Mahomes is too good to have a rival. He proved Monday night that he is playing a different game than everybody else, with the same wonderment in his eye he had as a kid shagging flies at the World Series that his father’s Mets played against the Yankees two decades ago.
A fake jump pass. Precise throws against the grain. A perfectly placed long ball into the back of the end zone. A touchdown strike while taking a shot to the ribs. A six-point softball pitch to a fullback. A six-point lob to a left tackle. It all added up to pro football’s Big Two being reduced to pro football’s Big One.
The quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs threw for four touchdowns and 385 yards and ran for a score, while the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens threw for one touchdown and 97 yards and ran for no scores. The Ravens lost 34-20 in a fashion that felt a bit similar to their flameout loss to the Tennessee Titans in January, convincing nobody that they represent a good bet to ultimately unseat the Chiefs as AFC champs.
The night was rightfully advertised as a historic matchup of young megastars who have done their teams and their league proud through performance and generosity of spirit. Mahomes had a Super Bowl ring and a league MVP award at age 24. Jackson became the youngest quarterback to win a league MVP award at 23. The distance between the two of them, today, is wider than that sounds. Mahomes is 3-0 against Jackson and, of course, holds a 1-0 lead in Super Bowl titles.
Monday night offered a clash of the NFL’s two most exciting franchise players and their distinct styles. Unlike the quarterbacks who defined the sport’s last epic rivalry — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — Jackson and Mahomes don’t quite play the same game. Jackson has great feet and a very good arm. Mahomes has a great arm and very good feet. When they decide to abandon the pass and take off with the ball, they deploy a different approach to the process.
One looks like he is ripping the heart out of the defense. The other looks like he is playing a practical joke on the defense.
“Mahomes makes great runs, but his runs are like free-form, off-the-cuff,” said Joshua Harris, Jackson’s personal coach. “Even his running style is almost playground-ish; it’s almost like he’s laughing while he’s running. He doesn’t look like he’s really moving, but he’s getting chunks.
“Lamar runs on a mission. He runs with bad intentions, and he’s trying to score. Nobody runs like Lamar runs. I don’t even think running backs run like him.”
Mahomes ran mischievously for a 3-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Jackson rushed with more force for 83 yards, or 57 more than his counterpart did, but never found the end zone. Edge, and a big one, to the reigning Super Bowl MVP.
The good news for Baltimore fans? This was a hyped-up regular-season game, and Jackson has plenty of time to catch up to Mahomes to make this a true rivalry. Manning lost his first six meetings with Brady but ended up winning six of the final 11, including their last three duels in the AFC Championship Game.
The better news for NFL fans everywhere? Sometime in the not-too-distant future, people might look at the classic pocket passer the way they now look at a rotary phone, a typewriter or grainy film of a basketball player taking a two-hand set shot.
“In our minds,” said Harris, “when we’re talking 10 years from now, that generation will be like, ‘What, the quarterback didn’t run in the past? What were you idiots thinking? You just wanted him to stand there and get pummeled?'”
Pro football has finally embraced the obvious, more than a few decades too late, allowing Jackson and Mahomes to turn Monday Night Football into a showcase for arguably the two most accomplished young quarterbacks ever.
Jackson’s inability to beat his friend isn’t for a lack of trying. This past offseason, Jackson again worked on his game with his tutor, the 39-year-old Harris, a former college defensive end who has been a throwing coach, a serviceman in the Air Force, a lawyer, an English teacher and a college team chaplain — a Renaissance man who has helped Baltimore’s quarterback redefine the position. Harris thought Jackson didn’t throw the deep ball late last year as consistently as he did earlier in the season, so they worked on tilting his shoulders for an improved trajectory and an easier ball for receivers to find in midflight. Coach and pupil also worked on aligning Jackson’s feet and using his lower half to achieve maximum velocity on passes traveling outside the numbers.
Harris half-jokingly asked Jackson to ease up on his fascination with sidearm passes. “It’s effective,” Harris told him, “but let’s not do it all the time.”
Jackson’s stated goal, according to Harris, is “to be Tom Brady with 4.4. speed.” But if he wants to go down among the greats, Jackson knows he needs to win the Super Bowl, more than once. And as much as he says he focuses on an opposing team’s defense, not its quarterback, Jackson had to be motivated by Mahomes’ MVP performance in the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
“It was a source of inspiration,” Harris confirmed. “But I love the way it formed and shaped in Lamar’s mind. It was, ‘Let me be a part of that club. Man, that’s awesome for Pat; now I want to join that same team.’
“Lamar wants to be the best, but he genuinely loves every other player. He’s a fan of Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson and Kyler Murray. The rivalry is Lamar vs. Lamar, and I love that about him. He’s the right guy to be one of the leaders of this revolution and new way to play the game, and probably the right way to play the game.”
Archie Manning laughed the other day when told that the NFL had finally come back around to his style of quarterbacking, passing the lead-footed likes of his sons Peyton and Eli along the way. Archie ran for his life more than he actually ran for the horrid New Orleans Saints of the 1970s, but he did rush for 14 touchdowns and more than 500 yards during one season at Ole Miss, and he did run a 10.2 in the 100-yard dash. Players weren’t regularly timed in the 40 back then, but when Archie was asked to do it — by an Oakland Raiders scout before the 1971 draft — he ran a 4.6 with a cast on his broken arm. Archie wasn’t Lamar Jackson, but the man could move.
Archie said he is proud of the success of his former Manning Passing Academy counselors, Jackson and Mahomes, who were among the 40 top college quarterbacks who attend the camp every year.
“I loved watching Lamar play in college,” Archie said. “This is a different thing happening at the quarterback position now, and Lamar and Patrick are leading the way. I think there will always be a place in pro football for a pocket passer, for a Brady or a Peyton, but I think what these young quarterbacks are doing now is great for the league. I just want them to get down.
“With the athleticism and size and strength of linebackers and safeties, it’s more dangerous now than when I played.”
On the rivalry that he lived every day with his son, Archie said that Peyton always felt he was competing against Bill Belichick more than he was competing against Brady. But Archie conceded that Peyton’s AFC Championship Game victories over the New England Patriots minimized the legacy damage done by Brady’s considerable advantage in Super Bowl rings (6-2) and in their 17 head-to-head meetings (11-6).
Lamar Jackson does not have to worry about climbing out of those kinds of depths — yet. For now, Jackson cannot spend any time or energy on winning his rivalry with Patrick Mahomes.
He needs to focus on making it a rivalry first.