Greatness in the National Football League is evaluated through the lens of historical context, which judges the significance of a game, season or career by weighing it against the achievements of those who came beforehand.
It's how we know when a player is truly ascending above what we've witnessed previously throughout the century-long history of professional football, and in the case of Chiefs' tight end Travis Kelce, he somehow continues to shatter the mold at his position.
Now amidst his ninth season in the league, Kelce currently leads all tight ends in receptions (38) and first-down grabs (29) while matching the NFL-lead with 468 receiving yards. He ranks fourth among all players – not just those at his position – with 1,884 receiving yards since the beginning of last season, and his eight 100-yard games in that span rank third.
Kelce is the only tight end in NFL history to amass five 1,000-yard seasons in a career, and remarkably, he's done so by compiling them in consecutive order. He's now well on his way to a sixth 1,000-yard campaign this year, and while Kelce's 1,416 receiving yards in 2020 were the most ever by a tight end in a single season, the 32-year-old pass-catcher is currently only two yards shy of his pace from this time last year.
The man continues to normalize greatness on a yearly basis by somehow finding ways to improve despite the lofty bar that he's set for himself, and it begins with mental preparation.
"I accept the challenge [the coaches present me]. The more I can do, the more the defense has to think about," Kelce said. "I take pride in that and try to use that to my advantage, so I appreciate the coaches testing me mentally every week."
That challenge includes a diverse route tree and an understanding of how various defensive schemes will aim to attack him, but the true brilliance of Kelce's game extends beyond his execution of the playbook. He has a unique feel for the position that cannot be taught, and when things break down offensively, Kelce always seems to find the soft spot in coverage in an effort to make something happen.
"Kelce is a unique individual. He's so athletic, but he also has a great understanding of the game. He has an unbelievable chemistry with [quarterback] Patrick [Mahomes]," said Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy. "They're seeing and making things happen before it even takes place."
Perhaps the best example of that took place during last week's victory over Washington, when Mahomes – facing a long third down – was flushed to his left and didn't have time to adjust his body and make a throw. The play looked dead, but Kelce adjusted course in an instant and got himself open for Mahomes, who flipped a shovel pass to his All-Pro tight end for the conversion.
It's the kind of play that Mahomes has become known for over the years, but Kelce deserves just as much credit for knowing how to get open for his quarterback in the blink of an eye.
"I think he just knows to get to the open space. They were running a double coverage type thing over the top of him, so he stopped and broke back out, then broke back in," Mahomes said. "I didn't think I'd have enough time to get my arm around, so I just put it out there, and usually when it's in his area, he brings it in."
The play illustrated the part of Kelce's game that can't be quantified, but it's ultimately what makes him so special. The numbers and statistics establish his greatness in the context of NFL history, but for anyone who simply watches him play, it's clear that we've never seen a player quite like him before.
"The thing I love about Trav is that he's going to give you all that he has," Bieniemy said. "That's all that matters. You know that when he's needed, he'll find a way to get it done."