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No kidding: Patrick Mahomes is on course to surpass the great Tom Brady, but it’s a long road

The journey from kid to GOAT in the NFL is not one that can be comfortably appraised in passing yards, victories, Pro Bowls or even Lombardi Trophies.

There also are miles to travel, years to navigate and life to live. The distance from where Patrick Mahomes stands now to where Tom Brady rests – we think — certainly is vast, and covering it would involve more than dodging linebackers and throwing the football downfield for another two decades.

We use the conditional tense there to underscore the notion that the greatest obstacle on the long trail to overtaking the league’s established icon – 10 Super Bowl appearances, seven championships, No. 1 in passing yards, completions and touchdowns – is whether Mahomes would want to try. And that’s something even he won’t know for a while.

“The longevity is something that’s going to set Brady apart from the others,” Solomon Wilcots, host of The Opening Drive on SiriusXM NFL Radio, told the Sporting News. “It’s hard to play 23 years in this league at any position, because of the focus and what it requires of you. It’s tough. By the time you’re playing in your 23rd year, you’re playing with a second and third generation of players. There were guys coming up against Brady say, ‘Yeah, you played against my dad.’

“It’s hard to survive in this league that long. You can price yourself out at the quarterback position. Think about it: 10 years on a $450 million contract. What does Patrick’s next contract look like?”

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Indeed, it may seem a bit fantastic to imagine Mahomes one day reaching the plateau where only Brady currently resides given how many years of excellence were necessary for him to ascend to that position. He won his first Super Bowl at age 24 and his last at 43.

From this perspective, though, far nearer to the start of Mahomes’ career in the NFL than to its end, it is not outrageous. Like Brady, he did not become a starter until his second season. It’s been five years now, and in every single one of those, Mahomes and the Chiefs reached at least the AFC Championship game. Brady didn’t reach his fifth conference championship until his seventh season under center.

This is Mahomes’ second season as the first-team All-Pro quarterback and is almost certain to be his second as league MVP. Brady didn’t become All-Pro for the first time until his seventh season, which also was his first MVP selection. He wasn’t honored a second time in those categories until his 10th season.

Especially if his Chiefs win Sunday over the Eagles in Super Bowl 57 and he adds a second Super Bowl ring to the one earned in 2019, Mahomes will have a powerful case that he’s gotten his career off to a better start than Brady, who went on to become the best there ever was in this game.

“I get why you’re doing this. I understand he’s an incredible talent. But I’m just trying to still get on top of Tom Brady and everything Tom Brady has accomplished,” Ron Wolfley, analyst on the Cardinals Radio Network, told TSN. “When you’re talking about going to 10 Super Bowls – you’ve got to be kidding me! Who is going to 10 Super Bowls? I realize Patrick Mahomes is having great success early in his career right now, but I think of Tom Brady playing 23 years, going to 10 Super Bowls and winning seven of them – can we just get on top of that accomplishment?

“Because I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again. I realize, yes, things are going really, really well for Pat Mahomes early in his career. But you’ve got to think of how many things have got to go right … Is he going to play as long as Brady played? Is he going to win as many games? I know the Chiefs are good now, but you know how fleeting things can be.

“I think Pat Mahomes is the best quarterback in the National Football League, but I can’t even compare anybody to Tom Brady, especially a projection. So many variables.”

Patrick Mahomes

What we know

On the day the team he followed through much of its history executed the trade that would alter its future, Steven St. John was serving as host of the official draft watch party at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs had just finished a 12-4 season with Alex Smith as their quarterback, losing a tough game against the Steelers at home in the AFC Divisional Round while scoring only 16 points. That left them with the 27th selection in the 2017 NFL Draft and not much hope of landing one of the top QBs: Mitch Trubisky, DeShaun Watson or Mahomes.

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On the afternoon of the draft’s first round, however, the Chiefs arranged a deal with the Bills to exchange first-rounders – KC would move up to No. 10 that night – and also move a third-round pick and 2018 first-round pick to Buffalo. The Chiefs spent that top-10 selection on Mahomes, who’d played on meager teams at Texas Tech and gained a reputation for daring and creativity, to put it euphemistically, in passing for more than 11,000 yards in less than three full seasons as starter.

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“The Chiefs had not drafted a quarterback in the first round since 1983 and Todd Blackledge,” St. John told TSN. “They had a great stretch under Carl Peterson, but it was always vets like Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana, Dave Krieg, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac – that 1983 pick of Blackledge was such a big disaster, it was almost like the franchise was afraid to ever take the plunge again.

“So after Alex Smith seemed like he had hit a wall – he was good in the regular season, he’d get you to the playoffs, but they couldn’t get past the divisional round. I think the Chiefs realized they could only go so far with Alex, and certainly the fans realized that. The Chiefs had always come up second to John Elway and Jim Kelly and Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady. And all Chiefs fans thought: We need to get one of those.

“I remember going on the radio the week of the draft and saying if the Chiefs draft a quarterback, if they draft Patrick Mahomes, I’m going to jump off the stage at the draft, I’m going to be so happy. Not thinking they would actually do it. There was a big debate whether it would be DeShaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes, but we had seen plenty of Mahomes in Big 12 country.

“When they announced Patrick Mahomes, it was like an explosion of sound. It felt like you were at a game, for a minute. And I did jump off the stage into five or six guys’ arms that it took to catch me.”

Mahomes had played in a wide-open, spread offense at Texas Tech, under future Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury. One scout told veteran Milwaukee Journal NFL columnist Bob McGinn that Mahomes had the best arm of his quarterback class, but added, “He’s reckless … Mahomes might have 20 plays in a game where you go: What are you doing?”

So maybe it was necessary for Mahomes to sit through the 2017 season and watch Smith handle the starting duties as Mahomes learned the NFL version of the game. It certainly didn’t hurt him. Because when the Chiefs arrived in Week 17 with no way to move up from the game in the Wild Card round they had earned, it made sense to rest Smith and remove the possibility of injury while presenting Mahomes his first opportunity to start. He went 22-of-35 for 284 yards and led a 27-24 victory over the Broncos.

“He just lit it up against Denver. Everybody I knew was text-messaging, calling: Did you see this kid from Texas Tech? Oh my God!” Wilcots, who helped recruit Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy to Colorado while playing for the Buffaloes, told TSN. “I’m telling you, it was like we saw a spaceship land downtown in some big city. This was a new day. That’s what it looked like: Is this what the next generation is bringing to the table? Because we haven’t seen anything like this.”

It’s been like that since. In the offseason prior to the 2018 season, Smith was traded and Mahomes ascended to the starting spot. In his first three games, the Chiefs averaged 39 points, and he threw for a combined 13 touchdowns. Understand, Brady threw for 18 in his entire first season as a starter. Mahomes finished the 2018 season with 50.

As Mahomes now stands five seasons into his career as an NFL starter, these are the totals he has compiled in regular-season games: 1,985 completions in 2,993 attempts, a .663 completion percentage; 192 touchdowns against 49 interceptions; 23,957 yards, or 8.1 yards per attempt; a 64-16 record in the regular season and 10-3 in five playoff appearances.

These were Brady’s totals after his fifth season starting for the Patriots: 1,576 completions in 2,545 attempts, a .619 completion percentage; 123 touchdowns against 66 interceptions; 18,029 yards, or 7.1 yards per attempts; a 58-20 record in the regular season and 10-1 record in four playoff appearances.

Mahomes v. Brady – First 5 seasons as starter
  TDs INTs Record Playoff Wins SB Wins
Mahomes 192 49 64-16 10 1
Brady 123 66 58-20 10 3
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So this isn’t a ridiculous exercise, really.

Ramon Foster, a starting guard for the Steelers for 10 seasons and now co-host of Ramon, Kayla & Will on Nashville’s 104.5 The Zone, played in games against both quarterbacks, one toward the end of his career and one at the very beginning. Mahomes threw six TDs against the Steelers at Heinz Field in only his second game as a fulltime starter.

“When we played them, I don’t want to say we were cocky at the time, and I’ll never forget when we started playing against them, we thought, ‘We’ll be all right.’ He’s a young guy, and Pittsburgh always has a history of making long days for young, rookie quarterbacks and first-time starters. We weren’t really worried about what Patrick Mahomes was. Well, that was until we saw how good he actually is.

“We were sixth in the league in offense that year and, we’d go down and score, they’d score. We’d score, they’d score. Every answer that we had, they had an answer, too. And we’re looking at it: How the heck can we not stop this guy? That was like the breakout part, I felt, that made me a believer in what Patrick Mahomes was.”

What we can’t know

Mahomes has played every game necessary for the past three years and four of his five seasons as starter, sitting out only for the final game of the 2020 season because the Chiefs had clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed. He has endured only one significant injury, a dislocation of his knee cap in 2019 that led to him missing two midseason games. He returned to lead KC to six consecutive victories to complete the season, then three in the playoff for the team’s first Super Bowl victory in a half-century.

He succeeded wildly in the 2022 playoffs despite a high ankle sprain that occurred in a Divisional Round playoff game.

Brady did not encounter a serious injury until 2008, after he’d started seven seasons. He was knocked out for the year by a torn ACL that resulted from a low hit by a pass rusher. The NFL subsequently changed the rule that had permitted such plays, which means it’s less likely Mahomes will be felled by a similar rush, but there remain myriad ways for a quarterback to be injured. They were all across the NFL this season, from Tua Tagovailoa’s concussions to Brock Purdy’s torn elbow ligament in the NFC Championship game.

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“It depends on if he protects himself from hits. I look at him getting hit the same way as I did Ben: Everybody’s trying to hit Mahomes that much harder because he’s a superstar quarterback,” Foster said. “As long as he’s smart with how he treats himself as far as taking those shots – and, also, off the field, too. Most quarterbacks are good with that type of stuff. Then I think he’ll be good as far as making it. I think 20 is a long time, but I give him 15 to 18. If he gets to 20, I don’t know what his arm is going to be like, because that’s what we’re questioning with Brady, right?”

Part of the process of keeping healthy is being protected by teammates who block effectively and provide the necessary targets for him to deliver passes without needing to hold onto the ball longer to find opportunities.

That demands continued excellence from Kansas City’s front office and coaching staff for the next several years. And it also will be a function of what he demands from a salary standpoint when his current contract expires after the 2031 season. This year was the first he played under his enormous contract, which granted him lifetime wealth but was criticized by some for being too “team-friendly”, mainly because its term extends so far into the future that it should become far less of a burden to the Chiefs’ budget as the salary cap limit rises.

And that also involves whether Chiefs coach Andy Reid, 64, wants to continue well into the future a head coaching career that already has lasted 24 seasons. Brady caught Bill Belichick when both were, essentially, getting started. Belichick was 48 and in his first season in New England when the Patriots drafted Brady in the sixth round.

It’s hardly unprecedented for an NFL head coach to continue into his 70s – Belichick hit that age this year – but it is uncommon.

And then there is the little matter of what Mahomes wants to do with his time. On FS1’s “First Things First” program, he said he could see himself pursuing Brady’s records. “I think any athlete wants to be the best at their position, ever. I want to be, but I understand how hard it’s going to be.”

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He doesn’t, really. Because he still is in his 20s. He surely knows how hard he’ll need to work to sustain greatness, because he’s done that to reach this position. He doesn’t know how hard it might become to do that work as he ages into his 30s, from the standpoint of how years of football and the natural aging process affect the recovery process, and how having a wife and two children might affect his desire to put in that time.

“There are considerable people who said: This is enough, I’m going to choose my family. And will Mahomes push past that barrier?” Wilcots said. “When we talk about this legacy thing for Mahomes, do not ignore that the family has got to endorse that, in a healthy way.

“People said – and I covered golf, and I remember when it was happening – Tiger Woods was just killing everybody. And they said: Wait until he gets married. And they were right! It’s going to draw on his time, and it’s going to draw on his focus and attention. And it almost was prophetic.

“We talk about these great athletes and them chasing these legacies and these iconic levels, each generation trying to go higher and higher than the one before, but think about what we’re asking of these people and the price they have to pay in order to do that, in order to do what Tom did.”

What the future holds

Should the Chiefs win this Super Bowl, and that certainly qualifies as a substantial “if”, it reasonably could be argued he’ll have established a five-year run at the beginning of his career that exceeds that authored by Brady. The numbers are what they are, and the only one that would favor Brady would be that 3-2 edge in Lombardi trophies.

To match or exceed Brady’s career achievements, though, would demand Mahomes continue on his present course for, at minimum, another dozen years. To play 17 seasons at this rate would, theoretically, place him with six Lombardi’s, 82,419 passing yards (less than 7,000 short of Brady’s record) and 653 touchdowns (surpassing the career mark Brady established this past autumn).

At that point, the “GOAT” debate would be a genuine discussion. Whereas Brady still would have the extra Super Bowl win and a slight edge in passing yards, Mahomes already has enormous advantages in rushing yardage and touchdowns (1,547 to 133 yards and 12 TDs to 7), and his present rate would leave him at 3,688 yards and 29 rushing touchdowns. Mahomes would have achieved nearly the same standards for individual statistics and team accomplishment in six fewer seasons.

Brady’s greatness was hard to fully appreciate because it took years to understand: He isn’t fast and doesn’t have a John Elway arm; what is he doing that defenses can’t solve? That’s why the whole “Brady or Belichick?” debate developed, because it wasn’t always obvious whether it was the scheme or the guy slinging the ball. Eventually, as Brady’s achievements accumulated, it came to be understood he processed the information available to a QB quickly and more accurately than others at the position.

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It’s not as dazzling, say, as Mahomes’ astonishing arm talent and the wide variety of ways he can deliver a pass depending on what the situation demands. And, if Mahomes continues to rack up the stats, wins and titles, that actually may grant him an edge in this debate.

“After that first start, there were people that thought he gives us a better chance of doing something in the playoffs than Alex Smith does,” St. John said. “And then the Chiefs flopped against the Titans. The offense fell apart in the second half. There were people mad that Mahomes was there on the bench. I distinctly remember, I had both of my sons at that playoff game, and I looked at them and said, ‘Patrick Mahomes will never let this happen in the playoffs again.’

“It’s almost like every game, he does something you’ve never seen before. There’s at least one or two plays that become highlight-reel material. Watching him constantly – every snap, every play – you appreciate how competitive he is and how great he is because he just never lets up, whether it’s the first quarter or the fourth quarter.”

If that’s true in the broader sense, from the first part of his career to the last, we might have a new GOAT by the middle of the next decade. And there’ll be some kid pondering what it might take to surpass him, eventually.

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