I don't love the term "legacy" for players and coaches who are in the midst of their careers. I picture the looks on their faces throughout the years when someone asks them about their legacy. Even though it's often brought up in good spirits and at a winning moment, it changes the air quickly, and it's like, all of a sudden, something smells bad. They don't want to be around it.
It can be an excellent topic for players in the Hall of Fame but a non-starter for those still playing.
However, in the case of 27-year-old Patrick Mahomes, after a regular season that should collect him his second MVP and before a Super Bowl that could end with him holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy for a second time, it's worth bending the rules and talking about legacy.
Entering Rarefied Air
Consider how elusive the combo of multiple Super Bowl wins and NFL MVPs has been for some of the best of all time. Here's some notable quarterbacks and how many MVPs and Super Bowl titles they've won.
This particular rabbit hole leads you to three quarterbacks who have earned multiple NFL MVPs and Super Bowl titles: Joe Montana, Peyton Manning and the recently retired Tom Brady.
Those accomplishments alone, if they happen, would upgrade Mahomes to a different level of first-class seat in the quarterback cabin.
There's just as good a chance the Philadelphia Eagles will win in next Sunday's Super Bowl as the Kansas City Chiefs, and there are zero guarantees Mahomes and the Chiefs would make it back to another Super Bowl, let alone win. But with Mahomes on the brink of joining such rarified quarterback air, it feels appropriate to focus on what he has accomplished so far and the unique way he's gone about it.
Setting Early High Bar
If we metaphorically take his career statue and place it on a higher shelf, one that shines a brighter light on his successes, then take a step back and ponder, what comes to mind?
It starts with the strategically serendipitous way he came into the NFL. His talents and toughness are impressive, but he was handed a gift when the Chiefs selected him 10th overall in 2017.
Mahomes was given a season to develop and learn from the sidelines, the type of patience that's become rare for first-round quarterbacks. He was afforded a front-row seat to how a high-quality veteran quarterback in Alex Smith handled life as an NFL quarterback, from the Monday through Saturday prep to the Sunday execution.
Smith was in his second decade as an NFL starter, succeeding as much with smarts as with talent, and he was willing to mentor. He was operating a top-5 offense on a team routinely winning double-digit games and reaching the playoffs. There also was Andy Reid, their future Hall of Fame head coach, whose passion for designing plays is equaled only by that of training and growing quarterbacks.
In the abstract, Mahomes' rookie season counts as "exactly how you draw it up" for a first-round pick, but when you highlight the specifics, it elevates to "best-case-scenario." Nineteen QBs have been taken in the first round since the Chiefs called Mahomes' name; none have entered the NFL with more advantageous surroundings.
To his credit, he has taken that fortuitous ball and run with it in a way even a highly optimistic fan wouldn't have predicted. Not only is Mahomes' efficiency impressive compared to the 19 other first-round QBs, but it's better than every quarterback since the start of the 2018 season.
This graph shows Mahomes' efficiency compared to every quarterback who has taken at least 700 snaps since 2018 and is still in the league.
The standard Mahomes has set in his relatively short time as the Chiefs starting quarterback is the most impressive part of his legacy to this point. He wasted zero time placing that bar amazingly high.
Check out his first five starts of the 2018 season. Kansas City won all five games, averaging 35 points per game. Mahomes sizzled and threw for at least 300 yards in each game, and he had 14 touchdowns to two interceptions.
He's kept that level of performance for five seasons. So, I can ask, what's more impressive? That that he performed that way out of the gate? Or that those games weren't an aberration?
There's no wrong answer, just a realization the way Kansas City and Mahomes produce passing yards, points and wins has been ridiculous since Day One.
The Chiefs' worst record since Mahomes became the starter is 12-5, and they've reached the AFC Championship Game each year. They've led the league in scoring twice and never have finished out of the top six. Mahomes' lowest-rated season came last year, when he somehow completed only 66% of his passes for 4,839 yards, throwing 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
The "norm" paints the picture well, but the low point tells a good story, too. Remember when the sky was falling on Oct. 24, 2021, when the Chiefs failed to score a touchdown in a 27-3 defeat at Tennessee, a loss that dropped their record to 3-4?
That was as bad as it's ever been, and they put things back together pretty well after that. They won nine of 10 regular-season games to close the season, which ended with an overtime loss in the AFC Championship Game.
Mahomes throwing for more than 300 yards with a couple of touchdowns and no picks in Kansas City's most recent win — the one that sent him to his third Super Bowl — was more of an expected result than one that exceeded expectations. Still, it closes the case on how impressive he's been.
Unusual Throwing Style
On the road to Mahomes' ultimate legacy, if the Chiefs' offensive standard is at the wheel, his individual play style is riding shotgun.
He can stand in the pocket, drive off his back foot and step into a throw, sure. He might even do it a couple of plays in a row. But if that's all he did, this legacy he's building would stop with the efficiency he provides to Kansas City's point-scoring and game-winning machine.
His creativity and resourcefulness are the signature pieces of his individuality and how he puts his fingerprints all over Kansas City's success. The no-look pass vs. Baltimore in December of 2018 called attention to these capabilities, but now he provides examples every Sunday.
The following descriptions can only come from Mahomes' play:
At the moment of release, he could be falling forward or backward, leaning to the right or to the left. Stepping back is as common as stepping up, and a sidearm delivery might be used more often than over the top. The ball is flicked just as often as it's thrown.
Standing tall and leading with the left foot, as right-handed QBs have been coached to do forever, is fine, but squatting low and stepping with the right foot, as it has never been coached, is sometimes preferred with Mahomes. The upper body and lower body often don't go together, but the ball usually goes where it's supposed to.
With Mahomes, throwing late across the middle - and across the body - is a good thing. Feel free to say that in the voice used for Dos Equis' World's Most Interesting Man commercials.
Reid can dial up crossing routes to be hit 25 yards downfield instead of 18, a post-corner can be run at 40 yards instead of 25, and a 20-yard comeback is thrown with as much ease as the one at 15.
The Chiefs' production with Mahomes at quarterback is noteworthy enough, but it's his particular way, and how it meshes with Reid's plan, that makes the whole thing hum along in such an interesting, highlight-worthy way.
I'm still not sure a quarterback in his mid-20's who likely hasn't even played half of his career yet has a legacy. But in this case, when Mahomes is one rung of the ladder away from joining Montana, Manning and Brady in a tier requiring multiple wins of the NFL's highest individual and team awards, so a day to consider what he's done and how he's done it seems fair.
He was afforded a luxurious entry into the NFL, but the standard he helped build and the distinct style with which he passes and plays will be the main portions of his legacy whenever the time comes to dive fully into the idea.