No. 101: Patrick Mahomes

For as long as there has been an NFL, coaches have sought to answer pro football’s eternal question: How do you develop a talented young quarterback? Do you throw the quarterback into the deep end of the pool right away, the way the Bengals did last year with Joe Burrow? Do you let the quarterback sit on the bench for some years and learn the game, the way the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers? Do you let the quarterback take his lumps for a long time in the hope that he’ll pull through in the end, the way the Steelers did with Terry Bradshaw?

Joe Montana and Roger Staubach started one game their rookie seasons, so that worked. Then again, so did JaMarcus Russell and Todd Marinovich.

Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson started all 16, so that worked. Then again, so did Rick Mirer and Geno Smith.

Tom Brady was third-string as a rookie. Kurt Warner spent what he had hoped would be his rookie season stocking shelves at a Hy-Vee and then playing arena football. John Unitas spent what would have been his rookie season playing semi-pro football around Pittsburgh and working in construction.

In other words, nobody has figured it out yet.

In 2017, after years and years of living on borrowed quarterbacks, the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to the No. 10 overall spot in the draft so they could take a charismatic young man who had grown up around Major League Baseball clubhouses, a college passing machine named Patrick Mahomes. It’s fair to say that not everyone was convinced that Mahomes had an especially bright NFL future. While he had made countless extraordinary plays in the Air Raid offense at Texas Tech, he’d also lost more games than he’d won. And he made a lot of mistakes, enough mistakes to worry many NFL scouts.

“A best-case scenario for Mahomes is tantalizing,” Pro Football Focus wrote. “The problem is the same feel for making plays also leads to a number of poor decisions with the football.”

“For some observers, Mahomes’ power arm has him at the top of the quarterback list,” ESPN admitted while ranking Mahomes a late second-round choice. “But his accuracy wavers when he can’t match his delivery to the throw required.”

“During the fall,” Charlie Campbell wrote for WalterFootball.com, “one playoff team told me they have a second-round grade on Mahomes and compare him to Derek Carr coming out of Fresno State. Two other teams said they had Mahomes in the third round, while one playoff general manager said he had him in the fourth round. There is a love/hate with Mahomes.”

The one part EVERYONE agreed on — Mahomes’ fans and critics alike — is that the team drafting him would have to do a brilliant job developing him from a thrilling but mistake-prone quarterback leading a gimmick college offense into an actual NFL quarterback.

And then he was drafted by the one team in the NFL that had never successfully developed a young quarterback. Isn’t life funny?

Let’s talk a little bit about the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback history.

For the first 10 years of the team’s existence in Kansas City, their quarterback was a guy named Len Dawson. He was a college star at Purdue; they called Dawson “the Golden Boy,” before Paul Hornung got the nickname at Notre Dame. Dawson was the first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957 — taken ahead of, among others, a Syracuse running back named Jim Brown — and then the team immediately brought in a 243-year-old Bobby Layne to make sure that Dawson never played.

Kids, it’s true — the Pittsburgh Steelers used to be a laughingstock.

The Cleveland Browns’ legend Paul Brown traded for Dawson, and he was excited — he had grown up a Cleveland sports fan. But Paul Brown didn’t play Dawson either. And then the Browns released him, and it looked like he career was over before it even began.

Then, at age 27, Dawson tried out for the Dallas Texans of the newly formed American Football League. The team owner, Lamar Hunt, watched Dawson play in practice and said, loud enough for Dawson to hear, “That guy will never make the team.”

I tell you all this not only because the Texans moved to Kansas City and Dawson became pro football’s most accurate passer, a Hall of Famer, and he led the Chiefs to two of the first four Super Bowls. No, there’s also this: Dawson was the template for what would be the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback philosophy for the next 50 years: Why develop your own quarterback when you can just get somebody else’s?

— Bill Kenney, a 12th-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, was the Chiefs’ leading passer every year from 1981 to ’87.

— He was replaced by Steve DeBerg, a 10-year veteran who had played for San Francisco, Denver and Tampa Bay.

— DeBerg was replaced by Dave Krieg, who was 33 years old and had already been sacked 341 times as quarterback in Seattle.

— Krieg was replaced by the legend Joe Montana, who had been traded by San Francisco after leading the team to four Super Bowls.

— Montana retired, and he was replaced by another San Francisco quarterback, Steve Bono, who immediately ingratiated himself with Kansas City fans by saying that the worst restaurant in San Francisco was better than the best restaurant in Kansas City. That really won them over.

— Bono was replaced by ANOTHER San Francisco quarterback, Elvis Grbac, who had the good sense not to offer opinions about Kansas City restaurants but did say after one game that he could not throw the ball AND catch it too, which really won over his teammates.

— Grbac battled for the starting role with Rich Gannon, who had come to Kansas City at age 30 after years in Minnesota and Washington (and a missed season because of an injured shoulder). Eventually, Gannon would go to the Raiders and become the NFL MVP.

Well, we can just keep on going — Grbac/Gannon led to Rams backup Trent Green, who led to Patriots backup Matt Cassel who led to still another 49ers quarterback, Alex Smith. Yes, sure, along the path there were a few meager efforts to try out a young quarterback here and there — the late 1970s and early 1980s Chiefs did draft Steve Fuller and Todd Blackledge, though neither quite worked out. But I think you get the idea. This team has believed from the very beginning that the way to win is to build the rest of the team and then get some veteran quarterback to run the show. They have never wanted the headache of trying to create their own.

And then … the Chiefs traded up in the draft to get Patrick Mahomes.

The year Mahomes arrived in Kansas City, he sat on the bench and the Chiefs went 10-6 and lost right away in the playoffs. It was a familiar story. In the 23 seasons since Joe Montana was knocked out of the 1993 AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs had reached the playoffs 10 times. They won one playoff game in those years.

Mahomes spent almost the entire season playing scout team quarterback.

It was during those practices that people around the Chiefs began to realize that Mahomes was different. It wasn’t just his arm, though it was spectacular; coaches and players get used to seeing rookie quarterbacks show up and throw the heck out of the football. It wasn’t his speed, though he flashed more speed than expected, and it wasn’t the absurdly creative, even magical, no-look passes he would occasionally make, though everybody’s jaws dropped.

No, it was the way he would just transform into the next opponent’s quarterback. like he was Daniel Day-Lewis. When the Chiefs prepared to play the Steelers, he just became Ben Roethlisberger in the way he would just stay in the pocket, fearlessly wait and wait and wait and wait until that big play opportunity opened up. When the Chiefs prepared for the Dallas Cowboys, he became Dak Prescott, looking to fling the ball all over the field.

“It really helped develop my game,” he told Sports Illustrated. “When we were playing the Jets, with Josh McCown, I’d have to throw a lot of deep balls. Tyrod Taylor with the Bills, I’d have to scramble around a lot. With Tom Brady, it was about dissecting the defense. I had to do stuff I wasn’t comfortable with, and see what I liked and didn’t like.”

He embraced all of it. That was the thing that blew everybody’s mind. He acted like it was all one big adventure — like going on a plane ride for the first time or something — without showing any of the nerves or frustration or impatience that is the hallmark of youth. Well, Mahomes had been around this sort of thing all his life. His Dad, Pat Sr., was a big-league pitcher for 11 years, and so Patrick had grown up in the bubble of pressure and competition and intensity of professional sports. He’d watched closely when Alex Rodriguez, already baseball’s highest-paid player, would show up hours before a game just to hit a ball off the tee. He’d watch closely when Derek Jeter, already baseball’s most admired player, would show up early just to take ground balls.

He watched closely as his godfather, Latroy Hawkins, prepared himself every single day. Hawkins was always present, you know, always there mentally and physically and emotionally, no days off, no plays off, and that’s why he played in the big leagues until he was 42 years old.

As such, Mahomes didn’t fall into the same traps as rookies. When he finally got to play, in a meaningless New Year’s Eve game in Denver after the Chiefs had already secured their slot in the playoffs, Mahomes threw his first interception and he felt … great about it. So weird. So different.

“I had been feeling jumpy and jittery and really excited when the game started,” he would say. “And after that interception, it almost like settled me down and helped me get back into the mindset of not trying to do too much.”

He says that, but “doing too much” would become the Mahomes trademark. Has any young quarterback ever done more? Late in that very game, with the score tied 24-24, he was reinserted to run a two-minute drill. With 1:44 left, he took the snap, nobody was open, and suddenly he was being chased by two of the greatest pass-rushers in NFL history, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.

Mahomes ran to his right and kept falling farther and farther behind the line of scrimmage. Still, he went back until he was maybe 15 or 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. And then he jumped back and threw the ball in what seemed to be utter desperation, exactly the sort of pass that gets intercepted or falls short of the line of scrimmage and is called for intentional grounding. This is when the announcer will says something, like “Well, that’s a rookie mistake. He’s going to learn from that.”

Instead, the ball somehow sailed 30 yards and found receiver DeMarcus Robinson, who was covered by two defenders. It was such an impossible throw that two superb Kansas City Star writers — Sam Mellinger and the much-missed Terez Paylor — jumped out of their press box seats, a strict no-no for sportswriters — no cheering in the press box. But what else could they do? “It was plainly unprofessional,” Mellinger told football writer Michael MacCambridge. “And I have no regrets.”

The funny thing about seeing that exact same play NOW on YouTube is this: It doesn’t look nearly as miraculous now as it did then. I mean, yes, of course, it’s a great play, no question about it. But even though it happened only three years ago, Mahomes has already changed the way we see the football world. He has done so many extraordinary, ridiculous, incredible, impossible — sidearm throws and tiptoe runs and flings back to the middle of the field — that play that seemed revolutionary in 2017 might not even make the Top 25 Patrick Mahomes highlights today.

How soon can you declare an athlete an all-time great? That’s a fascinating argument … and I should know since I have had the argument a dozen or so times in the last few weeks when I told people I worked with on this list that I was going to rank Mahomes the 101st greatest football player even though he has only played 46 regular-season games.

Almost all of them called me crazy. True greatness, they said, is defined by time. And I think that’s true. He hasn’t proven enough, they said. And I get that too.

Then … how can you watch Patrick Mahomes play and not just know that he’s one of the greatest ever? There are some quantifiable measurements, of course, like the fact he’s the first NFL quarterback to lead a team to three conference championships in his first three full seasons. In those three seasons, he won one MVP award, finished third in the MVP voting one season, and led his team to a Super Bowl title in the third. His 108.7 passer rating is the highest in NFL history by a lot. His 114 touchdowns to 24 interceptions is a statistical absurdity.

“What happens,” one person asked me, “if God forbid something happened and Patrick Mahomes could never play another down of football? You’re telling me that he’s still one of the 101 greatest players ever?”

Yes. That’s what I’m saying. Unquestionably. Because, in football, it’s about impact.

Gale Sayers only played four full seasons, but he’s an all-time great because there had never been a player quite like him. Earl Campbell only had three great seasons, but he’s an all-time great because there had never been a player quite like him.

Mahomes has reinvented the quarterback position with his unparalleled vision, his accuracy and arm strength, his breathtaking creativity, his sense of the moment, and his … well, I’m not sure there’s a word for that last piece.

“The best word I’ve found is ‘charisma,’” says Bill Curry, who played for Lombardi’s Packers, snapped the ball to John Unitas, and tried, with limited success, to block Deacon Jones. “It’s more than ‘charisma,’ but that’s the closest word to what separates the truly great ones. They bring the best out of everybody around them simply by being themselves.”

The Football 101 is filled with charismatic players with something wordlessly special about them. Mahomes overflows with such charisma. He doesn’t just make everybody around him want to be better on the field. He makes people like us in the stands what to be better that whatever it is that we do.

Mahomes did have a lousy Super Bowl in 2021. That needs to be said. He just looked out of sorts all game long … maybe it was the brilliant defensive scheme designed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, maybe it was the pressure of once again going up against Tom Brady in a big game, maybe it was just one of those things, one of those days when nothing seems to go right and you can’t quite figure out how to dig your way out of it.

Whatever the case, the game was enough — is enough — to create doubters. The doubters are always swirling around greatness. And, honestly, Mahomes wasn’t at his best in his first Super Bowl either so naturally, there will be those who wonder if he is simply destined to struggle in the biggest games.

Add on that the Chiefs lost both their starting tackles off of last year’s team so yes, of course, there will be those who say that Mahomes will struggle without the first-class protection he’d been getting. The Bucs definitely found some defensive strategies that troubled Mahomes so yes, of course, there will be those who say that the NFL has figured him out and he will never again be the same.

But, I have to say, I don’t think doubts bother Patrick Mahomes. This is a guy who settled in the NFL only after throwing his first interception. This is a guy who many scouts thought would have real trouble adjusting to the NFL after playing in a kind of goofy college offense, and he came out and had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history.

This is a guy who says now that while losing the Super Bowl hurt a lot, it was probably the best thing that could have happened for him and the team going forward.

“I think defeat helps you more than success,” he says.

That’s a scary thought because Patrick Mahomes doesn’t lose much.