The term ‘greatest of all time’ is bandied about a lot in sport these days. The phrase is used extensively online and in everyday life now to refer to an individual who has achieved a level of greatness in their field that comes around once in a generation.
The true best of the best.
The NFL has a host of candidates that can lay claim to this title, but Patrick Mahomes is already making his case, just seven seasons into his NFL career.
There is not much that can be said anymore without sounding like a broken record when talking about the transcendent quarterback. Football fans all know how good Mahomes is, but he still took it upon himself in the postseason to remind everyone of his talent after a regular season that was perceived as a down year by the Kansas City Chiefs’ lofty standards.
The team ended up with an 11-6 regular season record, the worst in the Mahomes era. The Chiefs’ receiving corps was plagued by issues with drops throughout the season. Lapses in concentration cost them wins. Star tight end Travis Kelce, playing in his 11th NFL campaign, showed some signs of aging.
And yet, Mahomes won his third career Vince Lombardi Trophy on Sunday, leading his team in a comeback overtime victory against the San Francisco 49ers and claiming his third Super Bowl MVP. The Chiefs became the first team since the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick-led New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004 to win back-to-back titles in the process.
Mahomes became the first player in the history of the four major US sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) to win the championship MVP award three times in his first seven seasons, according to Opta.
This was supposed to be the year where a few cracks might be appearing in the Chiefs dynasty, but we have been taught to never bet against the Kansas City quarterback.
“I already consider Mahomes the best, and if he wins this one, it’s done. Like I’m good.
I’ve seen enough,” Nate Tice, a former NFL coach and scout who is now a football writer and podcaster, told CNN Sport prior to the Super Bowl.
His peers are starting things this way too.
“He’s doing things that very few quarterbacks have done,” said Kelce after the game on Sunday. “Give that man his crown!”
Mahomes even has players on opposing teams arguing his case, like Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons, who voiced his opinion on social media after the game.
Did anyone envision him being this good? His father certainly did.
“The things he was doing at such a young age, I knew that was different,” Patrick Mahomes Sr. – former professional baseball player and Mahomes’ father – told CNN last week. “I knew that was special and I knew that if he continued to move in that fashion and to continue working every day that he’d have a chance to be a professional athlete.”
Despite his dad’s faith, few could have foreseen Mahomes reaching these heights – probably not even the Chiefs themselves, who traded multiple picks to move up 17 spots to select him 10th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.
“I thought [the Chiefs] obviously really liked him, but I’m sure this is even beyond their wildest dreams,” said Tice.
When it comes to Mahomes’ potential ‘greatest ever’ status, there are many other factors to consider before even looking at the mountain of on-field statistics, including the impact that his otherworldly play has had on the city where he plays.
“He has become an international star, but he’s also elevated Kansas City alongside him,” Nate Taylor, Chiefs writer for The Athletic, told CNN Sport. “The city itself has grown quite a bit. There is more economic impact downtown. The team has been able to convince the NFL – largely because of their success, which is obviously dependent on Mahomes – to have the NFL draft here this past April. Kansas City has a new international airport, it’s very nice.
“All of these things happened after the Chiefs became prominent because they made the best decision in their franchise history,” he explains.
Few athletes can say that they have had this kind of effect on their city, and arguably even fewer can say that they have contributed to redefining the position that they play.
The traditional idea of the quarterback has dissipated over the years. QBs are no longer solely expected to be rigid ‘field generals’ that do things by the book and have a strong pocket presence and arm mechanics. The nature of the position has evolved to become much more fluid and it is now a “prerequisite,” as Tice describes it, to be a good athlete.
Mahomes plays a free-wheeling style of football that sees him play outside of the pocket, break out of designed plays, pick up yards with his legs and make all kinds of throws on the move that look like they are straight out of a video game. He is doing things that are unprecedented for a quarterback.
Mahomes is not just reinventing the wheel – he can do all the fundamentals “at an exceptionally high level, but he can also color outside the lines,” said Taylor.
“He can also do incredible arm slots where he throws the ball sidearm like a pitcher. He can throw it underhand like a bowler at the bowling alley and still complete the pass. And, of course, he’s got no-look throws. He’s thrown completions with his left hand, his non-dominant hand.
“He’s double-jointed, so he has extreme flexibility, which allows him to evade defenders when they’re trying to tackle him or trying to get him to throw the ball, in awkward positions,” he added.
Tice calls Mahomes the “culmination” of the direction that the QB position is trending in and compares his habit of making risky plays acceptable to the impact four-time NBA champion Steph Curry’s had on the three-point revolution in basketball.
The Kansas City superstar is always hunting for the big play, which can get him into trouble on occasion, but it is unlikely that Mahomes will be changing his game any time soon.
“That’s like saying: ‘Hey, Prince, don’t add that guitar solo,’” said Tice.
Though the eye test helps out Mahomes’ credentials for greatest of all time, the statistics back him up too.
Through his first six seasons as an NFL starter, Mahomes has more playoff wins and AFC titles than his biggest rival in individual debates: Tom Brady. Sunday’s victory means that he has matched Brady in Super Bowl titles at this stage of their careers.
With a 15-3 overall playoff record, Mahomes has already exceeded Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning’s postseason win total for his entire career. His impact on winning is undeniable and he is, at the very least, on pace for staking his claim of best quarterback ever.
“He has now reached a level that is very parallel to Tom Brady or to Joe Montana where, even though it’s the ultimate team sport in America, he can redefine what it means to have that one player who can change the outcome between winning and losing,” said Taylor.
There is a “feeling of inevitability when you watch him,” Tice adds.
Mahomes also has a plethora of individual statistics to his name that help his case. He holds the regular season record for total yards (passing, rushing and receiving) at 5,614 and has the most passing yards per game in NFL history. He shares the record for the most touchdown passes (11) in a single postseason run and entered Super Bowl LVIII with the highest career playoff passer rating at 106.3.
He also has two MVP awards to his name before the age of 29 – across Brady’s incredible 23-year career, he only won three.
Unfortunately for Mahomes, Brady is still considered the standard for greatness by the general NFL audience and much of that is to do with his seven Super Bowl rings.
It also helps that he is 2-0 against Mahomes in the postseason, despite entering the twilight of his career when they first collided in the playoffs.
Taylor believes that Brady will be able to hold on to his status as the ‘greatest of all time’ for the next decade.
“The game is ultimately about winning and Tom Brady won the most,” he said.
Brady also had unprecedented longevity, playing for over 20 seasons and retiring at the age of 45. He did not just have an impact on winning, he made himself synonymous with it.
It is unknown whether Mahomes can even come close to matching this – he would have to produce at the highest level for 16 more NFL seasons – but it is just as unclear whether the Chiefs QB has even peaked yet. In a frightening thought for the rest of the league, he may just be getting started.
“We’re not done, we’ve got a young team, we’re gonna keep this thing going,” Mahomes said Sunday after his MVP-winning performance.
“I think he’s very aware of his legacy and all those things,” Tice said. “I think he is going to be a guy that goes for another decade and tries to push it with different teammates and different coaches.
“He’s played now with a bad run game, a bad offensive line, bad receivers, a bad defense and he’s succeeded despite all of that. So it makes me feel optimistic, no matter what the makeup is around him.”
Many fans are keen for Mahomes to be truly tested and challenges will certainly come his way in the next few years, most notably when the 34-year-old Kelce retires and he is forced to find a new primary target.
He has shown that he is capable of getting the most out of his teammates and dealing with adversity in this playoff run alone though. In arguably his toughest postseason to date, he beat the Miami Dolphins in freezing temperatures, helped handle the Buffalo Bills on the road and took down a Baltimore Ravens side led by 2023 MVP Lamar Jackson en route to a Super Bowl where the Chiefs were regarded as the underdog.
He may need to wait a few years for nostalgia to be on his side, but it is undeniable that we are watching something unique with Mahomes.
“Patrick’s always trying to do something that’s just a little different or something that he hasn’t necessarily tried before and, oftentimes, he does succeed when most quarterbacks would fail or look very embarrassing trying to do something very similar,” said Taylor.
The debate about the greatest of all time will rage on through his career – and even beyond the end of it – but the fact that Mahomes has made a case for himself so early in his career is a testament to his otherworldly talent.