Imagine Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes retired the day after Super Bowl LV — would he be a worthy Pro Football Hall of Famer? Let’s tease out this NFL debate and you can decide for yourself where you’d stand.
Appreciating Mahomes’ résumé thus far
After all, Mahomes is a three-time Pro Bowler, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl MVP, the 2018 Offensive Player of the Year for his 50-touchdown season, and has led the Chiefs to at least one championship. Surround that portfolio with a bunch of Kirk Cousins-type pretty good seasons, and you absolutely have a Hall of Famer. So, really, who cares about those Cousins-type seasons?
Well, Hall of Fame voters generally care because the Pro Football Hall of Fame is so competitive to get into and backlogged with worthy candidates. Let’s explore the Mahomes question further.
Imagine that Mahomes retires next Monday, whether the Chiefs win or lose Super Bowl LV. Let’s not wish some catastrophic injury on the lad.
Perhaps some aliens need Mahomes to become their champion in an intergalactic battle (a Galaxy Quest/The Last Starfighter scenario), or scientists discover that Mahomes’ tears can be used as a vaccine, so he volunteers to be strapped to a gurney to watch This is Us, The Notebook, and the Bing-Bong sequence from Inside Out on continuous loop for the sake of humanity. Would Mahomes’ three years of dominance be enough to rank him among the NFL’s all-time greats?
To find out, NFL Recap looks at a few historical precedents.
Mahomes’ Hall of Fame Case: The Joe Namath Comparison
Namath’s stats don’t look like much now, but he was the best quarterback in professional football from 1967 through 1969. He led the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III, of course. Knee injuries ruined his career. Namath played for 13 seasons but was awful in the final five of them. He’s the closest thing in football history to someone reaching the Hall of Fame based on three years, or one year, or one game.
Namath was a finalist for several years before reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. His enshrinement remains controversial among people who know absolutely nothing about football before the year 2000 besides what they misinterpret on Pro Football Reference. Still, voters of the early 80s were justifiably wary of Namath’s short peak. Ultimately, he got in because of Super Bowl III’s historical importance as much as for his greatness.
Mahomes is a better quarterback than Namath at his late-60s peak. Still, it is hard to argue that Mahomes is as significant a historical figure as Namath. Namath changed the way the Super Bowl is perceived and how television broadcasters and advertisers view the NFL.
Mahomes’ Hall of Fame Case: The Kurt Warner Comparison
Warner was the NFL MVP in 1999 and 2001, led the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV and a close call in Super Bowl XXXVI, and then lost the better part of five years to injuries.
He reemerged from a late-career chrysalis as a Ryan Fitzpatrick-like “mentor” to lead the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008 and the playoffs in 2009. That late-career renaissance is almost certainly what Warner needed to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even with that Cardinals bump and his rags-to-riches storyline, Warner needed three years as a finalist before induction.
Had Warner done nothing except back up Eli Manning and Matt Leinart after his Greatest Show on Turf days, he would probably still be lingering on the Hall of Fame finalist lists. With Peyton Manning entering the Hall of Fame in 2021 (unofficially, until Saturday) and the Manning-Brady generation entering the pipeline, Warner would likely fall by the wayside.
The same thing would happen if Mahomes were to retire next Monday. Imagine him reaching the ballot at the same time as Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. As great as Mahomes is, his accomplishments just wouldn’t quite stack up, especially after we’ve had five years to forget some of the details.
Mahomes’ Hall of Fame Case: The Terrell Davis Comparison
The best recent example of a short-career Hall of Famer — and an interesting comp for Mahomes — is Davis, who was a three-time All-Pro running back from 1996 through 1998, helped John Elway lead the Denver Broncos to a pair of Super Bowls, then suddenly succumbed to multiple injuries and was in the broadcast booth by 2001.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors hotly debated Davis’ candidacy for several years before inducting him with Warner in 2017. The swing votes for Davis were swayed by his postseason impact. Davis rushed for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight postseason games, essentially giving him an extra “season” of greatness in the most important games of his career.
If I were building a Hall of Fame case for Mahomes off of just three full seasons, I would combine these three comparisons.
Mahomes’ postseason impact as a quarterback is clearly greater than Davis’ impact was as a running back, right? And Mahomes’ candidacy doesn’t boil down to career stats but unforgettable moments like his touchdown run against the Houston Texans in last year’s playoffs. In that respect, he’s a Paul Bunyan character like Namath who looms large in fans’ memories.
And like Warner, he was the conductor of an unforgettable offense that’s in the process of changing our expectations about how NFL football is played. Combine Davis, Namath, and Warner in one package, and you absolutely MUST include Mahomes in the Pro Football Hall of Fame class in 2026.
Then, my colleagues would nod and vote for Brees, Adrian Peterson, and Larry Fitzgerald instead.
The Incomparable Comparison
The “is Mahomes already a Hall of Famer?” question is mercifully moot. We’re looking forward to another decade of his excellence and looking forward to nearly a half-billion dollars in compensation for Mahomes.
There’s a slim chance that injuries turn Mahomes into a Namath or Warner. However, not even the orneriest Las Vegas Raiders fans want that. Fate could turn Mahomes into an Aaron Rodgers who enjoys early success and spends the rest of his career not quite duplicating it. But Mahomes could also become another Tom Brady, or something unprecedented.
Oddly enough, a win in Super Bowl LV could close the book on any future Hall of Fame debates for Mahomes. Win two Super Bowls, beat Tom Brady in one of them, and watch even the biggest doubters run for cover. A loss in Super Bowl LV would be far from the end of the world, but it would send Mahomes’ career conversation down a different path. That may not be fair, but it’s how conversations about “legacy” and Hall of Fame debates work.
Of course, history can wait for Mahomes. Right now, he’s the NFL’s best and most exciting player. And next week, that is all that will matter.
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