Back in 1993, long after he’d finished coaching the iconic Showtime Lakers, the great Pat Riley came up with one of the best sports theories ever — “The Disease of Me”, sometimes known as “The Disease of More”.
The Hall of Fame basketball coach theorized that when sports teams win big, the players on that team will turn their attention to basically looking out for themselves. Inherently, that isn’t a bad instinct, but on a sports team that requires the sacrifice of self for the greater good of the team, it can lead to widespread stat-chasing and attention-seeking, the dual death knells to teams’ championship hopes.
In the NBA, the demise of the Shaq and Kobe Lakers is a great example of this. The genius of the theory swells from the fact it crosses multiple sports. Think of the 2018 Jacksonville Jaguars, who went from the AFC championship game to one of the league’s most depressing situations within two years.
You can bet many across the NFL this offseason were hoping to see shades of the same from the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Led by the game’s best player in 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes, the potential for a Chiefs dynasty became palpable the moment Mahomes coolly led them back from a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit in a thrilling Super Bowl win.
Due to Mahomes’ youth and the infrastructure around him, the Chiefs are poised to be Super Bowl threats for the next decade. The only hope for the rest of the league — beyond injuries, of course — was front-office mismanagement. And there were no shortage of opportunities for that this offseason.
At one point this offseason, Kansas City had $177 in salary-cap space. Despite this, they managed to retain 20 of 22 starters from last season’s Super Bowl squad. They also signed Mahomes to a historic contract worth more than a half-billion dollars, all while still having enough cap room to re-sign star defensive tackle Chris Jones to a lavish contract as well.
A big reason the Chiefs pulled this off was the willingness of Mahomes and Jones to bend a little on the structure of their deals. Mahomes, in particular, had all the leverage to push for whatever he wanted, be it a fully guaranteed contract or a percentage of the deal tied to the cap.
Sure, he signed a baseball-style deal that will essentially guarantee him the total GDP of a small country over the next decade, but the deal also added very little new money to the Chiefs’ cap over the next two seasons and, more important, it allows the Chiefs to plan for future salary caps with locked-in figures for him, a major win.
And because Mahomes conceded on those two points, it gave the Chiefs a chance to bring back Jones, a franchise-tagged pass rusher who was so weary of going-nowhere contract talks that he threatened to sit out the season. That all changed, he says, when Mahomes’ lucrative but team-friendly extension got done.
“When Pat’s deal got done, Pat texted me and said, ‘Let’s get this thing done — I left some on the table, let’s get this thing done,’ ” Jones told reporters during a conference call on Monday. “And that’s when I had the security that me and the Chiefs were going to work something out.”
When Jones said that, you could practically feel agents across the league recoil.
Left some on the table? What??? Why???
The answer is simple: because Mahomes really, really cares about his football legacy. He wants to go down as an all-time great, just like Tom Brady or Joe Montana, and maybe even go down as the greatest.
And just like Brady, who certainly “left some money on the table” during his career in New England, Mahomes prioritized that over more cold, hard cash.
Sure, Mahomes is getting paid a ton but as the greatest asset in pro football, he could have pushed it to the absolute limit. Had he done that, negotiations — which were kept very quiet — might have gotten contentious. Maybe hard feelings start to develop. And by commanding even more, it would have been even harder for the Chiefs to put a team around him like the one that just won a Super Bowl.
Yet, that was a no-go for Mahomes, who is betting that he has everything in place to make a run at multiple rings. Hall of Fame coach? Check. Well-run organization? Check. Cap flexibility in the future to do so? You bet. Brady and the Patriots had many of the same things going for them, and while Brady is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, he won six rings in New England first.
Mahomes isn’t the only one deeming the sacrifice worth it to chase multiple titles, either. During a radio interview Monday afternoon on KCSP 610 Sports Radio, Jones said he plans on winning “five-plus rings” in Kansas City.
It’s a bold belief, the type you better have if you’re a player in an extremely violent game who chooses to take less after not really pushing the envelope in negotiations.
“For me, it was the understanding that me and Pat have,” said Jones, who took a deal with zero signing bonus money to stay with the Chiefs. “We want to create a dynasty in Kansas City. We both have the same goal, create a dynasty and build something special.
“In Kansas City, playing for Coach [Andy] Reid and all of the talent that we have, we all have the same mindset. We want to keep this team together, so whatever we have to do to make sure that we stay together, then we should come together and do that.”
And yes, other organizations will try to convince their players to do the same. But many of those pleas will be scoffed at because NFL players are almost always going to do whatever they can to make the most money they can during careers that don’t last very long. The exceptions come with perpetually winning organizations — of which there are like five — and even then, the Disease of Me is real, folks. You can even argue that after 20 years in New England, it even got to the Patriots this offseason when Brady felt compelled to leave for a place he felt more desired. And yes, chances are that someday, it will ruin whatever dynasty the Chiefs are trying to build.
In the meantime, as the Patriots showed, it can be staved off for years, even decades, provided a team has the rarest of combinations — a selfless, generational quarterback paired with a well-run organization and a Hall of Fame coach.
Without these things, the chances of going down as the GOAT significantly diminish. And without the chance to do that — to go down as the legend of legends — most NFL players won’t be looking to do management any favors, especially in the time of COVID, no matter how much teams try to cite the “solids” Mahomes and Brady may have done their teams in their unyielding pursuit of all-time legend status.
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