Sure, Mahomes has more impressive numbers, a boundless future and the chance on Sunday to win his second Super Bowl. But sometimes, nostalgia beats reason by a touchdown.
My son, Jack, is a teenager, so there is a lot we disagree on. Curfews. Sleep habits. The greatest rapper of all time. (He tells me Led Zeppelin doesn’t count.) The position I’m dug in on, unwisely, is this:
Len Dawson is the greatest quarterback in the history of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Jack, 15, is a Patrick Mahomes guy.
Statistically, I don’t have a leg to stand on. Over 19 seasons, first in the N.F.L. and then the old A.F.L., Dawson threw for 28,711 yards and 239 touchdowns, and put up a quarterback rating of 82.6. Mahomes’s rating stands at 108.7. He is on track to surpass Dawson’s career output within three years, or in only his sixth season as starter.
Championship-wise, Mahomes and Dawson are tied at one Super Bowl victory apiece.
I give Dawson the edge because, well, I’m the father and I say so. Also, he was my own father’s favorite player. He was the quarterback I pretended to be when I was a boy and dropped back into the pocket to throw passes to receivers that were not there.
Still, nostalgia will carry me only so far. If the Chiefs defeat Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in Super Bowl LV, I will happily concede that Jack is the most knowledgeable Chiefs fan in the family. My late father eventually did so for me and my siblings.
The truth is that I can barely argue with Jack now. Beyond Mahomes’s pin-ball-machine-on-tilt numbers, Gumby-like body control and rocket arm, the joy that he brings to an often-brutal game is refreshing.
My son admires Mahomes for the camaraderie he shows with teammates like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. He devours the snippets of Mahomes’s pregame pep talks and sideline chats that find their way onto Snapchat and Instagram. He likes the way Mahomes shows off his sneaker collection and pours ketchup on almost any food.
Jack’s unconditional fandom reminds me of what it was like for me when the strut of a sports hero — Dawson — was proof enough that all was right in the world. It’s different these days for sure, but that universal emotion remains intact.
I’m as old as the Kansas City franchise and came of age when Dawson, Ed Podolak and Otis Taylor brought home the Chiefs’ first Super Bowl title in the 1969 season, defeating the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7.
At barely 6 feet tall and a slight 190 pounds, Lenny, as he was known, looked more like a professor than a football player. Chiefs Coach Hank Stram understood this and invented the “moving pocket” to keep his quarterback safe as well as efficient.
We watched at home as Dawson threw darts, not rockets, to win the game and earn the Most Valuable Player Award. His stat line is pedestrian by today’s standards: 12 of 17 passes for 142 yards and 1 touchdown, a 46-yard toss to Taylor to ice the game.
You cannot watch the familiar NFL Films clip of Stram telling his players to “just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys” without thinking of Dawson.
My family had season tickets, first at old Municipal Stadium, then at Arrowhead Stadium. We have remained very much a part of the Chiefs Kingdom, so red is the only color that matters during football season, and subzero tailgating in Arrowhead’s parking lot is our favorite way to eat a meal. These days we try to make it home for a game each season, but mostly we express our fandom from the couch.
The decades pass, but things stay largely the same. After watching away games on television, my brother, our neighbors and I played tackle football in the front yard. Now, it is two-hand touch for my son and his friends on the asphalt of a New York City park.
Fortunately, Jack has not had to endure anything like the half-century of misery and heartbreak I suffered between that first Super Bowl victory and the Chiefs’ win last year over San Francisco, 31-20, in Super Bowl LIV.
There was a 14-year span when the Chiefs posted an 89-136-3 regular season record, with only a single miserable appearance in the playoffs, a 35-15 loss to the Jets in the 1986 season wild-card game. With the help of Joe Montana, Coach Marty Schottenheimer revived the franchise and took the Chiefs to the A.F.C. championship game in January 1994, only to lose to Buffalo, 30-13.
We were back — sort of. Over the next 22 seasons, the Chiefs won division titles, had three 13-win seasons and returned to the postseason seven more times, but they didn’t win another playoff game until the 2015 season.
Through it all, even long after he was gone, Dawson remained my man. Not only did he win, he was one of us.
In those days, being an N.F.L. great didn’t pay all that well. Most players held jobs in the off-season. After he retired, Dawson worked year-round as the sports anchor for a local station, often going from the practice facility to the studio to report the evening news.
He was an unassuming sort. My brother worked at a popular pizza joint close to the station where Dawson ordered takeout.
“You got an order for Dawson?” the legend would ask my brother each time, even though the retired quarterback, by then in the Hall of Fame, hardly needed to say who he was.
Mahomes has endeared himself to Kansas City in similar fashion even though his $450 million contract makes him one of the highest-paid athletes on the planet, one who is perhaps more likely to have his pizza delivered.
He is scoring good-guy points in his adopted hometown. He used some of his money to buy an ownership interest in the Kansas City Royals. He has a foundation that concentrates resources and attention in helping children. He helped pay the cost of having Arrowhead serve as a polling place in November’s presidential election.
I know these things because Jack told me.
Last year, he and I went to Miami and watched our team win its second Super Bowl. We will watch at home on Sunday.
Dawson or Mahomes, it does not really matter.
For three or so hours, all will be right with the world.