with a WWE-style championship belt. The music gets louder and the dance circle gets bigger until it becomes a mosh pit. Chiefs quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy is standing on a chair, taking a video. Someone changes the song to “Set It Off” by Boosie Badazz. From the center of the mosh pit, the Lombardi Trophy rises like Rihanna rising from the main stage of the halftime show.

Amid this literal cloud of cigar smoke, the half-billion-dollar man has slipped away. Mahomes got this party started, but now he’s retreated to the other side of the room, finally alone. He sits in his chair, scrolling through his phone and leaning back against his locker, which is now the only locker in the entire room that does not have a nameplate. Maybe it’s better this way. We all know who Patrick Mahomes is. The only question is how much weight that name will carry.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Michael Jordan didn’t play in a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs. He never needed a Game 7 in the Finals.