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We Have Never Seen a Football Player Like Patrick Mahomes

In leading the Chiefs to their second Super Bowl title in four years, Patrick Mahomes is redefining quarterbacking greatness

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It started with a daydreaming kid in a backyard. It always does. A 10-year-old boy named Patrick Mahomes II sending footballs and baseballs through the Texas sky, and he was good at it, so good that his father realized he was throwing so far that they had to find somewhere else to throw. Now, Big Pat clarified when we spoke a few years ago, he was a professional baseball player, so it was already a big backyard, but it could not contain his son. They found a baseball field nearby where Patrick could throw a baseball from the plate over the 220-foot sign in the outfield. Shortly after, Mahomes outgrew even that, and then they found a football field where the kid could throw. Yet even that had its limits, since Mahomes could throw so far during warm-ups as a high school football player that his coaches worried the opposing punter was in danger on the other side of the field.

This is the story of Patrick Mahomes: The stage gets bigger, the moment gets bigger, and so does Mahomes. He keeps finding bigger and bigger venues and has not yet found one he cannot conquer. All the world’s a stage to Mahomes—a place to erase double-digit deficits or send fan bases into year-ruining nightmares, defensive backs into crises of confidence or just simply nail a high school punter in the helmet with a pass. The through line for those tortured by Mahomes’s brilliance is usually to keep your head up. Even that may not work.

Mahomes won his second Super Bowl on Sunday night, a 38-35, last-second, come-from-behind win over the Philadelphia Eagles. He is the first player in NFL history to win two Super Bowls and two MVPs in his first six seasons. He has won both by erasing late leads—something he does with incredible regularity. His 14-10 career record when trailing by double digits is not only the best ever by a large margin, it’s a better winning percentage than a good deal of starting quarterbacks in their entire career under normal conditions.

Mahomes, after this game, diagnosing what was wrong in the first half, said his team was not playing with its usual joy. This cuts to the heart of the matter: The Chiefs’ best football is joyful because Mahomes’s best football is joyful, same as it was when the backyard was too small for him. There is an innocence to his game that almost no one else possesses. Mahomes has a childlike wonder that pulses through his style of play combined with a grown-ass man’s ability to actually do it. If a young child designed how he wanted to play this game, he would specialize in the type of throws Mahomes makes—throwing on the run, or throwing out of a sack, or inventing a new arm angle because you have to. But most quarterbacks lose that innocence because they have to: They become more boring because they simply aren’t capable of being anything else. In short, football is a thrilling game often made dull by dull people. Not Mahomes. He has so effectively combined a football intellect and maturity—already well developed and growing every season—with the ideas of someone who believes he’s capable of anything against the best players in the world. He is living every kid’s dream; he keeps getting better and never has to let go of the things that make football fun. He never has to grow old.

Mahomes is not the only story coming out of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win. There is a long way to go before we stop talking about the defensive penalty on the Eagles’ James Bradberry (who admitted to the penalty) that more or less decided the game before Harrison Butker’s field goal, a kick that Butker knew was good from the instant it left his foot. The Eagles acquitted themselves well and would have been worthy champions, having built one of the best rosters in football and using it to take a 10-point lead at halftime. But the difference in talent was not significant enough to keep Mahomes from breaking their hearts in the fourth quarter.

But the story now is that we have never seen a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes. Tom Brady is the unquestioned greatest of all time, and in my lifetime quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have made a massive impact on the sport. But Mahomes’s career will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen; he’s winning championships and simultaneously changing what we think is possible about playing quarterback, or making us reconsider how significant a deficit is (before Sunday, the only previous double-digit halftime deficit erased in the Super Bowl was the Patriots’ win over the Falcons). I have many times borrowed a Walter Isaacson line about creativity when it comes to Mahomes: Isaacson said it’s the intersection between art and science. And that’s Mahomes. A man playing the position like an artist who has tested his limits so thoroughly and knows the game so well that the art is rooted in cold, hard reality. He has practiced his craft to the point that no one knows the wild stuff he does is not wild at all, it’s simply been perfected.

He’s doing all of this for a few reasons: He has one of the best offensive coaches in the history of football in Andy Reid. His organization provides him with a competitive roster every year, and most of all, he is the best quarterback in the sport. With all of these things put together, the floor for the Chiefs every year with Mahomes should be a conference title game appearance, and even that will seem disappointing. The Super Bowl is Patrick Mahomes’s stage and I feel deeply bad for any AFC team trying to prevent him from getting there.

“I wish I could make it easier, but I feel like I play better when we are down,” Mahomes said with sort of a chuckle.

There is a section of the Bill Walsh classic The Score Takes Care of Itself where Walsh outlined exactly what rising to the occasion in big moments means. The answer is it doesn’t mean anything. Walsh said getting pumped up for a big game is a worthless endeavor. More important, Walsh wrote, is to execute with your normal preparation and be “so good that our opponents were the ones who would be distracted by the intensity and importance of the game.” No one, Walsh said, ever succeeds by saying, “Now I’m gonna play well.” They just do what they need to do, and the most prepared win. This is the crux of the Chiefs’ miracle factory: They aren’t miracles at all. Everything about it makes sense. Reid’s play designs, his ability to create two walk-in touchdowns against the Eagles, are not Reid and Mahomes deciding they are all of a sudden going to start calling the good plays in the big game; they simply know enough to keep doing the same things that have given them five years of near-unprecedented success.

Travis Kelce said after the game, “It’s not a battle of want,” when it comes to football. Everybody wants it; few can actually go get it like the Chiefs. Reid, for his part, said he doesn’t have to do much to motivate his players in big spots. He did say, however, that he told Mahomes after this game that he loved him. So no, this was not a miracle—hell, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Chiefs can generate yardage very quickly and the best chance the Eagles had to get to Mahomes was with their historically nasty pass rush, which was mostly kept in check on a sackless Sunday by the Chiefs’ offensive line. Credit to general manager Brett Veach for knowing how to fill holes and in two years completely fix the team’s biggest weakness—and to Mahomes himself, who is a master at not just avoiding pressure but turning those plays into positive yardage. Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt told me midweek how frustrating it is to get close to Mahomes, or even wrap him up, and have him throw out of it, usually with a little shovel pass under the defender’s arms—not just a throw, but a good throw. Almost that exact move happened when Eagles DT Jordan Davis closed in on him on Sunday on a first-down pass to Kelce. Mahomes’s 26-yard scramble, crucial to the game-winning drive, was a perfect example of what makes him so hard to beat: a collapsing pocket against a defensive line that had historic production this year, and Mahomes—whose 4.8-second 40-yard dash speed is not particularly impressive, and that’s when he’s not running on a sprained ankle—used space, which he always seems to find, to create a massive play.

But what struck me postgame was Mahomes’s reflection on how he got here. He “appreciates the failures” and singled out the two obvious ones: the loss in the Super Bowl to the Bucs two years ago behind a damaged offensive line and the loss in last year’s AFC title game to the Bengals. In both he learned a lesson. He told me last year that he watched the Tampa Bay game twice—not to gain any Last Dance–esque revenge ammo, but simply to learn. He saw himself bailing too early on his reads; he didn’t like the way he responded to pressure. After the loss to Cincinnati, he was upset at how the team didn’t keep up the offensive pressure in the second half, and told me in training camp he was practicing things as simple as finishing practice strong to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t. On Sunday night, he said he briefly told the team at halftime that everything they’ve done is for this moment. And that was true. He appreciated the failures and learned from them, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t been able to close.

He did, of course, and while the mood in the Chiefs’ postgame locker room was jubilant, obviously, it has taken on a tone sort of like the Brady-era Patriots Super Bowl locker room, where no one seemed all that shocked that Mahomes was able to lead this, and no one had any epic stories about things he said or did. He was just himself. (Kelce actually said that was Mahomes’s advice: Be yourself, which is quite easy to say when you are the best player in football.) Mahomes said he rolled his ankle before halftime, and Fox’s cameras found him grimacing in pain on the bench. He did not, he said, take any painkillers at halftime but said he did get treatment. “The toughest son of a gun you’ve ever met,” Kelce said. It’s worth noting that even when Mahomes is hobbled, even 45 minutes after he is shown looking in serious pain, it does not matter: a brutally banged-up Mahomes would still, even at his worst, be the best quarterback in the history of many franchises.

Mahomes has a long way to go to reach Brady’s status—time is the best judge of anything, and Mahomes has played only a small fraction of the time Brady put in. But the numbers are eye-popping: Mahomes this year led the NFL in passing touchdowns and yards while winning the regular-season and Super Bowl MVPs. Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, and Brady have done that in a career but not a season. There is no doubt that Reid and Mahomes have changed the way the modern game is played. Five years ago, Lincoln Riley told me he watched the Super Bowl between the Eagles and Patriots and saw a Big 12 game, meaning tons of scoring, open offenses, and plenty of schemes thought to just be “collegiate.” Now the NFL might be a Big 12 league (with a slightly better television deal). If you can find a part of offensive football that Reid and Mahomes haven’t conquered yet, it’s only because they haven’t yet tried. They are not exiting the biggest stages anytime soon.

Sunday night, Kelce said he’d wanted this game worse than any game he’s ever played, because he knows two Super Bowls solidifies greatness. He’s right, of course, but the stakes for this game felt low, because even if Mahomes were to lose on Sunday we knew he’d get his second in short order. He’s probably going to get his third soon, too. The Chiefs will run it back—Reid clarified a report that he was considering retirement by saying he’d be back in Kansas City. It’s all set up again. Isn’t this the sort of stuff you dream about in backyards?