It’s hard to win a football championship with a bad defense, but it’s impossible to win with a bad quarterback. And as the position has grown in importance, so too has Texas become one of the nation’s most crucial proving grounds for young passers.
Some of that top-flight talent ended up playing their college ball outside of Texas—Super Bowl MVP (and Westlake grad) Nick Foles went to Arizona, while Stratford alum and perennial Pro Bowler (up until his surprise retirement) Andrew Luck opted for Stanford—but the list of great college quarterbacks from Texas over the past two decades is a who’s who of NFL talent: Vince Young, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Andy Dalton, Case Keenum, Ryan Tannehill, Colt McCoy—and, of course, Patrick Mahomes.
The expectations for many of those players in the NFL were sky-high. Young—who entered the league after a legendary Rose Bowl finish, and whose Vince Young Steakhouse still attracts Longhorn faithful to Austin years after his playing career—was a third overall draft pick. Griffin, coming off a Heisman campaign at Baylor, saw Washington trade a bounty for the right to draft him second overall (Luck, another once-in-a-generation talent, went first in 2012). Tannehill was selected ninth overall, while Manziel was a first-round pick who entered the league as one of the most intriguing (and risky) prospects in recent NFL history. Dalton, drafted in the second round, become a three-time Pro Bowler; Keenum was less heralded upon his entrance to the NFL, but proved himself a capable pro starter and led the Minnesota Vikings to the 2017 NFL playoffs. Even McCoy, a third-round pick who hasn’t played much in the NFL, has carved out a decade-long career as a backup.
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Some of these quarterbacks’ legacies are so big, in fact, that the University of Texas retired Young’s and McCoy’s numbers. There’s a statue of RG3 outside Baylor’s stadium. Manziel, Dalton, and Keenum hold a number of team (and NCAA) records. But in only his second season as a starter, Mahomes, from Texas Tech, has established himself as the kind of superstar QB that the league hasn’t produced in years. The list of NFL quarterbacks who get words like “elite” applied to them without equivocation hasn’t changed much in the past decade: Drew Brees (an Austin native who played his college ball at Purdue) and Tom Brady, plus the now retired Peyton Manning—all of whom started their careers around the turn of the century—as well as Aaron Rodgers and maybe Russell Wilson.
Mahomes has quickly joined their ranks, though. Last year, he led Kansas City to the AFC Championship Game, where the team came within a coin toss of the Super Bowl. (The New England Patriots, who got the first possession in overtime, scored a touchdown without Mahomes ever touching the ball.) This year—despite his gruesome knee injury that threatened to derail the team’s season—he’s done the same thing, cruising past the Texans and the Titans straight to his first Super Bowl appearance.
In just two seasons, Mahomes has already transcended the accomplishments of every Texas college quarterback who came before him this century. Some of what the players who preceded him have dealt with has been unfair—Young was undermined by his head coach, while Griffin was kept on the field during his rookie playoff appearance through an obvious and severe knee injury—while others entered the league with questions about whether their college game would translate to the pros. But if one were to go strictly off the hype surrounding former college football players like Young, Griffin, Manziel, McCoy, and Mahomes, the idea that the final player on that list would be the only real NFL success in the bunch would have seemed improbable.