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.