Mahomes is king of the hill, but Chiefs now have tougher mountain to climb
Patrick Mahomes will assume the mantle of the league's highest-paid and most-celebrated player, but recent history suggests the Chiefs' path to more titles has become more difficult. Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Mahomes is king of the hill, but Chiefs now have tougher mountain to climb

To the surprise of no one, Patrick Mahomes cashed in. The reigning Super Bowl MVP and 2018 NFL MVP signed a 10-year contract extension with the Kansas City Chiefs, one whose value could exceed $500 million.

It’s a good deal for Mahomes, in the sense that he’s financially set for several lifetimes, and deservedly has both the richest contract in NFL history, and the richest – in terms of total money, if he plays it all the way to its conclusion – in American sports history.

The best player in the NFL will now be paid commensurate to his ability and production, and while the uncertainty of future salary caps clouds just how good a deal this is for both sides, it’s hard to imagine anyone in either party being unhappy.

Now Mahomes and the Chiefs can put any contract worries behind them and get down to the business of trying to build a dynasty in a post-New England AFC. Just one problem: They’ll have to buck recent NFL history to do so. Paying Super Bowl champion quarterbacks is a no-brainer move even when the player in question isn’t as supernaturally gifted as Mahomes. That doesn’t mean it bears fruit, however. Some research on Spotrac unearths grim findings for teams with big-ticket passers.

Dating to 2009, only four Super Bowl winners have featured quarterbacks who accounted for more than 10 percent of their salary-cap space. Two of those instances involved Tom Brady and the Patriots, and Brady was still a massive bargain relative to his production. As the NFL has become a more pass-heavy league, there has been no greater advantage for teams than getting superstar-level quarterback play at a bargain-basement price.

Mahomes accounted for just 2.36 percent of Kansas City’s cap space in 2019, allowing the Chiefs to spend big on players such as Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce. Having Mahomes at a discount rate again in 2020 is the only reason stud defensive lineman Chris Jones is returning on the franchise tag, and it’s also the only reason they can afford to have Watkins, Tyreek Hill and Tyrann Mathieu on the roster despite their big cap hits.

Carson Wentz and Nick Foles represented less than five percent of Philadelphia’s cap space in 2017, and as a result the Eagles were able to field a deep, talented roster of contributors, many of whom made big plays in Philly’s Super Bowl thriller against the Patriots.

Seattle’s dominant Super Bowl win in the 2013 season was keyed in part by the fact that Russell Wilson played like a star despite carrying a cap hit of just $681,085, or 0.49 percent of the Seahawks’ cap space. That level of production at such a team-friendly price is the only reason the Legion of Boom could stay together; once it came time to pay Wilson, Seattle could not afford to keep all of its best pieces. The Seahawks are still very good, and always a threat because of Wilson, but they have a flawed roster that needs sustained brilliance from him in order to win big.

Whatever the cap ends up being, Mahomes has one more year as a relative bargain before the cost of his greatness really kicks in. The Chiefs have a good chance to repeat in 2020, because they’re bringing back nearly the entire roster that won Super Bowl LIV, but things grow murky starting in 2021.

The question is simple: Can Mahomes be great enough for the duration of his contract, or even the majority of it, to lead the Chiefs to multiple titles even with an inferior roster around him? If any quarterback can, he’s the one. There has never been anyone in the league quite like him, and what’s scary is that he has plenty of room to get better, which is absurd and true in equal measure.

If you take him at his word, and there is no reason not to, Mahomes was the league MVP in 2018 despite not really being able to read defenses. Combine his continual mental growth with unparalleled arm talent, plus plenty of mobility and toughness, you have a mold-breaking performer. If anyone in the NFL is worth $45 million annually, it’s him.  

Recent NFL history shows that you can pay your quarterback top dollar, or you can win a Super Bowl, but you can’t do both. Patrick Mahomes is not yet 25 but already has a league and Super Bowl MVP in his trophy case; if he manages to defy conventional wisdom and win more titles as the NFL’s highest-paid player, it will be his most impressive accomplishment of all.

Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.

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