BY: ED COLE
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Everyone in the Cardinals organization, and the entire Red Sea, gasped collectively when safety Tyrann Mathieu went down awkwardly in Philadelphia after intercepting Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford.
It was a routine play that Mathieu does in practice every single day, but on Dec. 20, it wasn’t a routine play. It was a play that ended Mathieu’s season prematurely for the second time in three years.
The toughest part about losing Mathieu, besides him being the heart and soul of the team, is that he was having such a spectacular season – an All-Pro and Pro Bowl caliber season.
Arizona had to move on without Mathieu, whether they wanted to or not, because games still had to be played, and the playoffs weren’t that far away. Mathieu was in Charlotte, N.C., with his team, supporting them the entire way in the NFC Championship Game, which didn’t go their way, as the Carolina Panthers took them apart, 49-15.
“It’s tough man. You never want to end the season like that, especially with the way we got beat,” Mathieu said. “It was just a tough night for us.”
As Mathieu stood on the sideline, on crutches, watching the game, he saw a completely different Cardinals team than the one he was a part of before his injury. It was a team that he’d never seen before, and one he hopes he’ll never gaze upon again.
“We just didn’t play our type of football,” Mathieu said. “The type of football we’ve been playing all year long: Taking care of the football, taking away the football, tackling, blocking. It seemed like we couldn’t do none of those things (on Sunday.)”
Head coach Bruce Arians said it, and the players all said it in the days leading up to the game. They all said that the 14-3 record they had leading to the NFC title game wouldn’t mean a thing if they didn’t win that game, go to Santa Clara, Calif., handle business at Super Bowl 50, and come home with the Lombardi Trophy. After the game on Sunday, Arians and the players stood by those words, but they stood by them with some fire in their hearts, including Mathieu.
“Going forward, I’m sure it’ll (loss to Carolina) be a motivator for us,” Mathieu said. “I know for me, personally, I’m extremely motivated already, and I know a lot of guys in this locker room are.”
As far as the rehab Mathieu’s undergoing on his recently repaired knee, he says he’s about two more weeks away from completing the rehab, and he’s optimistic about a return to the team sometime during the summer.
“I think the next step is getting off the crutches, and taking that first step, and it’s really downhill from there,” Mathieu said. “Once I get off the crutches, things will kind of pick up for me. It’ll get tougher, it’ll get more difficult, but that’s part of it.”
They say experience is the best teacher. They couldn’t be further from the truth, as that describes Mathieu to a T. He tore both the ACL and LCL in his left knee during his rookie season. Those put him out. Then Mathieu tears the ACL in his right knee against the Eagles, and that put him out of commission. Those are horrendous things for any human being to suffer, as Mathieu’s had to endure. What Mathieu did learn about his first injury, and his approach to recovery, is something he’s applying to comeback No. 2, and the recovery from that one.
“I think the first time, I was kind of rushing it. I wanted to get back so fast and help my team, and I didn’t come back quite how I wanted to,” Mathieu said. “For me, I’m just ready to take my time with this, so I can come back 100 percent, and not have one of those 2014 seasons.”
The Cardinals aren’t messing around when it comes to ensuring that Mathieu’s future is with the Cardinals and nobody else.
On Championship Sunday, NFL Network National Insider Ian Rapoport reported that one the Cardinals biggest offseason moves would be “locking up Tyrann Mathieu to a long-term deal.” Right now, Arizona has Mathieu at a steal for next season at a base salary of $675,000. With prorated, roster and workout bonuses, Mathieu’s salary cap number for 2016 comes in well under $1 million at $912,657.
General manager Steve Keim and team president Michael Bidwill aren’t averse to paying their players when they show they’re worthy of being paid more, like they did in giving cornerback Justin Bethel a three-year extension during the season. Bethel played well, and played himself into a nice little payday, and so has Mathieu.
In this day and age that’s seeing so many people concerned about money and how much they’re getting paid or how much they want to get paid for their trade, Mathieu’s the polar opposite. He does it for the love of the game, not the cash and the fame.
“It’s a blessing,” Mathieu said. “I don’t play for money, so it doesn’t really matter to me. That’s not going to distract me, or deter me from my main goal, which is to continue to get better, continue to be a leader, and trying to make this team the best team in the NFL.”
“I love this team, I love the locker room, I love our coaching staff, (and) upper management,” Mathieu said. “I think this is the perfect place for me. I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life here.”