Midway through his first year as an NFL starter in 2018, football fans and media labeled Patrick Mahomes as the best QB in the NFL. Film experts called Mahomes the most talented QB they had studied. Since then, Mahomes won an MVP, a Super Bowl, a Super Bowl MVP, and led his team to another Super Bowl. Columnists wrote that Mahomes could challenge the legacy of Tom Brady, the greatest of all time.
At each stop, fans also begged for someone to challenge Mahomes. Who could rival him for the next decade and half? Even if Mahomes is this era’s Tom Brady, he needs a Peyton Manning, right? Someone has to be the best QB not named Mahomes for the next decade.
Talk show hosts pitched a different name every season. In 2018, it was Deshaun Watson. Waston, whose future is now in doubt, played and won well beyond his years. Lamar Jackson ran away with the MVP of the 2019 season. Jackson’s next-level running ability offset some of Mahomes’ wizardry. Last season, Josh Allen outplayed Mahomes. Allen has Ben Roethlisberger’s size, John Elway’s athleticism, and Brett Favre’s arm.
In the end, comparing Mahomes to those three guys was always a stretch—more wishful thinking than evidence-based.
Through five weeks this season, pundits have compared Mahomes to a new name. Except this time, the new guy isn’t playing the role of Mahomes’ No. 2. He’s a threat to Mahomes’ throne.
Fox’s Jimmy Johnson ignited the conversation on Sunday when he told his co-hosts that if he were starting a franchise, he’d take Justin Herbert first overall.
“If I was drafting in the NFL today, out of all the players, my No. 1 pick will be Justin Herbert,” Johnson said. Wait for it. “Over Mahomes.”
Are you allowed to say that? Johnson just did and he may not be alone.
Colin Cowherd agreed with Johnson and argued Herbert, who is in his second season, is closer to Mahomes than experts admit. Cowherd said Herbert is faster, stronger, and more protective of the football than Mahomes.
On Monday, Stephen A. Smith told Michael Irving that Justin Herbert is better than Mahomes right now. Then in the afternoon, Michael Wilbon said that the debate isn’t Mahomes or Brady, but Brady or Herbert.
“I’ll take Justin Herbert with anybody,” Wilbon said on PTI. “Right now, the way he’s played this season, I will take him over anybody. If I’m going to rank people in terms of if my life was on the line what would I do? It’s Tom Brady and Justin Herbert.”
For the first time since 2018, I wonder whether a current QB could eclipse Mahomes in the next five years. Herbert’s challenge to Mahomes has little to do with Mahomes’ recent struggles, which include 13 interceptions in his last 14 games. Instead, it has everything to do with Herbert’s performance.
Part of Mahomes’ appeal was his flawless career start. Yet Herbert is off to a better start than Mahomes. Justin Herbert emerged as a top 10 QB as a rookie one year ago, while Mahomes sat with a clipboard as a rookie. Mahomes had a historical sophomore season, his first as a starter, with 50 touchdowns. 2021 Herbert is as good as 2018 Mahomes. In some ways, Herbert is further along.
Mahomes inherited a well-run franchise, Andy Reid, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and time to learn from Alex Smith. Conversely, the inept Chargers threw Herbert into the fire as a rookie with a low-level coach known as Anthony Lynn. Most QBs would crumble in Herbert’s situation. Instead, Herbert broke records.
Herbert has recorded 5,912 passing yards through his first 20 games, the second-most by any QB in NFL history. In addition, he has had seven games with at least 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, the most by any QB through his first two seasons in the NFL. Now, add in 50 total touchdowns.
On the field, Herbert is closing the gap with Mahomes. Save for the no-look passes, Herbert’s arm is on Mahomes’ level. Herbert is more mobile than Mahomes, and he’s better under pressure.
Every QB has weaknesses. Mahomes can be reckless with the football downfield, even when the opposing team can’t always capitalize on his mistakes:
Patrick Mahomes had 19 dropped interceptions in 2020. pic.twitter.com/cmC8BJx8Lo
— QB Data Mine (@QBDataMine) April 16, 2021
Herbert has flaws — likely hidden somewhere dark.
Then there is the question of team success. Legacy writers, fairly or not, judge QBs by wins and Super Bowl rings.
Following the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory in 2019-20, the football world then wondered how many rings Mahomes would add. Some pundits said as many as six. However, the Chiefs are now going in the wrong direction, similar to the Seahawks after their Super Bowl win and subsequent Super Bowl loss. Kansas City needs an entirely new defense but lacks the cap room to fix it in the coming years. As for this season, forget Super Bowl. Are the 2-3 Chiefs even going to make the playoffs?
On the other hand, the Chargers have a young, retooled roster capable of competing for at least three seasons. Herbert has the opportunity to lead the Chargers to Super Bowl territory starting this year. For Herbert, a pathway to the top exists.
Before Twitter melts down, I’ll say that Justin Herbert has not surpassed Patrick Mahomes on most lists. Perhaps he won’t quite get there. But Herbert is Mahomes’ first real challenger. Herbert is a threat to Mahomes, the kind of threat for which the industry has searched since 2018.
Jimmy Johnson would take Herbert over Mahomes today. An island stays lonely for only a moment.