How Patrick Mahomes is Breaking the NFL
When the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes 10th overall in 2017, I don't think they could have understood the monster they were creating.
And I'm not even talking about the back-to-back super bowl appearances, MVP trophy, All-Pro selections, or even the Madden cover. That stuff drives home how comically undervalued he was coming out of college, and how ridiculous it was for him to be drafted behind Mitch Trubisky, but those aren't "alter the future of the league" kind of numbers.
Not on their own, anyway.
When Mahomes' Chiefs faced off against the Buccaneers in this year's Super Bowl, much of the narrative surrounding the game was about a sort of "changing of the guard" at the league's quarterback throne. Tom Brady was (is?) on his way out, and Mahomes was (is?) on his way up. The parallels almost made themselves.
To me, though, this was not a showcase of a transition so much as it was an encouragement of a trend that's been plaguing the NFL for a long time.
For years, NFL teams chased the "next Brady". His team was the gold standard, and Brady himself was the ever-present catalyst of their long-term success. Bill Belichick can never be discounted, to be sure, but after this past season, is there any doubt which of the two is the more valuable?
For most of Brady's career, as it happens, the rest of the league seemed to agree. Teams have been drafting quarterbacks too high for a long time, but Brady's presence in the league stoked every other franchise's lust for their own golden boy, and his longevity ensured that we had a lot of data on that trend to study.
It's important to add here that Tom Brady is not normal. He is a unicorn.
Tom Brady was and still is the modern standard for the "franchise quarterback". He's succeeded more than anyone else for longer than everyone else. Especially earlier on in his career (which means before he turned about 35), he was a cheat code that could transform other teams' spare parts and aging talents into bona fide NFL weapons.
And most of all, he turned the entire rest of the NFL into unicorn hunters.
Why else would anyone mortgage their entire future to get Jared Goff or Mitch Trubisky? Why else would a team take a risk on a guy like Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch, or Jake Locker but for the chance that they too might be a unicorn?
Between the time that Brady won his first Super Bowl in 2001 and 2012, there were multiple quarterbacks taken in every single draft. Sure, there was an occasional Matt Ryan thrown in there. Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers too. But for every one of those guys, you had at least one Blaine Gabbert. An EJ Manuel, a Tim Tebow. Were all of those guys drafted purely because Brady existed? No. Like I said, teams have been reaching at that position since the beginning of time. But was that a factor? Yes.
Unicorns always are. The presence of unicorns make people believe that more can be found.
If only they're willing to believe in them.
But for a while, none were found. Candidates like Cam Newton and Andrew Luck emerged only to have their candidacies snuffed out by poor team building and even poorer skeletal integrity. Brady remained the king of the unicorns, a singular piece in a puzzle that no one else could put together.
And then something happened.
In 2017, the Chiefs traded up to get a guy from Texas Tech with some gaudy stats, even gaudier arm sleeves, and an awful lot of talent. He had to incubate behind Alex Smith (another high pick) for a while, but the people in the Chiefs' building knew what they had.
A baby unicorn.
By the time Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady faced off in Super Bowl LV, the younger unicorn was already getting put on a GOAT trajectory (rightfully so, I might add). There they were, the two mythical creatures, taunting the rest of the league with their rare quality.
And the league couldn't help but grab their bows and arrows.
We're about to have a draft where five quarterbacks go in the first round, something that's only happened once since Brady entered the league (2018). We're about to see teams ignore years and years' worth of data on drafting quarterbacks because they can't afford to fall behind in the arms race. In college football, we have something called the Saban Effect, whereby nearly every major program within that man's orbit judges their own success by his.
In the NFL, it's the Unicorn Effect (the Brady-Mahomes Effect sounds like a physics formula, and I don't like it). In a league where quarterbacks are already overvalued, teams will chase those unicorns until all their draft capital for the next century has dried up. That's to say nothing of this year's group (Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields, Jones). For the record, I think all of those guys are good, but that's not the point. If you're an NFL team during this draft, whether you need a quarterback or not, the temptation to take one and take him high will be there.
Yes, it would be great to get the next Patrick Mahomes. His continued presence in the league is going to be a problem for a long time. But maybe, instead of chasing that future (that probably doesn't exist anyway), maybe you shouldn't let Patrick Mahomes dictate your decision-making. Maybe you should take the best player on the board, or one that addresses another need you have. Heck, if one of the top guys (somehow) slips down the board on Draft day, maybe you should take a quarterback.
But whatever you do, don't spend Thursday night hunting a unicorn. There's only one of those right now, and he plays in Kansas City.