One of the most fun and subtle things about sports is how they become part of us. Not just the memories, or the excitement. That happens, too, but the point for now is something more gradual and easy to miss.
The rhythms. The language. The lifestyle.
Baseball fans get nostalgic, basketball writers sometimes wear nylon on off-days and football fans are serious. And paranoid.
That might be especially true here at this moment in history — Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback Kansas City has waited to see for decades but never genuinely expected, spending chunks of the offseason doing late-night talk shows, watching basketball games, flying coast to coast and seemingly signing an endorsement for every touchdown thrown during his MVP season.
So, at least a vocal minority of a fan base worries.
You can’t blame them. They’ve been through so much. Lost so many times. They haven’t had it this good since the franchise’s only Super Bowl win a half-century ago, and history has taught them to expect it all to be taken away.
The first theory to materialize: Mahomes might regress because of too much stardom. He will become complacent, or out of shape, or overconfident, or ... something.
Well, here’s a counterpoint: That is all nonsense.
On the first official day of the Chiefs offseason, Mahomes said his only goal was winning a Super Bowl. In a recent email exchange, Mahomes’ agent, Leigh Steinberg, described his client’s priorities like this:
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5) Doing whatever necessary in physical and mental preparation to take the team to the next level.”
There are other points to make here. One of the reasons the Chiefs’ front office and coaches fell in love with Mahomes — and they fell in deep, passionate, platonic love almost immediately — is that he struck them as fully committed to the cause of playing quarterback.
They found his brain and disposition to be perfectly suited for the job. He processes quickly, and has yet to appear rattled. The balance he walks between unshakable confidence and approachable humility is hard to fake.
To divorce himself from such a fundamental part of his personality would be a shocking development.
Some personnel folks in all sports divide prospects and established stars into two groups: those motivated by what they can do in the sport, and those motivated by what the sport can do for them.
A shred of evidence that Mahomes is the latter has yet to materialize.
He has continued to work out. His godfather, LaTroy Hawkins, works for the Minnesota Twins and set up workouts for Mahomes while he was in Minneapolis for the Final Four. There was not one trip or speaking engagement that wasn’t first put through the filter of workouts and sleep patterns.
If anything, Mahomes has become more committed to football. As a rookie, he’d show up to the facility in plenty of time to make his first scheduled meeting or workout. But he soon saw that then-starter Alex Smith had been there for an hour or more, so he set his alarm (and went to bed earlier the night before) to put in more work.
Mahomes has never experienced this level of fame or pressure, of course. Few have. But those who know him well have noticed a sort of addiction to success.
A familiar pattern has emerged: Mahomes tries something, finds a crumb of success, figures out how it happened, then works to recreate and expand it. This has happened with everything from the frivolous (like his golf game) to the serious (like how to read the safety on third and long).
The 2019 season officially began for Mahomes and all of his teammates this week. So much is different. Entirely new defensive coaching staff, largely new defensive personnel, and no uncertainty as to the locker room’s biggest voice.
This is, in some literal ways, the challenge Mahomes was raised for. His two most important male role models — his father and Hawkins — were longtime professional athletes. Big-league clubhouses were Mahomes’ summer camp.
He has watched the process of earning and more importantly retaining respect in real time. Walking away from all of that because of an MVP season and a few commercial shoots would be a rejection of his life’s experiences and priorities.
None of this means he is infallible. None of it means he is perfect. None of it means he will be as good in his second year as a starter as he was in his first.
The bigger challenge will be the actual football. Mahomes grabbed the NFL by the throat in many metaphorical ways and the top pastime of defensive coaches across the league this offseason is figuring out how to stop him.
Strategies tend to evolve quickly, and Mahomes’ offseason began with a cutup of dozens of plays from 2018 — good, bad and everything in between. His footwork could improve, for instance. Same with his pre-snap reads.
This is an absurd thing to say about a guy who just threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns, but personnel evaluators are saying it: Mahomes left some plays on the field last season.
Football coaches and fans tend to maximize their worries. They look for problems to solve.
But the problem for Mahomes isn’t likely to be the distraction of a commercial shoot or appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s TV show. The problem is much more likely to be facing Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in the playoffs again.