GLENDALE, Ariz. — There’s a YouTube video the Kansas City Chiefs coaches show their players from time to time. It’s about how Allen Iverson, when he arrived to play at Georgetown amid great fanfare, was captivated by a walk-on teammate named Dean Berry who knew how to do a crossover move.
As the story goes, Iverson, now a basketball Hall of Famer, knew he needed to develop some moves to elevate his game now that he was no longer capable of dominating high schoolers on talent alone. But as the star recruit, he was initially too proud to ask Berry how to do it. Finally, he caved in and asked Berry to teach him, and, well, you basically know the rest.
The lesson: Everybody can teach you something, if you aren’t afraid to ask.
This was a particularly vital lesson for the 2022-23 Chiefs, who began last offseason by trading away their best wide receiver, Tyreek Hill, and bringing in an entirely new group for quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Knowing this was going to take some work, Mahomes assembled his new receivers in Texas for some get-to-know-you throwing sessions ahead of the Chiefs’ offseason program. What he found was a group of players who had some stuff they could teach him.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling had just played four years with Aaron Rodgers. JuJu Smith-Schuster was a former teammate of Ben Roethlisberger’s. Justin Watson had been playing in Tampa Bay with Tom Brady. These guys had played with elite, Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks before, and as a result Mahomes found it pretty easy to discuss concepts with them at a high level.
But there was also something else Mahomes had to learn.
“I had to learn to be a better leader,” Mahomes said Sunday night, after winning his second Super Bowl title and Super Bowl MVP three nights after winning his second MVP award at the age of 27. “I had to learn how to stay on guys, how not to let the little stuff slide. I had to teach guys the culture we have here, that I learned from Alex Smith and Derrick Johnson.”
Mahomes’ decision to take that mandate to heart in the offseason was a major reason he and the Chiefs are Super Bowl champions for the second time in four years, beating the Philadelphia Eagles 38-35 on Sunday. It wasn’t always pretty or easy, and that extended to the very last game, which they trailed by 10 at halftime and six entering the fourth quarter. But whenever things got tough, Mahomes put his head down and relied on the work he put in months ago on a sweltering practice field in St. Joseph, Missouri, to carry him and his team through.
“He wants to be the greatest player ever,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Mahomes on Sunday night. “And he does it humbly. He does the work. And then when it’s time for the players around him to raise their game, he helps them do that.”
Super Bowl LVII was legacy stuff for Mahomes. The Chiefs’ breathtaking superstar quarterback is on a Mount Rushmore track, and what he did Sunday night should be enough to send us in search of the chisels.
The details are storybook-worthy. The Chiefs were being pushed around by the Eagles — an NFC champion determined to prove that it had been the league’s best team all along. Deep, explosive, dominant on both lines and led by their own ascending star quarterback in Jalen Hurts, the Eagles appeared for most of the game to have it in their control. Mahomes’ final play of the first half ended with him aggravating his month-old ankle injury, limping off the field and slamming his helmet on the ground in frustration. Things looked bleak. From the outside, at least.
“When you’ve got 15 at quarterback,” Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown would say when it was all over, “anything is truly possible.”
Mahomes came out of the locker room in that No. 15 jersey, with a heavily taped right ankle, and led a touchdown drive to cut the lead to three. He kept going, throwing a pair of short touchdown passes on cool Andy Reid/Eric Bieniemy play designs to take the lead with 9:22 left. And after the Eagles scored their own touchdown and 2-point conversion to tie it up, Mahomes led the game-winning field goal drive.
History always remembers the Super Bowl heroics. But when you think about this season, what it was supposed to be for the Chiefs, and Mahomes’ role in making it so much more, you realize this victory was painstaking months in the making.
Flash back with me to early August. I stood on one of those St. Joseph practice fields talking to Mahomes about what the offense was going to look like without Hill in it. He was excited, in part, he said, because the new arrangement offered him an opportunity to make himself a better player.
“It’s helping me grow as a quarterback,” Mahomes told me that day. “If that first big shot we design isn’t there, I have to get the ball out of my hands and move the chains. So being more positive — still having the big play, taking what’s there and moving the chains. Just get through my reads the way it’s called and get to the right guy, not necessarily just look for a matchup on every play.”
That’s where the real stuff happens — where good turns into great. Not wrapped around a Rihanna concert with the whole world watching in mid-February, but on those sweaty August practice fields, where the cheers don’t matter nearly as much as the work.
“It’s great for him as a professional in his career going forward,” Reid told me that day. “He has the attitude where he wants to rip your heart out. So when teams are giving you that opportunity to do that, he’s going to take advantage of it, as Tyreek was. So it’s great that he’s able to now go back and see and study all the shell coverage that he got and how to gang up on that. It’ll be great for his package and his learning.”
I was standing there thinking, “How many people are there out there who even think Mahomes needs to improve?” But the fact is it doesn’t matter, because Mahomes wants to improve, always, and that’s why he’s on not just a Mount Rushmore track, but a Tom Brady track.
Yes, I realize he’s five Super Bowl titles behind Brady and that’s an ocean of Super Bowl titles he might not come close to crossing. This isn’t about comparing those two players right now. It’s about looking at what made Brady great and thinking Mahomes has some of that same stuff inside of him.
The group with which he won Super Bowl LVII is much different from the group with which he won Super Bowl LIV — a new offensive line, all new wide receivers, a seventh-round rookie at running back and youth all over the defense. Brady used to do that — break in a new group every couple of years, find a way to win with it, exert his own influence to imbue each season with the culture he demanded. Mahomes gathering his new guys together in Texas last offseason felt at least a little bit like Brady working his guys out on a high school practice field once he got to Tampa and COVID protocols were keeping them away from the facility. Whatever it takes, whatever time of the year.
Remember how Brady always did team-friendly contracts so the Patriots could retain the flexibility to build around him and add pieces when and where necessary? Look at Mahomes’ deal. He’s got nine years left on it, and while the salary numbers are huge, the structure gives the Chiefs all kinds of flexibility. His current projected cap number for 2023 is $49.3 million, which would be the second highest in the league if the team made no changes to the contract. But the contract’s length and structure make it easy to convert roster bonus money into signing bonus money and drop that cap number by as much as $31 million. Going forward, we should expect the Chiefs to amend Mahomes’ deal to put it in line with the top quarterbacks in the league. But don’t be surprised at all if he keeps helping them out with structure, the way Brady always did with the Patriots.
Add in the fact of all the rookies and young players who contributed to this latest Chiefs run — Trent McDuffie, Isiah Pacheco, guys like Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore who haven’t played much in the NFL yet but have star potential — and Kansas City is set up to keep this going for a long time. The central reason is Mahomes, who just won three postseason games on a bad ankle and with a beaten-up group of receivers. He is a magician — a wondrous talent with the arm, the legs and the mind to dominate the league for years to come. And while Sunday impacts the way history will view him, it’s the stuff we learned about him last summer that makes it obvious why the Chiefs were in this game in the first place — and why they aren’t likely going away any time soon.
The Chiefs have won two of the past four Super Bowls and played in another. That’s dynasty stuff, folks. But what this year taught us is this: Once the confetti is swept up, the parade is over and the trophy case is rearranged to accommodate the new ones, you can bet the first question Patrick Mahomes will ask himself is what he has to do to get back to the Super Bowl next year.