MIAMI — Wes Welker remembers when Bill Belichick asked the best quarterback of all-time to try to be like Patrick Mahomes. Belichick did not use those words with Tom Brady, of course. This was years ago, back when nobody knew who Mahomes was. But Belichick was looking for ways to attack the league’s most popular defense, the Tampa Two, and so …
“Bill sat there,” Welker said, “and told Tom, ‘I just want you to look straight down the middle of the field. We’ll have a guy in the middle of the field on a go [route], and then we’ll have a guy on the outside run a go. Look straight down the middle and look at him—and throw it to the guy outside.’
“Tom looked at him like, ‘You want me to throw a ball to a place I’m not even looking at?’ He was like, ‘You’re out of your mind.’”
Greg Lewis played with Brady on the Patriots and Brett Favre on the Vikings. He worked on the Saints’ staff when Drew Brees was at his best. Now he is the Chiefs’ wide receivers coach in the third year of the Mahomes era, and so …
“I mean,” Lewis said, “Brady is a guy that’s a study-a-holic, as detailed as I’ve ever seen. Brees is like a gym rat. Favre is that wild-card type of dude.
“Pat is all of that in one.”
Larry Bird was 28 years old, on his way to the second of three straight NBA MVP awards—the consensus best basketball player in the world in 1985. He had every reason to hit the brakes on the hype train for the kid in Chicago. But Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Verdi asked Bird just how good Michael Jordan really was, and so …
“Best,” Bird said. “Never seen anyone like him. Unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. Phenomenal. One of a kind. He’s the best. Ever. At his stage in his career, he’s doing more than I ever did.”
In 100 years of NFL football, the league has never seen anything like Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The best-ever talk is not just a product of daytime debate shows or click-thirsty columnists. It’s not hype, and it’s not just about stats. Players and coaches know what they’re watching. They know the way Larry Bird knew in 1985.
San Francisco inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans was a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker and a first-team All-Pro, but one word he does not use to describe Mahomes is if. Ask if Mahomes has a chance to be one of the best ever, and Ryans says “No. He is gonna be.”
The closer you get to true greatness, the more impressive it is. Mahomes’s teammates and opponents are even more amazed than we are, because they see more than we do. This is an athlete who is elite in so many ways: Arm talent, of course, but also toughness and work ethic and leadership and pretty much everything else. Chiefs offensive line coach Andy Heck says Mahomes is even one of the best he’s ever seen from huddle to snap: “There is so much that goes into [it] before the magic that everybody else sees. I don’t think there are many people on the planet that can do that as well as he does.”
What really separates Mahomes, though, is his ability to see and process in real time. Let’s say, for example, that his first option is covered, and so he moves through his progressions and throws to his second option. Mahomes can complete the pass and also watch to see if his third and fourth options would have been open.
“It’s something I’ve never done,” veteran Chiefs backup Matt Moore said. “When the ball leaves my hand. I’m looking at the target and making sure we hit it. The ball will literally leave his hand, and he’ll just find where the other guys are. His spatial awareness is off the charts. He knows where everybody is at, at all times —with every concept, with every coverage. It’s really amazing.”
Sometimes when Mahomes comes off the field, Moore will ask why he chose to do what he did. Moore says, “He’ll have some totally valid reason that, after I watch the tape, I’m like, ‘Oh, I see what he saw now. But I didn’t see what he saw at the time.’ He’ll tell you exactly what happened at full speed, instantly. It’s awesome.”
The ability to process a lot of information quickly is essential for an NFL quarterback. Mahomes does it as well as anybody in the league. That is at the heart of what makes him great, but there is so much more.
Ryans compares Mahomes’s physical tools to Michael Vick. Welker, the former Patriots’ star who now coaches for the 49ers, compares Mahomes’ size and strength to the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger. How many other quarterbacks in history could reasonably be compared to Vick and Roethlisberger?
Welker remembers attending Mahomes’s pro day at Texas Tech before the 2017 draft. Welker worked for the Texans at the time. He was new to coaching.
“At the end of it, everybody was applauding,” Welker said. “I was like, ‘Man, do people normally applaud at a pro day? One of the scouts was like, ‘I’ve been a scout for 30-plus years. I’ve never seen everybody applaud after a workout.’ And it was just scouts.”
The Chiefs’ other veteran backup, Chad Henne, says “Aaron Rodgers, he’s pretty special with his arm talent. But at this age, with this much success, I don’t think there is ever going to be a guy like [Mahomes].”
Those no-look passes seem like frosting or a card trick, like a windmill dunk—something cool that the rest of us can’t do, but only tangentially related to playing the position. They are actually a window into what makes Mahomes so good throughout the game. They require exceptional arm strength, remarkable hand-eye coordination and extraordinary spatial awareness. There is an axiom that quarterbacks should never throw late over the middle or back across their bodies. It doesn’t really apply to Mahomes to the extent it applies to everybody else.
“Some quarterbacks, they can move around, right?” Ryans said. “They’ll make a throw to the side they’re going to. He can roll right and throw back across his body. He can make it work. He does some stuff that you just don’t see. He can retreat backwards and still launch it up in the air. The guy is a special, special player.”
Last year, in a regular-season game against the 49ers, Mahomes ran left, circled back to the other side and hit DeMarcus Robinson for a touchdown. It looked like a playground play—but it wasn’t.
“He knew, ‘If I go left, all my players are going right, so I’m going to make [the defense] think I’m going left and then come back around.’” Henne said. “He kind of baited the defense.”
Talking about Mahomes as an all-time great isn’t hyperbole, and it isn’t a projection, because he is already playing on that level. It is also not dependent on how he plays Sunday. That is one game.
When Jordan was at his peak, he really had no weaknesses. Mahomes is like that. The work ethic, the arm talent, the ability to see the field, the toughness, the poise … sometimes, Moore says, “Something will happen, and [Henne] and I will look at each other and go ‘Whoa!’ And just laugh about it.”
They see what we see, but closer and in greater detail: Intelligence mixed with preparation, confidence borne of superior talent and a quarterback unlike any in history.
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