Halley’s Comet is visible from Earth about once every 75 years. The natural phenomenon we are seeing right now in the NFL, something also seen by looking up, isn’t quite as rare but close enough. Its last occurrence was almost 35 years ago.
Pro football has not been gifted with a quarterback as young and immediately successful and dynamically electric as Patrick Mahomes since Dan Marino put the swoon over Miami as the promise of 1983 bloomed into an unprecedented ‘84.
Mahomes made his first career NFL start at age 22 years 105 days and Marino at 22 years 24 days.
The stardom of both first-round draft picks was so instantly evident that the Kansas City Chiefs quickly traded five-year starter Alex Smith, just as the three decades earlier the Dolphins traded away David Woodley — who led Miami to the previous season’s Super Bowl just three months before Marino was drafted.
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By age 23 Marino was the league MVP after throwing for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns, both shattering NFL records. His passer rating was 108.9.
At age 23 Mahomes is the consensus midseason favorite to win MVP. His projected totals are 5,157 yards, 51 TDs and a 116.7 rating.
Mahomes, 6-3 and 230 pounds, answers to “The Gunslinger.” Marino, 6-4 and 225, was that archetype long before Brett Favre came along. You could argue Marino grand-marshaled the NFL’s pass-happy era.
Mahomes and Marino both were as good in baseball as they were in football, by the way. They were selected in the 2014 and 1979 MLB drafts. respectively.
Each passer blossomed in his second NFL season, although Marino got a longer look as a rookie. After Woodley started the first five games, with a couple of Marino appearances off the bench, the ball was handed from one to the other on Oct. 9, 1983, the first career start for No. 13, the curly haired kid from Pitt.
He threw for 322 yards and three TDs.
I asked Don Shula once what was going through his mind as he watched Marino start for the first time in the season’s sixth game.
“What took me so long!” Shula said with an impsih grin. “Why didn’t I give him the ball sooner! He was that special right away.”
It isn’t widely known that Shula had Marino call all his own plays during training-camp practices and in preseason games in ‘83 to accelerate his progress.
“Made me study a lot harder,” Marino said.
Miami’s instant star led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl that ‘84 season, though the Fins lost. He thought he would be back plenty. He never got back again. That he failed to deliver the franchise’s first championship since 1973 remained the only permanent smudge on Marino’s Hall-of-Fame resume’.
Mahomes has the Chiefs the current betting favorite (over the Patriots) to reach this season’s Super Bowl from the AFC. It would be KC’s first appearance since the 1969 season, the Chiefs’ only SB win. Can he end his franchise’s epic drought in a way Marino could not?
Mahomes busts out at a good time for the NFL, where finding The Next Great Quarterback has been a Holy Grail of sorts.
Peyton Manning is retired, Tom Brady is 41, Drew Brees will be 40 in January, Aaron Rodgers will be 35 in three weeks and Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers are older than Rodgers.
Who’s next? Who is the Heir to the Air?
Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck (when healthy) all have a case , but none has offered the evidence of prolific, Marinoesque potential that Mahomes is displaying.
The desire for The Next Great Quarterback was underlined in the past draft when five QBs were selected in the first round. But what their teams hope for eventually from Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson — Mahomes is doing now. He is proof, not potential. He is what the Dolphins and so many other teams lack at the moment. And as with Marino, the early sample size with Mahomes is both big enough and strong enough.
“He is absorbing everything,” coach Andy Reid says of new star. “Now we see where it all leads.”
Reid seems to have discovered a gift that will keep giving for 15-plus years.
When he casts his memory back with a smile, Shula can relate.