Thursday, May 26

Patrick Mahomes is not chasing Tom Brady, he’s chasing Michael Jordan | Patrick Mahomes

Here’s a list of all the quarterbacks who have led their teams to back-to-back Super Bowl victories in their first three years as NFL starters:

Tom Brady.

That is all. That is the list.

On Sunday, Patrick Mahomes has a chance to match Brady’s historic feat. But here’s the thing with Mahomes: He’s already on a different trajectory than Brady, who went from a high-potential college prospect to one of America’s most famous athletes.

Turn that list to those who done Back-to-back Super Bowls three seasons from now as a starter and you can add Russell Wilson (won one, lost one) to the roster along with Brady and Mahomes. That is instructive. Wilson fits the Brady mold. Both were overlooked out of college and slipped into the draft. They both played on great defense-oriented teams when they first entered the league. They were both immediately brilliant, and it was that brilliance that helped elevate their teams from very good to excellent. But the win-lose burden did not fall squarely on their shoulders, they had great defenses to help them, something Mahomes cannot rely on.

Throughout this week, you’ll hear about Brady v Mahomes, both the goofy and tangible aspect (quarterbacks don’t play against each other, they play opposing defenses, though their styles can impact each other to some degree) and the intangible, inherited appearance. One quarterback, Brady, is the biggest winner of our time. The other, Mahomes, tries to catch him.

There will be talk of passing the torch. From one era to the next. But even that understates the course Mahomes is on. He’s not chasing Brady and his records. He’s not looking at a place on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. He’s chasing something bigger: he’s chasing Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Babe Ruth and Serena Williams and Ayrton Senna.

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Mahomes pursues that rare space that places an athlete at the center of pop culture; that makes them both indivisible from the sport they play but allows them to exist one step apart, in the same way that Jordan still looms over everything in the NBA. Jordan hasn’t played in the NBA for 17 years. But the NBA’s economics – from talk show culture to documentaries to shoe sales to marketing to owner groups – still works with Michael Jordan.

Putting Mahomes close to that class so early in his career may sound hyperbolic or blasphemous, but consider this: no quarterback in NFL history has had the same kind of career start as Mahomes. And no position holds as high a place on the American sports landscape as that of a starting NFL quarterback.

To reach those Woods-Ruth-Williams heights, you can’t just win. You must dominate.

Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes greet each other after a playoff game in January 2019
Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes greet each other after a playoff game in January 2019. Photograph: Paul Rutherford / USA Today Sports

Mahomes’ record as a starter is 44-9, combining both the regular season and the playoffs. Measuring a quarterback by wins is an objectively ridiculous standard, often cited without much thought about the nuances of the game and a player’s supporting cast. But there comes a tipping point where a player’s impact on a team is so undeniable, when the record for wins and losses is so overwhelming, that you can’t help but point to it as a measure of dominance.

Mahomes took over a team of medium to good Chiefs and has grown them into a giant year after year. Yes, Andy Reid is one of the outstanding coaches of his generation. Yes, Mahomes has had an excellent offensive line during his time in Kansas City. Yes, receivers Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are absolutely helpless, just as good at what they do as Mahomes at what he does. However, Mahomes that makes everything sing.

Add to the team earns Mahomes’ own individual brilliance – he already has a pair of MVP trophies on his mantle, one for the regular season and one for the Super Bowl. And he’s already hit that weird air of Jordan, LeBron, Gretzky: MVP voters are numb to his excellence. Mahomes is so clearly and obviously the important, valuable and dynamic player in the most valuable position in the sport. Throughout his three seasons as a starter, he has finished second, first and first in DYAR, a measure of a player’s total worth. He won his MVP award in the only season he finished second.

And to think that he is still 25 years old. Most Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks – Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway – take at least a half decade or more to get going. They have to wait for the roster around them to rise to their level or to rise to a level that leads to a title or two.

Mahomes already has a title. Sunday night I could have two. With another 10-15 years to play, who knows how many he could rack up. Five? Six? Seven? Ten? Over the years, the NFL has modified the rules to make the passing game (considered more attractive to fans) more important, so having a great quarterback has never been more crucial. And while the league has rarely had such a strong crop of quarterbacks, there’s still a good distance between Mahomes and the second-place league that you prefer, however you prefer.

There is also a stylistic element in all this. Even in a league with Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers playing at an MVP level, Mahomes is still the most telegenic player of this mini-era. You can do things that other players, even the best at their craft, can’t even imagine. No look pass. Throwing the ball outside the stadium during warm-ups. Hundred-yard throws. Side slingshot from unthinkable launch points, apparently without regard to the laws of physics. How often are video game players who crack the code (Michael Vick, Bo Jackson) as effective in the real world as they are in the real world? How often does that lead to not only winning but also championships?

Style matters. Those who dine at the highest table of athletes are not only serial winners, they are paradigm shifters. Tiger literally changed the whole aspect of golf. Serena did the same. Jordan brought a one-on-one Superman style to the NBA, a style that haunted the league for more than a decade after his retirement as the franchises and NBA headquarters searched all over the place for the next Michael. But no one could replicate what Michael did, on or off the court. Even Kobe Bryant, the closest facsimile, spent the early part of his career more as an act of tribute to Jordan than as an evolution.

Mahomes fits the bill. It represents the route point between the old and the new. Play with all the rhythm, timing and intellect of the much-acclaimed Manning-Brady-Brees era combined with all the tap and off-the-shelf art of the Aaron Rodgers days, and enough mobility to be a real threat to run like the era of rhythm and space He steps out of the ranks of college and high school to take over the professional game. And there are those amazing moments, impossible to replicate but fun to prove that help elevate someone from a talented athlete to a cultural figure.

On Sunday, Mahomes isn’t just trying to knock out Brady and the Bucs, he’s not just taking a second hit to get Lombardi-MVP’s double, he’s making a move to become the defining athlete of his generation.

How can a showdown be tastier than a young star chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan and having to go through Tom Brady to get there?

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