If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.
— General George S. Patton
I want to start this essay off by saying, clearly and definitively, that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (who will start his first Super Bowl this weekend) is a hell of an athlete and quarterback. He’s clearly one of the most dangerous players in football, and one of the most talented passers to come along in a while. He also seems like a decent guy (which matters to me more than it does to some). I generally like the kid, and I think about him (and will largely be talking about him) in positive, sometimes glowing terms – but not white-hot flame-scalding terms. And because of that, some reading this article might think I’m taking shots at him. Please don’t mistake moderation for hate.
And that disclaimer is the exact point of this essay.
I read an article on a national sports website this past week that opened by asserting that Mahomes (who has currently started less than two full professional seasons) is “already considered one of the best quarterbacks to have ever graced the NFL.”
Hmm, “ever”? The phrases “recency bias” and “grade inflation” (or in this case “greatness inflation”) immediately came to mind. Mahomes is good, I thought, but isn’t this is a little much for a 24 year old? I could have shrugged my shoulders and chalked it up to an exaggerated flourish, except that the writer wasn’t done.
The piece went on to claim that, barring a catastrophic injury (or yet another New England Patriots scandal that further mars Tom Brady’s reputation) it is “inevitable” that in 20 years people will be arguing about which of these two was the greatest to ever play the position.
Opinions stated as facts by professionals (who should know better) always irritate me. But this sequence seemed to especially grind my joints. Most of that annoyance, I realize now, rises from the insane superlatives that this writer (and too many others, lately) can’t stop using. You know what I’m talking about, I’m sure: “Greatest ever.” “All time.” “GOAT.” And now, apparently, “inevitable.” Gag.
This kind of language ought to be at least a little familiar when directed at Mahomes; scores of sportswriters and talking heads applied these kinds monikers to him last year, before he’d even completed his first season as a starter. That said, you could be forgiven for forgetting the Chiefs quarterback was the “greatest ever” this season because we haven’t heard that much about him in a while. For most of 2019, the commentating world spent all its energy insisting that Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson was going to “change the game forever” (a claim we’ve been hearing about athletic quarterbacks since at least Randall Cunningham’s days in Philadelphia). Jackson was different than Cunningham, though, it was said (or Michael Vick, or RG3, or Colin Kaepernick, all of whom got the same treatment during their respective ascents). Jackson was a cross between Barry Sanders and Joe Montana, we were told; he was utterly unstoppable.
Until, of course, he was stopped in a 1-and-done playoff wheeze against the 9-7 Tennessee Titans. And while it makes sense that no one’s talking about Jackson today, with a Super Bowl to play and his team eliminated, it does seem strange to suddenly write as though Mahomes has really been everyone’s hero all along. Odd, for example, to know that it’s “inevitable” that Mahomes and Brady will be the standards for greatness in 20 years, if Jackson is the one who will “change the game forever.” How’s that going to work, exactly?
Anyone noticing a trend?
Another recent article stated offhandedly (as fact) that Mahomes had “the greatest second season” that an NFL player ever had. Really? The greatest? Greater than Eric Dickerson’s second season, where he rushed for 2105 yards (a record now 36 years old and counting)? Better than Peyton Manning’s second season, in which his Colts improved by ten wins, from 3-13 to 13-3, and Manning rewrote the passing records for a franchise that used to employ Johnny Unitas? People knock Lynn Swann for his numbers sometimes, but his second season was punctuated by several of the most iconic plays in NFL history and a Super Bowl MVP award (the first ever given to a wide receiver). Was Mahomes’ season definitively better than those?
Just strictly looking at regular season numbers, Mahomes’ second season was arguably not even the most impressive sophomore year for a quarterback. In Dan Marino’s second year he broke practically every single-season passing mark in the NFL, becoming the first quarterback to throw for 5000 yards (a standard he alone could boast for almost 30 years), and shattering the passing touchdowns mark by an absurd 33%. Marino’s 48 TD passes (obliterating Y.A. Tittle’s record of 36) would be like someone throwing for 73 scores next season, or rushing for 2806 yards – just unthinkable numbers. And he did so at a time when braining defenseless receivers over the middle was part of a safety’s job description, and where quarterbacks could be hit high or low (and with the defender’s “full body weight”) all game long. By contrast, Mahomes’ 2018 numbers (under very different rules) did exceed Marino’s 1984 totals by a small margin, but he didn’t even lead the league in passing yards. Is that really a more impressive year?
That said, it’s true that Mahomes had outstanding numbers last year. He’s a hell of a player, and this is not a knock against him. But you know who else has had outstanding numbers over the last couple of decades? Every single quarterback who’s played for Andy Reid. Brett Favre’s best seasons (arguably), including both of his Super Bowl berths and all three of his MVP seasons, happened while Reid was a Packers assistant. Donovan McNabb became the first quarterback to throw over 30 TDs and fewer than 10 INTs in a season with Reid’s Philly offense. As soon as he signed with Reid’s Eagles, Michael Vick transformed from a faster and stronger-armed Kordell Stewart, with a career best passer rating of 81.6, into an efficient west coast surgeon with a rating of 100.2. Journeyman backups like Kevin Kolb and Matt Moore or respectable but uninspiring starters like Jeff Garcia or Alex Smith – they all seemed to look their best in Eagle green or Chief red. Just like Pat Mahomes does.
Again, this is not to take away from Mahomes’ talent. He earned his MVP award last year, and may emerge with a Super Bowl ring this weekend. Mahomes is a cool head and a gifted athlete with great vision and a short-stop’s arm. That’s an extraordinary combination. But is there any chance he’d have thrown 50 touchdowns in his sophomore season if he’d have been drafted by Cincinnati? It says here no way.
And speaking of Andy Reid, another article recently asked where he belongs in the pantheon of Super Bowl coaches. I’m obviously an admirer of Reid’s, and I think taking two different teams to the finals is an underrated achievement, so I really don’t want to knock him either. But this essay made a similar (if much less egregious) move to the ones above. In comparing the coaches who’d been to the big game more than once, the writer noted that the Steelers’ own Mike Tomlin has a higher regular season winning percentage, and a higher postseason winning percentage, as well as more Super Bowl wins (currently) than Reid… then dismissed all of it, placing Reid higher on the list because he’s been doing it for “eight more years.” I can agree that longevity is a legitimate factor in determining greatness; sustaining competitiveness is almost certainly harder than it looks. But is it decisively more important than success itself? What a strange logic. There are arguments for Reid (like the one I made two paragraphs ago), but this writer wasn’t making them. This essay was interested in wins and losses, then scrapped that criteria when it placed Reid below Tomlin, replacing it with “a few more years at the helm.” It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone making an argument this way except at a time like this, when all eyes are on Reid and the Chiefs.
Now, again, I like Andy Reid – I don’t want to disparage him, nor do I want to claim that Mike Tomlin is a better coach in any obvious, inarguable, cut-and-dry sense. The truth is, they’re both highly successful, and belong in the same conversation. Just like Mahomes ought to be discussed alongside Marino or Manning or Dickerson (etc.) in that conversation. I’m less blown away by Lamar Jackson than the sports world wants me to be, but there’s no denying he had a monster year this year too, and his 2019 campaign ought to be talked about among the great (and unique) seasons for a quarterback as well. Sure.
And that ought to be good enough.
The need to declare, “Andy Reid is clearly superior,” or “Pat Mahomes had the greatest season of all time,” or “Lamar Jackson is going to change the game forever” – just because this is the guy we’re looking at RIGHT NOW – is lazy and unintelligent. And it sure seems like it’s gotten a lot more common in the last few years.
Worse (for people like me, who love the history of the sport) is that this kind of thinking creates a false consensus through the old game of “say something enough times and people believe it’s true.” The best illustration of this is the other half of the Mahomes equation from above: Tom Brady. (I’m aware I’m about to lose a significant portion of the readers here. I don’t have anything to tell you guys. Sorry.)
Brady, like Mahomes and Reid, is superb at what he does. He has had a sterling career, and surely belongs in Canton one day. But the overwhelming consensus among sports wonks, that he is inarguably THE greatest of all time, has always mystified me.
Does he belong in the conversation? Of course. He didn’t win all of those titles or put up those numbers by mistake. But he also didn’t do any of that in a vacuum. Without Adam Vinatieri, Walt Coleman, and whoever used to record opponents’ signals and pre-game walkthroughs, would Brady have won the three razor-thin titles that built his legend from 2001-04? Without a stable and singular vision from a ruthless savant like Bill Belichick, could Brady have kept competing for rings in the first place (the way his arch rival, Peyton Manning, did, somehow taking four(!) different coaches to the Super Bowl)? What about if Oakland had refused to trade Randy Moss in 2007, or if someone else had drafted Rob Gronkowski three years later – could Brady’s numbers ever have reached their sky-high levels during the second half of his career?
There are clues to the latter question: just look at the numbers through his first six seasons as a starter, 2001-06 (that is, before Moss came to town). With a completion percentage of 61.9%, Brady averaged just over 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions per year, only surpassing 4000 yards once. His career passer rating before Moss came to Foxboro was 88.5 – numbers very comparable to his post-Gronk 2019 season, which was treated all year as a baffling and frustrating fluke.
Commentators spent half this past fall insisting that Brady’s ineffectiveness this year wasn’t a reflection of his age but rather a sign he didn’t have any weapons for once. Okay; I’ll buy that. But does that mean that this what Tom Brady looks like when he doesn’t have at least one freakish Hall of Famer catching passes and drawing double-teams downfield? That’s not a great look. And really, isn’t “the greatest quarterback of all time” supposed to raise the level of those around him, instead of sinking to their mediocrity or pointing fingers at their struggle? Should we maybe be evaluating his career through these lenses as well?
Again, I’m sure this section reads like a hit-job on Brady, just like some probably thought the first half of the piece was a hit-job on Mahomes or Reid. But it’s not. The notion that Brady is the best quarterback of his era, or one of the best to play the game, is defensible, but it is also eminently debatable. And that’s the thing I wish we saw more of. The debate about greatness is always interesting and worth having. It’s one of the best things about sports. And there are so few debates of this kind that have clear, definitive, inarguable answers. I wish the sports-wonk world would quit pretending that they all did.
And I get it. These sites are selling a product, and that product isn’t the game itself, but the current season’s broadcast (or in this case, the Super Bowl show). They need as many people watching as possible at all times, so they’re going to tell fans, “what you’re seeing right this second will make your brain fall out of your skull!” That’s their job, and they do it loudly. But it’s obnoxious. And it’s lazy. And I wish there was less of it around. I’m old enough to know that this is a wish I’m never going to be granted. But that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.