KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hours before he would stroll across a red carpet in a three-piece suit to once more celebrate a Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes stood on the Chiefs practice field in a uniform drenched in sweat.
He had helped design the championship rings the Chiefs would receive later that June evening, which left this moment here, on the practice field, as a bit contradictory.
How so? He told them to forget about it.
“He was like, ‘Man, celebrate tonight, but we’re only going forward,’ ” recalled quarterback Shane Buechele.
“It was all about next season,” recalled safety Justin Reid.
All about next season.
That is the Chiefs’ greatest challenge this season, and particularly this training camp, which moves into full bore when the veterans join the party Sunday.
It’s a new challenge in 2023, too. Because a year ago at this time, almost everyone who had crossed paths with Mahomes made a point to illustrate how motivated he appeared to be. And they came with examples.
Brett Veach, the team’s general manager, told me a story of how Mahomes basically took over an offensive strategy meeting by standing in front of a TV screen and coaching the receivers. Head coach Andy Reid mentioned Mahomes’ intense focus on every single play. “The ‘Be Great’ is back,” Reid said.
But here’s the thing.
That was easy.
I don’t mean the end result in Arizona last February. Of course the championships don’t come easily. But the ambition? Yeah, that was easy.
In all of those examples, and there were plenty more, did we even need to ask why? We knew. Mahomes had played arguably the worst half of football of his career the previous time he’d stepped on a field, as much the reason for an AFC Championship Game loss to the Bengals as anyone. What kind of reaction did you expect? He had provided a half-decade’s worth of evidence that his very best so frequently follows his very worst.
But he’s no longer standing in the shadows of his worst day.
To the contrary, he arrived in St. Joseph this week on the heels of his best. On the heels of months-long celebration. On the heels of receiving that Super Bowl ring.
He became the first player this century to win the regular season and Super Bowl MVP awards in the same season. In the aftermath, he extracted the built-in motivation.
We often use that word — motivation — and talk about how it might factor into game days. Maybe guys will try that much harder to win games if they’re ticked off. It’s a little too neat, though.
The application instead often arrives during the grind. During the days you feel like taking it a little easier. During, say, a 100-degree day in St. Joseph while participating in what many consider is the most demanding training camp in football.
“Last year, I was trying to tell those guys, ‘Hey, we need to go through this today. I know it’s tough. I know it’s not something we want to do, but you have to do it if you want to win that Super Bowl,’” Mahomes said.
It mattered, he added. Of course it does.
But it helped that they had a reason to care a little more deeply. That particular reason is gone. The motivation will have to come from within. A quarterback who thrives on doubt is suddenly left without much of it.
The Chiefs not only need Mahomes to have the fire, but much of what they do depends on him being able to impress it upon everyone else. He’ll have some assistance from tight end Travis Kelce, often the most vocal player on the practice field.
If it sounds like this is placing doubt on the opening day of full training camp, maybe to a certain extent it is. But if it sounds like misplacing doubt, well, this is something even the Chiefs have considered. Talked about. Will continue to assess.
“There’s a number of guys that do that,” Reid said of where the responsibility falls, before zeroing in on Mahomes and Kelce, “but those two, they’ve got eyes on them. And the way they go about their business is that they want to be great every day and do the best they can do every day. They understand that, through the tough parts of this, it pays off for you down the road.”
There’s a reason it’s been two decades since the NFL crowned the same champion in back-to-back seasons. The Chiefs are one of the many who failed in that quest. The commitment to the little things can tend to turn into contentment with the past big things, and often before you realize it.
It’s a blessing that the most talented player on the roster is also the one who has tended to emphasize every last detail. That’s not just a good place to start but a good place to stay. The Chiefs will need to spend more time this training camp tapping into a Patrick Mahomes quality other than arm strength or an ability to read a defense.
To the trait that delivered a memorable speech inside the halftime locker room of a Super Bowl. To the trait that knew his team matched up better with the Bills last January but wanted to play the Bengals instead.
To the one driven by failure. And to the guy who will do anything to avoid the feeling failure provides — even if he’s not stuck with that feeling now.
The Chiefs need its aftermath just the same.