As the NFL heads into its second century carrying the weight of existential concerns about whether it can survive another 100 years, Super Bowl LIV seems to herald a livelier era for a sport hungry for new faces and new ideas about how the game should be played. And that isn’t just because of Patrick Mahomes, the 24-year-old Kansas City Chiefs quarterback who led his team to a 31–20 comeback victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Before Mahomes took over in the final minutes, this Super Bowl had already been framed as a turning point, something slicker and faster and more entertaining than what audiences had become accustomed to during nearly two decades of a bloodless New England Patriots dynasty. On both sides of the ball, everything about this game was exhilarating. Here were the two fastest rosters in the NFL in terms of pure speed, a pair of teams that rely on misdirection and finesse to complement the ugly physicality of the sport. This game offered a blueprint for professional football’s potentially dynamic future.
For years, the NFL was reluctant to embrace the more diverse and progressive offensive ideas that define the college game. But players such as Mahomes—who has a knack for defying the conventional wisdom as to how a quarterback should play football—have forced veteran professional coaches to incorporate those schemes in order to maximize talents. He makes throws across his body and on the run that have traditionally ended in disaster; he’s capable of jaw-dropping touchdown scrambles that culminate with almost balletic precision. His skill set is broader than that of any other quarterback in NFL history, and he proved that on Sunday night, when he emerged as the most powerful player. The Chiefs twice decided to run a play instead of punting or kicking field goals on fourth downs, which would have been unheard of a decade ago. They also harkened back to the 1940s on another play: a run near the goal line in which four players in the backfield spun around before the snap of the ball, as if launching into a coordinated dance routine. It was football’s past and future, melded into one entertaining package.
Even when the Patriots won exciting Super Bowls, it typically appeared as if they did so by gradually strangling the life out of their opponent: dominating on the defensive side of the ball, running the ball carefully and efficiently on offense, and relying on Tom Brady to make no major mistakes at clutch moments. The team became embroiled in enervating scandals and projected endless surliness. And the players themselves didn’t even seem to be enjoying their own preeminence anymore.
But on Sunday, the Patriots were gone (Brady’s attempt to hijack the Super Bowl via Hulu commercial felt like a naked ploy for attention that viewers were better off ignoring). And here were some new faces to supplant Bill Belichick, a coach who’s comfortable playing the role of diabolical genius, and Brady, who became the greatest quarterback of all time by approaching the position with the precision and calculation of a Westworld android. The 49ers’ 40-year-old coach, Kyle Shanahan, is widely regarded as a savant who constructed a cutting-edge offense around the eclectic assortment of characters he had to work with: a work-in-progress quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo; an emotive and difficult-to-tackle tight end, George Kittle; a fullback, Kyle Juszczyk, who reinvigorated what was regarded as a dying and antiquated position; and a handful of journeyman running backs such as Raheem Mostert, who spent time with six different teams before landing with the 49ers. Shanahan managed to meld old concepts about the sport with new ones, and recasted his offense each week during the season to counter the strengths of nearly every defense he faced. The sport felt fresher than it had in years, as the league was dragged from its traditionally staid ideals toward a product that’s far more interesting to watch.
Maybe you can argue that the Patriots helped with some of that—it was Belichick, after all, who first mainstreamed the idea of attempting to convert on fourth downs in crucial situations. But nevertheless, football needed an infusion of new energy if it hoped to maintain its place as a towering fixture in American culture. That was what viewers got on Sunday night: a Super Bowl that was anything but a bloated drag, at the tail end of a season defined by energetic and diverse and forward-thinking schemes.
It’s just one game, of course, and one season, and it can never give the full measure of what the NFL’s future might look like. It won’t eliminate the grave questions looming over the sport: the concerns about concussions and CTE, the lack of African American head-coaching hires, the problem of domestic violence among its star players, such as the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill, who caught a key pass from Mahomes that turned the game around. But it gave fans hope that maybe there can be a future. At a moment when professional football has become a repository for America’s overarching political and cultural anxieties, it was nice to see the sport right itself—if only for a moment—behind the most dynamic individual quarterback talent maybe ever. Mahomes can’t fix all the game’s problems, but it does seem as if he might be able to find an angle for football to evolve into something better.