At so many points in his short pro career, the ascent of Patrick Mahomes to one of the all-time greats has almost seemed written in the stars. So young, so successful, so brilliant in everything he does, Mahomes gives us the sense that his ultimate destination as a pro quarterback has already been determined and that our job is to sit back and watch him make history.
Then came Super Bowl 55.
Nobody will blame Mahomes for Kansas City’s 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they shouldn’t. A beat-up offensive line, some tough officiating breaks in the first half, a toe injury that will reportedly require offseason surgery — all those things and more played a role in the Chiefs’ collapse.
Instead, what happened to Kansas City in this Super Bowl — which, yes, included a few subpar plays from Mahomes — underscored just how fragile his career arc really is. As great as Mahomes is, and as much runway as he has in front of him at 25, nothing in this sport is guaranteed. And in the NFL, nobody wins a championship alone.
At a couple junctures in the fourth quarter, as Mahomes was limping around between plays and the Chiefs desperately trying to make a game out of a 22-point deficit, he tried to conjure some magic. He ran around, changed directions, avoided sacks and whipped the football into places where receivers had a chance to make a play. None of them did.
And at that very moment, the question looming over the next chapter of his career became clear: How thin are the margins for Mahomes to go from the best of his generation to a legend?
If Mahomes retired tomorrow, there would be a legitimate argument whether his résumé already is good enough to make the Hall of Fame. He’s got a Super Bowl championship. He’s won an MVP trophy. He’s made two All-Pro teams in three years as a starter. He’s dominated in the regular season and excelled in the playoffs.
But when you do all that by 25, the bar goes higher. We’ve seen enough to know that Mahomes is going to spend the rest of his career chasing records and history, and that’s how we’re going to judge him when it’s all said and done.
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Patrick Mahomes throws a pass as Tampa Bay defenders close in during Super Bowl 55. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)
Even the most shameless hot take artists could not credibly blame Mahomes for the Chiefs collapsing in this Super Bowl. His numbers were not good — 26-for-49, two interceptions, no TDs — but they were a reflection of a bunch of factors he couldn't control. Kansas City lost its top two tackles to injury, the overall playmaking of his receivers and running backs was below average, and Mahomes’ mobility was clearly not 100% due to the injury.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay officially had registered eight knockdowns on Mahomes and had pressured him at every turn into difficult throws and miscues. At one point late in the third quarter, he was 0-for-7 passing on third down and didn’t have a completion for more than 20 yards. In reality, Mahomes had no chance.
And it’s a reminder that nothing about this career is already etched in stone. To reach the ceiling that seemed so obvious a year ago when he brought the Chiefs back in the fourth quarter to win Super Bowl 54, he’s going to need luck and he’s going to need help. He’s going to need an organization in Kansas City that drafts well and manages the salary cap. He’s going to have to stay healthy. He’s not going to do it alone.
Nothing about this performance should make you question whether Mahomes has the ability to be one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. Tom Brady’s seven Super Bowl wins have been interspersed with three losses, disappointments and missed opportunities. He’s just stuck around long enough to keep knocking on the door and remained good enough to cash most of them in.
Mahomes is a special enough talent to do the same thing, but he’s going to need a lot of things to fall his way. A blowout Super Bowl loss doesn’t mean he’s off track, but it does prove that championships in the NFL are not a one-man show.
So many things failed Mahomes on Sunday — his teammates, his health and even some bad calls. He’s got another dozen years or more to make up for it. But in a sport with margins so small, there’s never a guarantee.
Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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