Watching Michael Jordan and The Last Dance unlocked critical angles for me to appreciate Patrick Mahomes and these Chiefs.
Three quarters of the way through what will likely be Patrick Mahomes’ second Most Valuable Player campaign in only three seasons as a starter, you’d think the idea of needing help appreciating the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback would be a laughable notion. How hard is it to think Mahomes is great, right?
At this point, Mahomes has already entered the pantheon of NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks, a sure-fire Hall of Famer who has broken a number of records to start a career. Despite the fact that he’s only 25-years-old, Mahomes has delivered a championship to a thirsty city, won the MVP award in that very game, and was rewarded with the largest contract in American sports history.
Back to the appreciation thing. While I thought I understood what the Chiefs had—what my Chiefs had—in Patrick Mahomes, it didn’t quite come into view until I recently watched the ESPN documentary The Last Dance about Michael Jordan’s supremacy and the last title run of the Chicago Bulls. (Yes, I was late to watch this.)
After viewing all 10 episodes of The Last Dance, I was not only filled with a much greater appreciation of Michael Jordan’s accomplishments over the years as well as the Chicago Bulls’ incredible run of 6 titles in 8 seasons. It also gave me a proper lens through which to observe Mahomes in the present.
The maxim says you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. (Cue the Cinderella ballad from the ’80s.) That’s especially true in the sports world, when it’s only after a player has hung it up that we accurately reflect and acknowledge what that particular person brought to the field. For example, while watching the current corps of Chiefs linebackers, it’s not hard to find sentimental Chiefs fans sending a shout out toward Derrick Johnson on social media.
Each and every week in Chiefs Kingdom, we are witnessing history with Patrick Mahomes under center. Each week, we see another cleverly packaged graphic on the television broadcast illustrating a new record that has fallen. “The most [stat] in [x] amount of games by a quarterback,” they read. “The fastest quarterback to reach [stat] in NFL history.”
We’ve all fawned over Mahomes from almost as many angles from which he can throw the ball. We discuss the arm strength like Brett Favre. We fawn over the Tom Brady-esque leadership and demeanor. We are impressed at the intelligence that reminds us of Peyton Manning or the overall skill set like Aaron Rodgers. Mahomes is the completely unfair amalgam of the NFL’s best, all wrapped up in an approachable young athlete who is only beginning to make his mark on a sport that owes him big (despite already paying him big).
Yet even that is not enough to truly understand or appreciate Mahomes in this present moment, and the Chiefs game against the Buccaneers was the perfect example for the Michael Jordan comparisons to come into play.
On Sunday, the Chiefs and Bucs were billed as two great teams coming together in the fourth overall matchup between Mahomes and Brady. But this game wasn’t about that at all, and it took half of the first quarter for the disparity to show up. This wasn’t “great” versus “great” or even some transitional torch-work. This was one great quarterback hoping to take advantage of the supreme not doing everything he can do.
You saw this in the first quarter, with one deep pass after another to Tyreek Hill in the end zone. If not for some odd play calls or a surprising lack of courage to go for it in the first quarter, the Chiefs could have easily been up 31-0 on Brady and the Bucs early in a rout. Instead, a dropped touchdown by Mecole Hardman and sloppy penalties allowed the Bucs to keep things close. The box score says it was a 3-point win, one in which announcers will congratulate Mahomes on winning a battle with Brady. But if you watched the game, you know it wasn’t a battle. It was never close.
This is not a slight against Tom Brady. It’s not a slight against Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson or anyone else who would also fit in this narrative. Instead, it’s about Mahomes, and therefore the Chiefs, being able to impose his will at any time in any place against any opponent. It’s about a quarterback who has developed to the point that it doesn’t matter what the opponent is or is not doing. In short, there is zero control on the part of the other.
The same supremacy marked the career of Michael Jordan. One year it was the overly physical Detroit Pistons who served as the heel. Another year it was Magic Johnson and the L.A. Lakers. Then came Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trailblazers and Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. Toward the end, it was the one-two of Karl Malone and John Stockton with the Utah Jazz.
The challenger could change, but the possibility did not. When Jordan matured into the complete player that he was during the Bulls’ title run(s), the approach of the opponent did not matter in the slightest. If a team wanted to play a bruising, physical style, they still lost. If they wanted to try to keep scoring pace with Jordan and company, they still lost. Younger teams couldn’t put them away when the Bulls were older, and veteran teams couldn’t use their experience to stave off Jordan when he was younger.
There was no answer. That’s because there was no equal.
All of this is the key to understanding and appreciating Patrick Mahomes. There is no equal. There is no opponent for which the Chiefs must brace themselves anymore. There is no rival who “has their number.” There is no hero on the other side who can match wits with Mahomes in some blow-for-blow effort. He has matured. The game is over.
At this point, the only team that can keep the Chiefs from winning is the Chiefs. The only way an opponent can walk away with a victory is if the Chiefs end up beating themselves. There is absolutely nothing an opponent can control any longer when it comes to facing K.C. And while it helps to have Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce or Andy Reid or Tyrann Mathieu or any other number of factors, it all comes down to Patrick Mahomes as the primary reason why they will always be the favorites for as long as he is healthy and interested in competing.
At the end of The Last Dance, Jordan’s own teammates made that very clear. Scottie Pippen is an all-time great in NBA history. Phil Jackson has won multiple titles with and without Jordan. Other players became all-stars and helped the Bulls achieve their dreams, but it was all possible on the foundation of Jordan’s supremacy over anyone else. And when push came to shove, the Bulls would only win or lose because Jordan had the motivation to reach for it or not.
The same will be said of Mahomes when he decides to hang up his cleats. At this point, however, we can recognize it in the present and appreciate it even more. Mahomes has no equal. No one can threaten the Chiefs. Everything is theirs for the taking—or not—and it’s simply up to them to follow through with it, all thanks to the supremacy of No. 15.