Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, the embodiment of the ‘‘it’’ factor, gave Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes the ultimate seal of approval Monday.
‘‘There’s a lot of things that make him a great player,’’ Brady said. ‘‘Obviously, his physical skill set, but I think he’s got the ability to focus when the moments are the biggest, to deliver for his team. That’s the mark of any great athlete, coming through in the clutch. And he’s off to a great start in his career doing that.’’
Brady doesn’t throw respect around lightly. Poor Nick Foles has beaten Brady twice and received nary a postgame handshake. But a quarterback such as Mahomes, who can come up big in the moment and has unique, world-class athletic skills, always has commanded Brady’s attention.
When Brady’s Patriots beat Mahomes’ Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game in 2019 — with Brady barely overcoming Mahomes’ valiant effort to win in overtime — Brady made a point to visit the Chiefs’ locker room for a personal chat with Mahomes. He had seen all he needed to see that this was the future of the NFL.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid saw it, too, when the team was looking for a quarterback upgrade in the NFL Draft in 2017. According to Reid, Mahomes’ ability to focus in the moment wasn’t that hard to see.
‘‘Well, 700 [passing] yards against Oklahoma probably wasn’t bad [as an indicator],’’ Reid said, referring to Mahomes’ 734 yards passing and five touchdowns in Texas Tech’s memorable 66-59 loss to Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in 2016. ‘‘That was a pretty big moment for Texas Tech and for Patrick, for him to be able to do that.
‘‘I’m sure Tom’s heard the same thing said about him. Nobody’s done it like he has over the years in big moments. I think that’s why Tom probably stopped by the locker room to talk to Patrick: He saw himself a little bit right there in Patrick. And there’s that mutual respect.
‘‘Not a lot of guys have that ability to do that, and the fans are lucky to have these two in the game opposing each other because of that. Just that fact that Tom mentioned [focusing in big moments], I think is worth every dime you spend on a ticket right there — just watching those two operate.’’
Indeed. Two days after the Rams and Lions jumped through salary-cap hoops to trade former No. 1 overall draft picks they couldn’t win enough with, Brady and Mahomes were the star attractions of Super Bowl LV’s media extravaganza, ‘‘Super Bowl Opening Night,’’ on Monday. Both events were a stark reminder of the most obvious NFL truth there is: Above all else, get the quarterback right.
Most of the rest of the NFL is bumbling and stumbling trying to capture that magic. The Rams traded Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. The Eagles fired coach Doug Pederson after Carson Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in 2016, hit the skids, fracturing the all-important coach/quarterback relationship. And the Bears are likely to start over again after Matt Nagy was unable to find the Reid touch with Mitch Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017.
That it’s all about the quarterback in the NFL is as old as the Super Bowl itself. But unlike other dominant positions in sports, the quarterback is distancing itself as a key to success. Basketball’s evolution has turned the once-dominant NBA center into a position that almost no longer exists. Baseball lowered the mound and installed the designated hitter to diminish the pitchers’ dominance. And hockey’s rule changes that sped up the game have made even the hottest goaltender vulnerable.
But the ever-protected quarterback is a bigger difference-maker than ever, putting an even greater premium on finding an elite guy. Mahomes, 25, already has won an NFL MVP award and is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. And Brady, 43, has won six Super Bowls and will be playing in his 10th.
The common denominator — besides a knack for being at the right place at the right time — is their seemingly innate sense for the position and uncanny ability to think quickly under pressure.
‘‘I think [Brady’s] done it his whole career,’’ Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said. ‘‘Some people have fast-twitch, reactionary brains — Peyton [Manning], all the great quarterbacks have it. Because if you don’t have it, you can’t be a great quarterback. . . . You’re running all over the place, you can’t make those split[-second] decisions that are right. And [Brady has] always had that. He just has sharpened that tool to the highest degree.’’
The pocket-passing Brady and inventive, free-wheeling Mahomes couldn’t be much more different in style.
‘‘I’m a fan of Patrick Mahomes, [but] I don’t want Tom to play like him Sunday,’’ Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. ‘‘I’d rather he be a little more on schedule in the pocket. But [Mahomes] sure is awful fun to watch.’’
Still, Brady and Mahomes share a mutual respect that was forged after that AFC Championship Game two years ago.
‘‘It was very important to me,’’ Mahomes said. ‘‘It showed that I was doing things the right way. Obviously, I didn’t get to the Super Bowl, but him coming in and saying that he respected what I was doing and how I was playing and the type of person I was, it kind of put a stamp on me that I needed to go in and be even better to get to the Super Bowl.’’