Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes celebrates after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 on Jan. 29, 2023, in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
As they prep for the Super Bowl on Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs have a phenomenon at quarterback.
He threw for thousands of yards in high school, earning scholarship offers from universities that would compete on the national stage. His talents playing baseball and basketball in high school still earn mentions when the news media profile him. In college, he set records for passing at his school, once throwing for six touchdowns in a single game. During his senior year in college, he threw for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. He even caught two touchdowns while on the roster as quarterback.
Of course, you know who I’m writing about.
This freak athlete? It’s not Patrick Mahomes, the All-Pro, MVP, celebrity quarterback for the Chiefs.
It’s Chris Oladokun, the team’s practice team quarterback, who doesn’t even get mentioned on depth charts for the position. Three quarterbacks would need to be injured for him to become QB1 for the Chiefs — if even then.
Oladokun, a coveted high school recruit from Florida who has earned a tenuous connection with an NFL team, illustrates two things to me. First, players require extraordinary talents to simply make a spot on a professional roster, whether baseball or hockey, soccer or basketball.
Oladokun’s status also demonstrates the absurd separation between the back-up to a back-up to a back-up, and Mahomes, the star destined for the Hall of Fame.
How can Mahomes be that much better than other quarterbacks, who themselves are almost inconceivably skilled?
To answer this, consider the separation between Mahomes and his fellow quarterbacks. To be clear, these next few comparisons don’t measure him next to practice squad rookies like Oladokun. Instead, we are setting Mahomes next to fellow first-string NFL quarterbacks.
The statistical website fivethirtyeight.com awards Mahomes an ELO score of 280 for his overall performance. The next highest ELO score belongs to his Super Bowl opponent, Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, with 247. That positions Mahomes 10% better than Hurts, the next best quarterback. (If you prefer the QBR rating, Mahomes is still top of the chart.)
Are you comfortable saying that you are 10% better at your job than anyone else in the world? Not me.
Next, we might compare Hurts to the Raiders starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham: He scores a 77, showing that even among these NFL quarterbacks, the performance gap is enormous. And all these quarterbacks, when compared to us fans who struggle to throw a spiral, are complete athletic anomalies.
In addition to Mahomes’ overall quarterbacking scores, consider other specific skills that set him apart. In advance of last week’s AFC championship game against the Bengals, fans worried that Mahomes would struggle because of an ankle injury. Behold his ability to pass from the pocket: His stats on that skill were best in the league, in addition to his precocious ability to improvise when chaos develops.
There’s more. This year Mahomes set a record for the most yards by a quarterback in NFL league history.
And more. Football experts are wowed by his ability to play with and recover from injury earned from his game Jan. 29, and a quick recovery from a gruesome knee injury earlier in his career.
For these reasons, as we watch the Super Bowl, our eyes will be on Mahomes because of his elite resume, those statistics, and his celebrity.
This superstar separation makes sports more fun to watch, regardless of the era. In basketball, it was former Jayhawk Wilt Chamberlain improbably scoring 100 points in a game during a dominant career. It was Wayne Gretzky shattering records for goal scoring and assists in hockey.
Whether they become hero or villain in your life as a fan, it’s fun to have the one-name wonders: Jordan in basketball, Pele in soccer, Ruth in baseball.
This spotlight on the superstars might seem to contradict my point at the start: that even the benchwarmers are fascinatingly talented. But it’s just the opposite.
The pyramid of sports — from the recreational youth sports at the bottom to the international professional leagues at the top — distinguishes anyone who makes it anywhere near the top level. And that ruthless competitive structure makes it absurd that anyone could be that much better than their peers — other professionals who make hundreds of millions of dollars themselves.
The last few months have been a showcase of all-time greatness, in addition to Mahomes. (Of course, you can argue that Tom Brady accomplished more before his retirement last week as an NFL quarterback than Mahomes has.)
Did you know that Michaela Shiffrin is on the brink of becoming the consensus best downhill skier ever by shattering the record for World Cups earned by a single skier? The soccer World Cup in Qatar served as Lionel Messi’s coronation as a generational talent, if not the best ever, in the world’s most popular and competitive sport.
We would expect to see increasingly better performances by stronger and faster athletes because of better coaching, technology, nutrition and specialization. Athletes today are undoubtedly better than they have ever been.
What’s still surprising is how some can elevate themselves above contemporaries who have the same advantages and who strive to be included in the same record books.
So, as you sit down to watch the Chiefs and Eagles in the Super Bowl — or even as you watch a 12-year-old dribble around his opponents on a middle school basketball court — it’s OK to pinch yourself and ask the question.
How did they get to be that good?
Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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