Sam Mellinger

Joe Montana on Chiefs’ QB Patrick Mahomes: ‘He can be as good as he wants to be’

Does Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes notice Mahomes Mania?

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has started noticing how fans are embracing the Mahomes Mania that is beginning.
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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has started noticing how fans are embracing the Mahomes Mania that is beginning.

Joe Montana knows the ugliest fact in Kansas City sports as well as you do. He hears it on TV every once in a while, even now, 24 years after he played his last game here:

The Chiefs have not won a home playoff game since he left.

Twenty-five years ago.

Outsiders often double-take, because in a more sensible world that could not possibly be true. Montana, the Hall of Fame quarterback and four-time Super Bowl winner with the San Francisco 49ers, understands the shock.

“Oh my gosh, it’s absolutely insane to play in front of that crowd,” he said. “Before I came there, (former Chiefs coach) Marty Schottenheimer tried to explain it to me. I’m saying, ‘Come on, Marty. I’ve been to Super Bowls, big games, it doesn’t really matter.’

“And you know what? It was special. It was as different as going from college to the NFL. Yeah, yeah, yeah. People were just insane about their team.”

The last time the Kansas City Chiefs won a home playoff game was in January 1994. What else happened that year?

Montana hasn’t spoken often to Kansas City media, but the memories spill out. He still thinks the Chiefs had a Super Bowl team in 1993 but blew it when they lost homefield advantage with a late-season loss in Minnesota.

That meant playing the eventual AFC Championship Game in Buffalo instead of Kansas City. The wind chill was 12 degrees with a freezing rain that day. Back home in Kansas City, temperatures reached 51.

During the regular season, the Chiefs beat the Bills 23-7 at Arrowhead Stadium. In the playoff game, they lost 30-13 and Montana sat the last 28 1/2 minutes with a concussion.

“That was our own fault,” he said. “I think we had the better team. But I couldn’t throw the ball 10 feet. If we would’ve played at home, it would’ve been a different game for sure.”

That was so long ago, but the Chiefs’ playoff disappointment has only intensified. Montana is obviously best remembered for his time with the 49ers, but he has been thinking more about the Chiefs recently. He picked the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl and is effusive in his praise of Patrick Mahomes.

Montana has had a change of heart here. He’s been close with Alex Smith, Mahomes’ predecessor, for years.

“So when I heard about the trade, I’m thinking, ‘Whoa, I’m not sure about this,’” Montana said. “But I hadn’t seen (Mahomes) play. Man, he’s a pretty special player. He’s special.”

Montana is the first to point out that Mahomes’ physical gifts outweigh his own, but that’s not the first thing he mentions when asked his opinion about the Chiefs’ first-year starter and likely MVP.

“He does all the right things,” Montana said. “He seems to be able to make quick and fast reads, which in today’s age you need to do. He’s very mobile, but he’s not a run-first guy. One of the biggest things he has going for him is he can handle the pocket. He can handle the pocket when he needs to.”

Montana is one of the greatest quarterbacks in football history, an inner-circle Hall of Famer. His excellence was more in the mental than physical, which presumably guides the way he sees football generally and the quarterback position specifically.

Mahomes has had an interesting relationship with the emotional part of being a starting quarterback. He has admittedly and noticeably been overly amped at times, particularly for the start of highly anticipated games, but he’s also been magnificently cool in the biggest moments:

The last drive in Denver, the second half at New England, the fourth-and-9 against the Ravens.

Maybe this is why Montana brought up the lesson he credits to Bill Walsh, about ignoring everything on the outside and believing that you’re good enough that things will work out in the end.

“What happens to a lot of quarterbacks, especially when they’re young, we all make mistakes, right?” Montana said. “He can make up for a lot of things with arm strength. But we all make bad throws, we all throw interceptions, we all drop passes, whatever the position. We all make mistakes. It’s handling those.

“Mentally, if he can handle that, I don’t think there’s an issue. He can be as good as he wants to be.”

Montana does not know Mahomes personally. They’ve never met. But professional football is a small world, word gets around, and Montana says Mahomes already has a reputation as a hard worker and willing learner.

That’s half the challenge, enough that it’s the focus of the answer when Montana is asked what he’d tell him if he ever met Mahomes.

“Well, first, whatever he’s doing, just keep going,” Montana said. “As long as you don’t get overconfident in your ability. I think that’s what gets to a lot of guys quick. You start having success, and especially with people like me we start trying things we don’t have the arm to do.

“He won’t have that problem, but you just start playing a little different. So you just have to take care and understand what got you where you are. Just play the game.”

In the short-term, if he can do that Mahomes might join Montana and Steve DeBerg as the only Chiefs quarterbacks to win playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium.

Do it twice more, and maybe he can join Len Dawson as the Chiefs’ only Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.