Tom Brady is a ruthless and brilliant winner. But his opposing number in Sunday’s Super Bowl is on track to redefine the sport
Here is a list of all the quarterbacks who have led their teams to back-to-back Super Bowl wins within their first three years as an NFL starter:
That’s it. That’s the list.
On Sunday, Patrick Mahomes has a chance to match Brady’s historic feat. But here’s the thing about Mahomes: he is already on a different trajectory to Brady, who went from a long-shot college prospect to one of the most famous athletes in America.
Spin that list out to those who made back-to-back Super Bowls within three seasons as a starter and you can add Russell Wilson (won one; loss one) to the list alongside Brady and Mahomes. That’s instructive. Wilson fits the Brady mould. Both were overlooked coming out of college and slipped in the draft. Both played on great, defense-oriented teams when they first entered the league. Both were immediately brilliant, and it was that brilliance that helped elevate their teams from very good to great. But the win-loss burden did not fall directly on their shoulders – they had great defenses to help them out, something that Mahomes cannot rely on.
Throughout the course of this week, you will hear about Brady v Mahomes, both in the silly tangible aspect (quarterbacks do not play against each other, they play opposing defenses – though their styles can impact one another to a point) and the intangible, legacy aspect. One quarterback, Brady, is the greatest winner of our time. The other, Mahomes, is trying to catch him.
There will be talk of passing the torch. Of one era handing off to the next. But even that undersells the course that Mahomes is on. He is not chasing Brady and his records. He is not looking at a spot on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. He is chasing something bigger: he is chasing Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Babe Ruth and Serena Williams and Ayrton Senna.
Mahomes is chasing that rare space that puts an athlete at the center of pop culture; that makes them both indivisible from the sport they play but allows them to exist a step removed, the same way that Jordan still hovers over everything in the NBA. Jordan hasn’t played in the NBA for 17 years. But the NBA economy – from debate show culture to documentaries to shoe deals to marketing to ownership groups – still runs on Michael Jordan.
To put Mahomes near that class so early in his career may sound hyperbolic or blasphemous but consider this: no quarterback in NFL history has gotten off to the same sort of start to a career as Mahomes. And no single position holds such a spot in the US sports landscape as that of a starting NFL quarterback.
To hit those Woods-Ruth-Williams heights, you cannot only win. You must dominate.
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, one often cited without much thought to the nuances of the game and a player’s supporting cast. But there does come a breakpoint where one player’s impact on a team is so undeniable, when the win-loss record is so overwhelming, that you cannot help but point to it as a measure of dominance.
Mahomes took over a middling-to-good Chiefs team and has turned them into a year-in, year-out juggernaut. Yes, Andy Reid is one of the outstanding coaches of his generation. Yes, Mahomes has had an excellent offensive line throughout his time in Kansas City. Yes, receivers Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are utterly unguardable, as good at what they do as Mahomes is at what he does. Yet Mahomes that makes the whole thing sing.
Add to the team wins 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 has already hit that rare Jordan, LeBron, Gretzky air: MVP voters are numb to his excellence. Mahomes is so clearly and obviously the important, valuable, dynamic player at the most valuable position in the sport. Across his three seasons as a starter, he has finished second, first and first in DYAR, a measure of a player’s total value. He won his MVP award in the sole season he finished second.
And to think, he is still only 25. Most of the multi-Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks – Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway – take at least half a decade or more to get rolling. They have to wait for the roster around them to elevate to their level or for it to elevate to such a level that it drags them to a title or two.
Mahomes already has one title. By Sunday night he could have two. With another 10- to 15 years to play, who knows how many he could rack up. Five? Six? Seven? Ten? Over the years the NFL has tweaked the rules to make the passing game (considered more attractive to fans) more important, so having a great quarterback has never been so crucial. And while the league has rarely had such a strong crop of quarterbacks, there remains a fair distance between Mahomes and whichever-flavour-you-prefer second slot in the league.
There is a stylistic element to all this, too. Even in a league with Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Aaron Rodgers playing at an MVP level, it is Mahomes who remains the most telegenic player of this mini era. He can do things that other players, even the very best at their craft, can’t even imagine. No look passes. Tossing the ball out of the stadium during warmups. One hundred-yard throws. Side-arm slingshots from unthinkable launch points, with seemingly no regard for the laws of physics. How often are break-the-code video game players – Michael Vick, Bo Jackson – as effective in the real world as the actual one? How often does that lead to not only winning but championships?
Style matters. Those who dine at the top table of athletes are not only serial winners, they’re paradigm shifters. Tiger changed the entire complexion of golf – literally. Serena did the same. Jordan brought a one-on-one Superman-style to the NBA, a style that plagued the league for more than a decade following his retirement as franchises and the NBA head office looked in every nook and cranny for the next Michael. But no one could replicate what Michael did, on or off the court. Even Kobe Bryant, the nearest facsimile, spent the early portion of his career as more of a Jordan tribute act than an evolution.
Mahomes fits the bill. He represents the waypoint between the old and the new. He plays with all the rhythm and timing and intellect of the vaunted Manning-Brady-Brees era combined with all of the tap-dancing, off-platform artistry of the Aaron Rodgers days, and enough mobility to be a genuine running threat as the pace-and-space age rises out of the college and high school ranks to take over the professional game. And there are those jaw-dropping, impossible-to-replicate but it’s-fun-to-try moments that help elevate someone from a talented athlete into a cultural figure.
On Sunday, Mahomes isn’t just trying to take out Brady and the Bucs, he isn’t just taking a second swipe at picking up the Lombardi-MVP double, he will be making a move towards becoming the defining athlete of his generation.
How can a matchup get any tastier than a young star chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan – and having to pass through Tom Brady to get there?