There's an old line about leadership, especially in sports. The point is made in different ways, but the general gist is that a star needs to make his teammates better but also understand that if things go sideways nobody is blaming the bench players or the slot receiver.
They're coming after the star.
That's an earned burden, fair or not, and half the process can be understanding that fair is irrelevant. Careers can get stuck without it. The balance is delicate.
We'll come back to that point in a bit, but this is all mentioned to talk about Patrick Mahomes.
This is an important moment in an important season for the Chiefs quarterback. Let's be clear: he's going to be fine. He could throw nothing but pick-sixes the rest of his career and he'd still be an MVP and a Super Bowl champion. No descendant of his born before 2185 will need a loan for college.
But those goals have never been Mahomes'. He's been clear that he wants more. Not just to be great, but to be the greatest. Not just win a Super Bowl, but to win Super Bowls. Lots of people can win once. Legends are made by what happens after the success.
Assuming Mahomes is good enough, he'll have bigger challenges than this. The locker room won't always be his young, this talented, this motivated. Eric Bieniemy will likely be some other team's head coach next year. Tyreek Hill will slow down, eventually. Travis Kelce won't be this good forever.
But here is Mahomes' challenge of the moment: to be the reason the Chiefs escape a relative – by their standards – slump. And to do it with a leadership style that continues to evolve as he does with more experience, more maturity, more demanding expectations for himself and those around him.
You can see that evolution in Mahomes after games, even wins, when he's looked and sounded particularly frustrated – more than in his first two seasons as the starter. It's in two sources inside the organization who see the same thing, including one who texted: "It's what we need."
It's even in Mahomes' answer to a question this week about whether he feels the leadership style evolution that's apparent to others, of going from pure encouragement to more of a mix with challenging teammates.
"Not necessarily," he said. "I think the biggest thing is I've always been someone that loves to challenge the guys in our locker room but always with a positive mentality. And I think whenever you're putting in the work along with the other guys in the locker room that we can talk to each other and really challenge each other every single day and still be best friends in the locker room and everything like that.
"We have a lot of great young veteran guys in this locker room. We've been together a couple years now and we want to be great every single time we hit the field. When we're not executing at the level that we expect obviously we're going to try to challenge each other to be better the next time we're out there."
There's a lot to unpack here. Mahomes' default way of starting virtually every answer is with some form of "Yeah." So, does he genuinely not feel what others are seeing? Are they wrong? These things are subjective.
Or – and here's the more logical explanation – is he wanting to downplay any changes that might be misinterpreted as some departure from who he is, or a sign of a rift that does not exist in the locker room?
Besides, by the end of that answer he is coming close to agreeing with the premise: ... when we're not executing at the level we expect obviously we're going to try to challenge each other to be better ...
Mahomes is gifted in pretty much every way a quarterback can be gifted. His physical gifts are obvious. His mental gifts are easy to spot, too. He is confident enough to push the conventional boundaries of what quarterbacks can do, and humble enough to put the work in and accept coaching. He is adored by teammates, both as a football player and a friend.
Publicly, he also knows exactly what to say, exactly how to say it and (also importantly) what not to say. He came to Kansas City like this.
Mahomes had a different upbringing. You know the basics. Born to two loving parents, including a father (Pat) who pitched 11 years in the big leagues. His other primary male role model was a godfather (LaTroy Hawkins) who pitched 21 seasons.
Along with his mom, the adults in his life felt confident early on that Patrick would be a professional athlete. That meant an additional education, away from school.
Patrick learned sports in a different way. Not just the made shots or missed swings or long touchdowns. But how to be a teammate, how to be a leader. He learned that respect is earned, not claimed, through hard work and production.
He learned that leaders deflect credit, and claim blame. He learned they must simultaneously pull teammates along and invest in them, while understanding that the stars and leaders will be the ones judged on the result.
He learned that basic truth of leadership we mentioned at the top here – the earned and perhaps unfair burden of the star.
Mahomes was just 21 years old when he considered leaving college early for the NFL. When he asked Hawkins for advice they did not talk about arm talent or playbooks. Hawkins asked a simple question: are you ready to lead grown men?
The truth is that Hawkins knew the answer. He wanted to hear Mahomes say it. He did, and the path from there to here began.
From his immediate support system of friends and family, to his trainer, his agents, even the team – Mahomes has been on a sort of year-by-year progression plan.
The results have come quicker than anyone anticipated, but the general structure is there. Year one was about learning, acclimating, putting in that work to eventually earn respect. Year two was about producing. Year three about evolving.
Year four can be looked at as the beginning of seeing Mahomes' full self. He's an MVP, a Super Bowl champion, owner of the richest contract in sports history. There is nothing new for him to achieve anymore, so now it's about repeating success and continually pushing for improvement because the alternative is atrophy.
That's what we're seeing now.
These are absurdly high standards. The Chiefs are scoring 30 points per game, with the league's best passing attack, and they spend their time signing upgrades and talking about what needs fixed.
Mahomes is 25 years old, already with accomplishments only a small number have ever achieved, and he is pushing hard enough that even wins are now often unsatisfactory.
In a lot of ways this is crazy, and we'll see over time if it's sustainable. But it is also the only path toward the goals he and his teammates are claiming.
No dynasty has ever been built by athletes who accept good enough.
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