As Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes scrambled for the first down with 2:05 remaining in overtime in the Super Bowl on Sunday, it hit me like a thunderclap: Patrick Mahomes is the greatest quarterback of all time.
Caveat away: last night Mahomes won his third title, putting him one behind Joe Montana and a staggering four behind Tom Brady. But the way he did it—the poise, the panache, the athleticism—made it all clear enough to me. The scramble, one of the defining plays that helped the Chiefs win their third Super Bowl in five years, felt inevitable. It should be noted that Mahomes is hardly a stunner when it comes to scrambling: he only does when he can’t find any of his receivers open. It was one of those bigger-than-sports, brain-reordering championship moments—like watching Tiger Woods sink a putt from an unfathomable angle or distance. The San Francisco 49ers defense held Mahomes and the Chiefs in check for most of the game—and then, on the second possession of the overtime period, Mahomes marched his team down the field with what I can only call deep self-possession. This, I thought, is GOAT shit.
This is now the third Super Bowl MVP for Mahomes, 28, to go along with two NFL MVP awards. And he picked this most recent chip up with easily the worst Chiefs team of this dynastic run. And while the Chiefs defense was stout last night, the team’s fortunes always rode on their quarterback. And what a quarterback! His arm is big but his mind is sharp, too. Blitzes seem to make him better, sharper, tighter. Such unflappability puts defenses in a headlock. There’s an obvious joy in the way he plays, spreading the ball to his skill positions players like Oprah gives out houses on television, but when the game slows down, and both teams get tired, Mahomes seems to find an extra gear that is simultaneously gritty and sophisticated. It’s like watching a cyborg with emotional intelligence. He might only (“only”) have three Super Bowls. But he plays quarterback as well as it’s ever been played.
I understand why Tom Brady fans might not like my calling Mahomes the greatest of all time. Brady was great: a forensic quarterback with a cannon arm and the mental fortitude to win even when the opposition seemed faster on the field. Yes, he had consistently great defenses under Bill Belichick, but he also re-invented himself during the Patriots’s eighteen-year run at the top. When he didn’t have receivers who could beat cornerbacks downfield, he had impeccable timing on concise and short-yardage routes with a crew of shifty receivers who would never pass as track stars. More than that, Brady helped embody so much of what we love about modern football — and sports in general — in the modern age: the comeback wins, the emotion, the deranged relationship with physical condition, and the passion to strive for championship every year.
Despite all of that, I’m ready to call Mahomes the greatest—or at least well on his way there. If the Brady supporters want to point to their championship rings, know that Mahomes has three at age 28—same as Brady has at the same age.
As the New Yorker critic Vinson Cunningham put it, Brady is Jack Nicklaus: an ironman, a champion, an enduring winner stacking up hardware. Mahomes, however, is Tiger—the guy reshaping an entire sport. He’s as much a quarterback as he is an artist, expanding our vision for what football can be. That’s what I thought when he made that scramble in overtime last night. The play was inevitable, and also baroque. It was genius.