Last season, he threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns as a first-time NFL starter. This season began with unabashed speculation that he could surpass 6,000 yards. Remarkably, Mahomes was on pace to make such history after five weeks, but then came an ankle injury that he was determined to play through, and now he’s down for a while with a busted kneecap.
This is bad news, even if it isn’t catastrophic news. Mahomes will recover. Nevertheless, the injury casts doubt over the sustainability of his delightfully unrestrained style of play.
It’s strange to even have to broach this topic because Mahomes was injured on a quarterback sneak, one of the most basic plays in football. He wasn’t out of the pocket being an improvisational genius. He wasn’t extending a play, surprising defenders with his speed and hurling a pass downfield from an impossible angle. He was just grinding for a yard. When he aggravated his ankle injury two weeks ago, it was because an offensive lineman stepped on his foot as he dropped back to pass. These injuries could happen to any quarterback, but they underscore the need for Mahomes to be mindful of playing a safer and even simpler game for the sake of longevity.
He also should resist the urge to come back too soon. The Kansas City Chiefs have Super Bowl aspirations, and there’s a feeling that this is a championship-or-bust year for them. In reality, their window will stay open for much longer. If he can stay healthy and motivated, Mahomes could have 12 to 15 years left on his body and $500 million worth of earnings. His future is too important to risk. It goes beyond his bank account and the hopes of the Kansas City franchise, too. Mahomes is too valuable to the entire NFL.
Early in the season, I wrote about how this had the feel of one of those crazy years in which quarterback injuries dominate the conversation. We’re not even halfway through the 2019 campaign, and that story line continues to burden a strong and competitive season. This Mahomes injury is the worst news of all.
Quite simply, the NFL is way more fun with him as its jaw-dropping star. In only 24 career starts, he has captivated the league in a manner that few young quarterbacks ever have. It’s not just the touchdowns and yards. It’s his audacity, his flair. He has a fresh, unprecedented take on the position. He’s like a more gifted Aaron Rodgers, which is crazy because Rodgers is one of the most physically blessed quarterbacks the game has seen. His combination of arm talent, elusiveness and instinct makes him this stunning evolutionary figure who has the position to redefine quarterback play. Or he might be so far ahead of his time that he creates a standard that won’t be matched for decades.
Or he could be another young quarterback who gets off to an amazing part and then falls victim to the volatile nature of this game. Football has a nasty habit of robbing us. Right now, we’re in an era in which it is torturing some of its preternatural signal callers. Before the season, Andrew Luck called it quits just shy of his 30th birthday because of injuries. Cam Newton, who won an MVP award at 26, has a battered body just four years later. In D.C., you’re too familiar with Robert Griffin III’s stunning, injury-related decline. Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson have suffered major injuries and face constant legitimate questions about the long-term viability of their styles of play.
That is a short list of too many high-end quarterbacks who either have left the game too young, have seen their skills erode too soon or seem at risk for truncated careers. True, some of this is unavoidable because the sport is physical and dangerous. But there’s also a cruel, diabolical reality: The more gifted and athletic the quarterback — the more mesmerizing the talent — the more likely the game is to chop him down.
A simple quarterback sneak led to the first major adversity of Mahomes’s NFL career. So the point isn’t that he should change what makes him special. Eventually, however, he will have to streamline his approach a little for self-preservation. As he takes a break now to rest and rehab, he should consider how fickle health can be in this sport and do everything possible to maximize his chances for longevity. He’s 24 and still rising, rising faster and higher than anyone can fathom. Perhaps a brief pause to assess and grasp it all won’t be such a bad thing.
Don’t rush back, Patrick Mahomes. Please don’t. The game needs your creative brilliance to last as long as possible.