Super Bowl

With Mahomes vs. Brady, the NFL has its own Jordan-vs.-LeBron debate

With Mahomes vs. Brady, the NFL has its own Jordan-vs.-LeBron debate

Patrick Mahomes didn’t just cement himself as the best quarterback of his generation, and one of the best of all time, with his third Super Bowl win Sunday night. He provided us all with sports bar and sports talk radio/podcast debate for the rest of the 2020s.

The NFL now has its own version of the endless, unsolvable Jordan-vs.-LeBron debate: Who’s better, Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady? Form your opinion now, change it as needed.

You probably already have an answer in mind, and that’s fine. We’re still early in the discussion, and that’s the point … we’ve got a long way to go here. But here’s why Mahomes-vs.-Brady has become a debate worthy of GOAT status.

There must be rings, multiple rings. These are the nonnegotiable table stakes. All due respect to the Charles Barkleys, Dan Marinos, Hakeem Olajuwons and Peyton Mannings of the world, but until you get to at least three rings, you’re not part of this conversation. Both Mahomes and Brady, obviously, have hit that mark.

There must be proximity … Jordan retired for good just a few months before James debuted, back in 2003. That was close enough that every NBA fan had plenty of memories of Jordan — and common opponents — to size up James.

Up until the mid-2010s, Brady’s chief historical competition was Joe Montana, the four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But Montana won his last Super Bowl before Brady was out of middle school. Bill Russell was an 11-time NBA champion, but many of those came before Jordan was even born. The farther back legends fade in history, the less they remain part of the conversation.

Mahomes and Brady, of course, have a pitch-perfect crossover: Super Bowl LV, where Brady’s Buccaneers trounced Mahomes’ Chiefs. Mahomes was coming off a Super Bowl win and was the NFL’s heir apparent; Brady reminded him who the top dog still was.

Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes speak after Super Bowl LV when Brady’s Buccaneers defeated Mahomes’ Chiefs 31-9. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

… but not too much proximity. Jordan and James never took the court against one another in an NBA game. But they both played against Kobe Bryant, among others, and the fact that both were able to face down Bryant — Jordan with athleticism and titles, James with the sheer weight of consistent excellence — keeps Bryant out of the NBA GOAT conversation. Sometimes familiarity works against your resume.

The Brady-Peyton Manning debate was always a fascinating one because it was always patently obvious that Manning was a more physically gifted quarterback than Brady … but Brady had the benefit of the entire Bill Belichick Industrial Complex, plus a few lucky breaks along the way. In a debate like this, empirical data works against the spirit of give-and-take. Put another way: seven is more than two, every time.

Mahomes, by contrast, has no real rivals, not right now. There are only three starting quarterbacks — Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson — who have even one ring. (Joe Flacco too, depending on where you slot him.) Mahomes has three. That’s game, set, match to Mahomes until the late 2020s, at least.

There must be struggle. Jordan was the most electrifying player in the league from the moment he first stepped on the court, but it took him seven seasons to become Michael Jordan, Worldbeater. James dragged a collection of Cleveland ragamuffins to the Finals in 2007, his fourth year in the league, but wouldn’t actually win a title for another five years.

It’s tough to remember now, but the Patriots went 10 years almost to the day between winning rings, from their third (over the Eagles in 2005) to their fourth (over the Seahawks in 2015). Brady stacked both the front and back of his career with rings, but there were some fallow years in the middle.

Mahomes obviously hasn’t yet gone through any dry stretches yet — in his worst years as a starter, the Chiefs reached overtime of the AFC championship — but they could be coming. Andy Reid could retire. Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce could break up. Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen could catch fire. The future’s not guaranteed, no matter how bright it looks now.

There must be debate. Here’s where it gets fun. The Jordan-LeBron debate often hinges on titles. Jordan has six championships, zero Finals losses. James has four championships but 10 Finals appearances, including eight straight from 2011 to 2018. Which streak is more impressive? Depends on whether you value victory or longevity.

Again, there are echoes here. Mahomes’ first six years of his career as a starter — six conference championship games, four Super Bowl appearances, three Lombardis — are better than any six consecutive years of Brady’s career, the same way Jordan’s six titles in six full years on the court are better than any six-year stretch of LeBron’s. But LeBron’s longevity and time atop the mountain eclipses Jordan, just as Brady’s 23-year career obviously gets the nod over Mahomes … for now.

What does Mahomes need to do to pass Brady? That’ll depend on who’s doing the judging, but he’ll need a few more rings and a few more Super Bowl appearances, at least. Brady resolved the Montana debate in the most effective way possible: by burying Joe Cool in titles. Mahomes could well do the same, but it’ll take him — at a minimum — most of the rest of the decade to get there.

So. Mahomes or Brady. Who you got? Let the debate begin.


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