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There’s only so much one player can do

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And yet, narratives persist

If you wanted to point to a single day where the downfall of the 2009 Kansas City Royals truly began, Saturday, May 9 is probably it. After roaring out to an 18-11 start, the Royals lost Friday night’s game. No biggie—the team was coming off a six-game winning streak. It happens. But on Saturday, it was time to start a new streak, because Zack Greinke was on the mound.

To that point, Greinke had allowed precisely two earned runs over his previous six games. Three of those were complete games. His ERA stood at 0.40. And on that Saturday, Greinke was brilliant. He pitched another complete game, allowing one run, striking out five, and walking none.

The Royals lost, 1-0.

Greinke turned in one of the most dominant American League pitching seasons in recent memory. He was given the Cy Young Award for his contribution. And yet, the Royals only went 17-16 in his starts. Greinke was remarkably consistent; he allowed three or more earned runs only nine times in the season. But it didn’t really matter. The Royals were so bad. Kansas City somehow managed to lose five times when Greinke lasted seven or more innings and gave up fewer than two earned runs.

So what, then, is Greinke’s narrative that year? Until the last ten years or so, starting pitchers have been held accountable to team wins and losses. Pitching record was seen as indicative of talent, and if a pitcher didn’t win, they weren’t good—period. Of course, anybody who watched Greinke in 2009 knew differently: there’s only so much one player can do in a team sport, and to blame them for things out of their control isn’t fair.

Ultimately, though, fair has nothing to do with it; those arguments will happen anyway. For the player who does everything and can’t get it done, they’re in double jeopardy: they lose the game and they lose the argument. Kansas City sports fans rooting for the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV saw that with Patrick Mahomes, just as many of those same fans did with Greinke. Everybody knew that the Chiefs’ offensive line would have its issues with the Buccaneers’ offensive line. And on an early play in the game, Mahomes bought time from nothing and launched a rifle to wide receiver Tyreek Hill’s face. Hill dropped it.

All throughout the game, the Chiefs’ offensive line, which had been devastated from injuries, functioned like a sieve against the front line of the Buccaneers. And all throughout the game, Mahomes did his best at compensating. And then he did this, which should not be possible:

Mahomes’ final line in the game looks grisly: two interceptions, 270 yards, 53% completion rate, and zero touchdowns. But I implore you to take a look at what he did and what was happening around him. In Super Bowl LIV, he had no help. His offensive line was hilariously overmatched. His receivers dropped crucial passes. And the defense simply did not do its job.

And what’s the narrative going to be out of that game? It will be Tom Brady beating Patrick Mahomes. It will further build on Mahomes’ only other playoff loss, which was to—you guessed it—Brady. At this point, there is no realistic path for Mahomes to overtake Brady on the pantheon of great quarterbacks; Brady’s lead is simply too great, and the narrative hook of defeating Mahomes twice in the playoffs will linger.

Never mind that it was the defense that let Mahomes down in the AFC Championship a few years ago. Never mind it was, well, everybody who let Mahomes down in the Super bowl this year. Narrative is a strong thing, though, and it cares not for careful reasoning.

But, hey, the Chiefs are already Super Bowl winners. They’ve got their trophy. They are in a significantly better place than poor Greinke and the 2009 Royals, who would be stuck in the mud for another five seasons. Mahomes’ greatness will continue. After all, just like there’s only so much one player can do, you can’t win every game as a team, either.