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Niyo: Patrick Mahomes is one-of-a-kind quarterback with magic touch

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Andy Reid doesn’t get to feel young often at his age, which is why the Kansas City Chiefs’ head coach appreciated a question he got earlier this week that allowed him the chance.

It was a question ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV about whether a torch is being passed from one great coach-quarterback duo to another. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are sitting home for a change – the latter is a pending free agent, too – and in their customary spot representing the AFC are a 61-year-old coaching lifer in Reid and the league’s reigning MVP in 24-year-old quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Patrick Mahomes

“It’s about the only thing I’m young at,” Reid told reporters, smiling at the podium Wednesday in Miami. “We’re young into that relationship and he’s young in age. We’ve only been doing it here together for a couple of years, where Bill and Tom have been doing it forever. They’ve proven to be what they are, both future Hall of Famers.

“So I look forward to my time with Patrick. And hopefully that happens with us. But right now, we’re a work in progress."

Maybe so, but rarely in the history of the league have we seen a progression quite like what we’re witnessing with Mahomes, a once-in-a-generation talent who is only 35 games into his NFL career but already is shattering records that belonged to the likes of Dan Marino and Joe Montana.

On Sunday, he’ll be the fifth-youngest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, and with a victory over San Francisco – no small task facing a dominant 49ers defense – he’d be the second-youngest quarterback ever to win one, behind only Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XL in Detroit. He’d also surpass Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith as the youngest player ever to win both an NFL MVP award and a Super Bowl title.

“Anytime you’re mentioned with names like that, I mean, it is special,” Mahomes said during one of his final interview sessions in Miami this week. “So I understand that this is a great opportunity to be here. And I’m gonna enjoy it, go out there and have fun and try to be the same guy that I am every other week of the year.”

There is no one else quite like this guy in the game, though. A player that 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh referred to last week as “a superstar in every way you can possibly imagine.” And someone whose teammates have run out of superlatives to describe in just his second year as a full-time starter.

“You can’t say enough about the guy,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “It’s ‘Magic Mahomes.’ He’s gonna do what he has to do to win a football game.”

Even better

If he does it again Sunday, he’ll not only be officially recognized as the face of the league – he passed Brady for No. 1 in NFL merchandise sales this year, by the way – but also a household name outside of the sport, thanks to what his agent, Leigh Steinberg, calls this country’s “huge celebrity-making machine.”

Mahomes already has endorsement deals with Adidas and State Farm and does national TV commercials for everything from ketchup to shampoo. But as Steinberg noted in a recent CNBC interview, “The Super Bowl is the biggest profile-building experience we have in American sports.”

So there’s much more in store if Mahomes can cap a remarkable postseason that began with a pair of comeback wins over Houston and Tennessee and now runs headlong into a San Francisco team that destroyed Minnesota and Green Bay to claim the NFC crown.

"His mobility is unique, his arm strength is ridiculous, and he's very, very accurate,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh says of Patrick Mahomes.

Mahomes won an MVP last year, passing for nearly 5,100 yards and 50 touchdowns, leading the Chiefs to within a play or two of the Super Bowl, losing an overtime heartbreaker to the Patriots in the AFC title game.

But ask Saleh, the Dearborn native in charge of the 49ers’ defense, and he’ll tell you point-blank, the Chiefs’ quarterback “has gotten better” this season, bouncing back from a serious injury at midseason -- a dislocated kneecap that sidelined Mahomes for nearly a month -- and carrying an eight-game winning streak to Miami.

"His mobility is unique, his arm strength is ridiculous, and he's very, very accurate,” Saleh said. “But, what I don't think people give him enough credit for is that he actually plays quarterback. There's a lot of quarterbacks in this league that will say no to (their first read) and then it just becomes street ball.”

And while it might seem like that’s what Mahomes doing when he rolls left and then throws across his body to the right – or when he looks this way and then delivers a no-look pass that way – what he’s really doing is just what comes naturally.

Those “off-platform” throws are a product of his baseball background -- his father was an MLB pitcher and Mahomes was drafted by the Detroit Tigers -- while the ability to extend plays and the confidence to try is due, at least in part, to his photographic memory and lightning-quick mastery of Reid’s diverse playbook.

“Pat is excited about every play,” said Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. “It’s just our thought process, that every play is designed to score a touchdown. … Very seldom do you hear him say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that play.’ He’s excited about anything we’re putting in, because he feels that he can make it work. And that’s the type of mentality that you want from your players, especially at that position.”

'This is the future'

Likewise, this is the position the league is eager to see a player like Mahomes fill, which is the point NFL commissioner Roger Goodell highlighted during his annual state of the league address this week, when asked about the benefit of having Mahomes in a smaller market like Kansas City, which last cheered a Super Bowl team 50 years ago.

“Patrick Mahomes anywhere in the NFL is good for me,” Goodell said. “I have to tell you that not only is he an incredible player, but he is an incredible young man. Wherever he plays in the NFL, he’s going to have an impact.”

This is the first time since the 2012 season the Super Bowl won't feature either Brady or Peyton Manning as a starting quarterback, and it's only the second since 2003 without one of a handful that includes those two, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Roethlisberger. 

To that end, Goodell also noted Thursday that 80 percent of NFL games this season featured at least one starting quarterback under the age of 27. And he pointed to the likes of Mahomes and Deshaun Watson – Goodell also gave a nod to the 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo, who is 28 – as he said, emphatically, “This is the future of our league.”

Win or lose Sunday, Mahomes, the small-town Texas native, likely will be paid as such soon enough. He still has a year remaining on his rookie contract and is due to make just, but there’s an expectation his next contract will set a new standard at $40 million-plus per season. Whatever the price, it’s one the Chiefs, who traded up to select Mahomes 10th overall in the 2017 draft, will be willing to pay for a star who’s not even close to his prime years yet.

“I think I ended up in the perfect place," said Mahomes, who also credits his rookie-year role as Alex Smith's QB understudy for some of his early success. "I’m in a place where the team was already a winning team, a team that had a lot of success and I came in and was able to just be who I am."

Super Bowl LIV

San Francisco vs. Kansas City

Kickoff: 6:30 Sunday, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami

TV: Fox

Line: Kansas City by 1 1/2