Initially, the steep rise of the phenom is typically mesmerizing.
Fans are enthralled with the early dominance, hypnotized by the highlights, captivated by the possibility that a new heir to a GOAT throne is emerging. As time passes, statistics begin to be projected outward, awards are compiled, measurements are made. Eventually, the conversation turns to history and legacy, which get complicated by comparisons of eras, playing styles, surrounding teammates, and even conspiracies about the hidden hand of a commissioner or league office facilitating the success.
This is usually when legacy and comparative greatness stops being a conversation and spins into a turf war, with boundaries often defined by fan geography, age, race or recency bias. Almost always, parts of the argument are fueled by an undertone of celebrity saturation, media ubiquity or “GOAT fatigue” — all of which begin to weigh on the perception of the player at the center of the maelstrom.
It’s a familiar “heavy is the head that wears the crown” group, bonded together by love, hatred, jealousy, envy and monumental levels of success. Tom Brady has a seat on the council. As do Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, an NBA trio that has defined basketball the way Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo have defined Greek mythology. Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal are among the ranks. As are Michael Phelps, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth … on and on.
If that group is not already part of the Patrick Mahomes story, it will be. Especially this week, when we’ll rifle through stories debating the chances the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback has of tracking down Brady as the league’s GOAT of GOATs and how he’s stalking the records held by the the future Hall of Famer. We’ll get around to the topic of how much longer Mahomes can win before the NFL’s collective fan base outside of Chiefs Kingdom gets tired of his success. We might even see some conspiratorial stories delving into whether the league is leaning into the dominance of Mahomes and the team fandom of Taylor Swift, somewhat like it was debated about Brady when he married Gisele Bündchen. And of course, we’ll try to fit all these projections into whatever boxes fuel whichever side of the argument.
But as far as history and Brady goes, keep those projections in mind, and remember that Mahomes still has a long, loooooong way to go when it comes to portions of the climb ahead. To understand it statistically, consider that Brady’s regular-season passing yardage mark of 89,214 would require Mahomes to continue his current average of nearly 4,700 passing yards per season (as a full-time starter) for the next 13 years. Brady’s 649 regular-season touchdown passes? If Mahomes continues his current average of 36.5 per season (as a starter), that’ll take nearly 12 years. And Brady’s 251 regular-season wins? Mahomes would have to continue his average of roughly 12 wins per season (as a starter) for more than 14 years. Most of Brady’s league-leading statistics are like this. Even the most prolific quarterbacks basically need to continuously win a war of attrition for two straight decades to have any shot at unseating him.
It used to feel that way about Super Bowl wins, too. But Mahomes could change that if he’s able to help engineer a win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII, which would give Mahomes three Super Bowl rings in six years as a starter. Conversely, Brady won three world championships in his first four years as a starter with the Patriots. But after securing that third title, he also went nine straight years without a ring.
For Brady, three rings in four years as a starter eventually stretched into three in 13 years. Mahomes securing three in his first six years as a starter would give him an additional seven seasons to exceed Brady’s ring-winning pace. This is really where the comparison between Mahomes and Brady takes an intriguing shape. As much as Mahomes draws comparisons to Michael Jordan for his dominance over the game in a short span, it also took Jordan multiple years to start winning titles. If anything, Mahomes’ start mirrors another iconic member of GOATs, largely because of how quickly his titles have materialized.
Another GOAT who came out of the gate this fast? Tiger Woods.
After turning pro in late 1996, Woods won eight major championships by the end of 2002 — a span of just over six years. The only other golfer who came close to that pace was the legend Woods would ultimately chase: Jack Nicklaus, who captured seven major titles from the time he turned pro in 1961 to his second U.S. Open crown in 1967. Twenty-eight years and a multitude of injuries later, Woods is behind in the major championship count 18 to 15, with his last major victory coming in a stunning Masters win in 2019.
Where it concerns his trajectory out of the gate and the lofty goals left ahead of him, Woods is the best comparison to what Mahomes is showing us. Two men, hotter than the surface of the sun as they began their professional careers, both chasing icons who established a seemingly unimaginable standard for success. That’s what Nicklaus did when he won his 18th and final major in 1986, putting him seven victories ahead of his next nearest competitor at the time, Walter Hagen, whose 11th and final major win had come in 1929.
Until Tiger came along, Nicklaus’ dominance was an unapproachable dream. Very much like Brady, whose seven Super Bowl wins in 10 appearances remains a staggering accomplishment. Not just because it’s the most Super Bowl rings captured by one player (longtime defensive end Charles Haley is next in line with five), but it’s three more than the next quarterbacks on the list — Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, who both captured four. Bradshaw and Montana played in tougher eras when it came to quarterback protection, but neither player had to navigate the bulk of their careers under the team-altering era of free agency, either.
As we look at Mahomes this week and contemplate his championship chase of Brady, that Woods vs. Nicklaus snapshot is the enduring battle that should hover in the background. Not just for the start of each chase, but also the sheer longevity it took to play out — showcasing how age, injury and other surrounding factors can impact the making of history.
Brady going nine seasons without a Super Bowl was a snapshot of it. As was a growing fatigue among NFL fans over his status as the league’s all-time GOAT. Historic success is hardly seamless or unanimously embraced when it’s in motion. It’s why Brady had a significant ribbon of hatred among NFL fans over the balance of his career. As did Jordan. As does LeBron James. Indeed, when you look at the worldwide group of GOATs — regardless of sport — there’s a high-percentage chance that everyone in it was hated at some point for their unyielding string of success.
You could argue Mahomes is starting to see that now, with opposing fans growing tired of seeing the Chiefs in the AFC title game or Super Bowl — all of which makes it a guarantee that every approaching season is going to feature more Chiefs, more Mahomes, and more talk about whether he might be the greatest in NFL history.
Perhaps nobody foreshadowed it better than longtime CBS Sports analyst Jim Nantz, who may be the only human being on Earth who consistently had a front-row seat to the rise of Woods, Brady and Mahomes. Straddling both the golf and NFL worlds for the network, Nantz has a level of institutional knowledge that is unmatched when it comes to GOATs and the fatigue that follows them. And he showcased it last May during an appearance on the "Rich Eisen Show."
Calculating the release of the 2023 football schedule, Nantz speculated that he could end up broadcasting as many as nine nationally televised games featuring the Chiefs and Mahomes if a Super Bowl run into February materialized. The closest thing to that kind of coverage that Nantz had ever seen? The Brady rise in New England, which eventually unfolded into a collective exhaustion over decades of Patriots and Brady dominance.
“People sometimes grow weary or tired of winners and the story repeating itself,” Nantz told Eisen of Mahomes last May. “It’s kind of like Tiger back in his heyday. You may root for him. A lot of people did. You may not root for him. And there were those out there that weren’t rooting for him, because they just grew tired of watching him play all the time. [They’d ask] ‘why are you guys showing him so much?’ But the truth is, everybody wants to know what he’s doing at all times. And that pertains to Mahomes. You want to know what he’s doing. And he’s got three Super Bowl appearances. He’s got two rings.”
Now it’s four Super Bowl appearances. A week from now, it could be three rings. And with it, another step into the GOAT group, offering more fuel for a never-ending Brady debate, more stats in an unyielding title chase, and the promise of more Patrick Mahomes next year and beyond.
Regardless of whether you’re tired of it or not.