Patrick Mahomes wasn't even 10 questions deep into his postgame press conference — fresh off being named MVP of his first Super Bowl win — when the Patriots came up.
Bill Belichick's team is, of course, the standard when it comes to modern-era dynasties in professional football. The Chiefs, meanwhile, look poised to be the next with an other-worldly quarterback who's just 24 years old.
So are they, Mahomes was asked? Are they next?
"It’s pretty amazing the dynasty or whatever you want to call it the Patriots have had these last 15 to 20 years," Mahomes answered, "and so for me it’s about taking it one year at a time. We came up short last year. We understood how hard of a challenge it was to get to this position again and we found a way to do it.
"We understand ... it’s going to be the same amount of tenacity and dedication every single day if we want to be here."
Maintaining a certain level of determination to return to the Super Bowl at a rate similar to the Patriots isn't enough. In a league built for parity, it'll require consistent execution both on the field and in the front office. And that kind of sustained success simply hasn't happened outside New England during the NFL's salary-cap era.
If the Chiefs are eyeing that summit, they'll have to continue their climb while doing something the Patriots haven't in a long time: Pay their quarterback a record-setting contract.
BIG-MONEY QB MEAN FLEETING SUCCESS?
Because of his age, his ability, and his watershed achievements, there's little doubt Mahomes will have an opportunity to sign a new contract that rocks the quarterback market this offseason.
"There's no deal to be made," former NFL agent and CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry said last week, "unless he's the first $40 million quarterback, if I'm representing him."
That would exceed the current average annual value watermark set by Russell Wilson's contract, which pays $35 million per year. It would exceed Jared Goff's record maximum yearly salary of $37 million. It would likely exceed the largest contract ever signed (Aaron Rodgers' $175.5 million deal), and it would probably have to outpace the record for money guaranteed at signing (Matt Ryan's $94.5 million).
Despite the fact that Mahomes is under contract for a base salary of just $735,000 in 2020, despite the fact that the Chiefs could exercise his fifth-year option in 2021, they'd likely be saving themselves money long-term by handing their wunderkind passer a new deal.
If they wait? Mahomes could have several more pieces of hardware in his trophy case by then, and players like Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and others will have potentially bumped up the value of quarterback contracts even further.
"This is the most no-brainer contract of the century," said The Ringer's Kevin Clark. "The only question is, how high does it go? This is not a Tom Brady situation. There will not be any discounts here. I think you're looking at $40 million. If Jared Goff is going to count $36 million against the cap next year, the negotiation starts there, and Patrick Mahomes is not going to take Jared Goff money."
Brady's "situation" has been that he's long been willing to accept contracts that pay him below the top-end of the market in order to help the Patriots surround him with talent. That began in 2013 after he'd signed a deal in 2010 that made him the highest-paid quarterback in the league. Patriots owner Robert Kraft didn't want one player taking up too large a percentage of the salary cap, and Brady — who by then had won three titles and married Gisele Bündchen — obliged.
Since 2013, here is where Brady's contract has ranked among quarterbacks in terms of salary-cap figures: fifth, 11th, 14th, 18th, 19th, 11th, 11th. The difference between Brady's contract and the top quarterback cap number year-to-year ranged anywhere from $5.6 million (2014) to $15 million (2018). That space has allowed the Patriots to add veterans to help them remain competitive.
"I think if you get into it, what the Patriots have done when they save their money is they spend it on mid-tier veterans from somewhere else," Clark explained. "Maybe [the Chiefs] don't bring back Tyrann Mathieu, maybe when you're in a tougher cap situation in three years you can't get a Sammy Watkins type . . .
"If you look at the Patriots, if you look at the $13, $14 million they've saved on their quarterback, they've typically spent it on a Kyle Van Noy, those $4 million, $5 million, $6 million, $7 million types. Danny Amendola is a great example. They're not elite. But they're good enough. They're going to contribute. It's a wise way to spend money in the NFL."
Should Mahomes get $40 million per year, the Chiefs may not be able to spend similarly on capable depth.
"Nothing is sustainable in its same form when you have to start paying a quarterback big money," Corry said. "We can look to what happened with the Seahawks. They really hit on a draft back in 2012 when they got Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. And a couple other drafts have been really good. But ultimately they had to make choices on who to keep and who to let go so they couldn't keep that core together indefinitely.
"They paid Earl Thomas. Paid Richard Sherman. Gave some of those guys second contracts. But then you have to sacrifice in terms of your depth, and they started really cutting corners on the offensive line. Once you have a high-priced quarterback, you don't have the luxury to build the depth that you had. And you better hit on your draft picks because you're going to need cheap labor more than anything else."
Corry added: "A great quarterback can mask a lot of mistakes, if you pay the right quarterback. We saw in Indy, when they were very top-heavy cap-wise with Peyton Manning the year he was out with his neck injury, they bottomed out because that high-caliber quarterback who could cover up some of the deficiencies of the team was out."
COUNTERPOINT: DYNASTY IN PLAY
There's a lot that can happen between now and September that will change the 2020 outlook for the Chiefs. Even more between September and Super Bowl LV. The biggest and boldest headline — what might appear the death blow to any long-term dynasty hopes — will be the Mahomes contract, if he gets it.
In speaking with our Tom E. Curran about whether or not New England's time as the premier franchise in the AFC is up, longtime Patriots and Falcons executive Scott Pioli pointed to one hurdle that teams like the Chiefs, Ravens and Texans will have to face: "The large number of young quarterbacks who are still playing on rookie contracts," Pioli said, "the complexion of those teams is going to change."
While the complexion of those teams will change, having franchise quarterbacks in place — even highly-paid ones — is worlds better than the alternative.
Even with Wilson or Manning making gobs of money and eating up large percentages of their teams' salary caps, the Seahawks and Colts remained in the mix because of their quarterbacks. Better that or a mediocre passer with a talented supporting cast? Especially in this day and age, where rules changes have made the passing game king, the former is the easy choice.
Quarterback play is so important, one recent study found, that even a great quarterback on a discount doesn't provide much of an advantage. Because if the quarterback is great, the thinking goes, the team will follow suit regardless of how much he makes.
Pro Football Focus dove deep into Brady's contracts over the years — you can dig into the minutiae here — and found that the discounts he provided the team did little in the way of altering season outcomes. On average, PFF showed using cap figures and their wins-above-replacement metric, the money saved every year on Brady's contracts provided the team with about the equivalent of Giants defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence's impact in 2019.
Lawrence was a productive player as a first-round rookie out of Clemson, but he was not so productive that the argument could be made he was the difference between winning a championship and an early-round postseason exit.
Brady's contracts have helped the Patriots, no doubt. But Brady's play, combined with Belichick's ability to find talent and coach it up — talent acquired in ways Brady's discounts can't account for — have been the reasons for the team's unprecedented run of success.
"Marginal difference," Pro Football Focus senior analyst Steve Palazzolo said of Brady's reduced rate taken in New England. "It was because Brady was just awesome throughout those years . . . The study was essentially: Brady playing elite quarterback for this long, that's what really puts them into position to potentially win these championships. I think the elite quarterback play trumps everything else.
"If you have a Patrick Mahomes, you have to pay him. You have to pay those guys. You have to pay a Russell Wilson. It takes up a big chunk of the salary cap, but it gives you this baseline. You're gonna get close, and then you need some things to happen around that.
"You need to draft well. It puts a little bit of pressure on you, but it's way better than having the 15th-best quarterback or the 20th-best quarterback and needing all those other guys around him to hit. It might be a little more difficult for the Chiefs, keeping that band together, so to speak. But you have to stick with that baseline quarterback because he'll get you pretty far by default every year."
KEEPING THE CHIEFS BAND TOGETHER
Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones was far less diplomatic than his quarterback when asked if Sunday's come-from-behind win Sunday was the start of something special.
"This is the beginning of something, baby," he said. "This is a dynasty."
Jones is one of several young pieces the Chiefs will have to work to retain in order to keep things rolling. He'll hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career this offseason. Coming off a dominating Super Bowl performance, he could be paid near the top of the market for interior defensive linemen.
Tight end Travis Kelce has two years remaining on his deal. Same goes for offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz and safety Tyrann Mathieu. Rookie safety Juan Thornhill and receiver Mecole Hardman could be looking for contracts in the next couple of seasons. Tyreek Hill has sizable roster bonuses headed his way over the next three years that could make it difficult to keep everyone.
The Chiefs will have to draft well. They'll have to find cost-effective gems in free agency. They'll have to make trades for affordable parts. If they're going to pay their quarterback at the top of the market, it's not impossible to keep winning. It simply gets harder. The margins will tighten.
The Seahawks, despite having their roster depleted of talent since re-signing Wilson, were inches away from beating the Niners at home at the end of the regular season and having a better seed headed into the postseason. San Francisco, meanwhile, made Jimmy Garoppolo the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL (briefly) and had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
"Jimmy Garoppolo made $41 million in cash last year," Clark explained. "He's going to make $25 million, at least, for the remainder of his contract. We talk so much about the discount quarterback thing. I think there's a lot there, but you look at the Niners, and they spent a lot of money on their quarterback. He's not even elite and they're still here. So there's a lot of ways to build a good team and these two teams proved that."
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach, credited with identifying and selling head coach Andy Reid on Mahomes in the 2017 draft, was asked last week if there had been a passing of the baton in the AFC this year.
"We'd like to think so, but there's certainly a lot of talented teams," he said. "Baltimore had a great year. Teams like Tennessee and Houston with the players they have . . . You'd like to think it's a passing of the baton, but we know that being here this year, and hopefully win this thing, but we know being here this year doesn't guarantee anything.
"We have to go right back to work. Once you're here, it's harder to stay on top sometimes than it is to get there. We'll have to work twice as hard now just to make sure we maintain this level of performance."
There's no doubt Mahomes is going to get paid. There's no doubt the Chiefs are going to want to pay him. But can they sustain this level as long as he's on a record-setting contract? Can they approach what the Patriots have done in either of the two separate iterations of their two-decade dynasty?
It's possible. It's just that no one else has done it yet.