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The Honey Badger Who Got Away

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NFL: AFC Championship-Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Honey Badger is dressed in red and playing in the Super Bowl.

In 2015 that was Tyrann Mathieu’s dream for the Arizona Cardinals.

The 2015 season was rolling along like a charm—-the Cardinals embarked on an unprecedented 9 game winning streak—-winning 6 of those games in prime time on national TV.

On the field and behind the scenes—-Tyrann Mathieu was providing his teammates with the mojo, fearless tenacity and energy that championship teams need.

Tyrann Mathieu was the darling of that team. Here was a guy who had been through so much—-a first round talent who pissed that away at LSU while getting stoned—-but the experience made a man out of him—-and from the moment he became an Arizona Cardinal during the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Tyrann Mathieu was determined to be the Honey Badger of the NFL.

On that extraordinary Friday night in 2013, be honest...what were your emotions when you saw this?

I was ecstatic that the Cardinals would be this bold. And when I watched the Honey Badger’s reaction—-it made me an instant fan to see the moment mean that much to him and his family and friends, especially in light of having to wait two whole nights through 68 selections, to finally land on the 69th pick.

From the moment his games with the Cardinals started, it was evident that Tyrann Mathieu had brought a whole new kind of energy to the defense. He was as focused as a laser beam and as bouncy as a pit bull.

Then, just when the Cardinals got rolling, the star-crossed Mathieu went down with his first ACL tear.

And then in 2015 while the Cardinals were making their Super Bowl run and the Honey Badger was garnering strong consideration for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, he intercepted a pass late in a blowout win at Philly and crumbled to the turf. Another ACL—-at virtually the worst time for him and the Cardinals.

The injury didn't stop Tyrann from exhorting his teammates—-not one iota. In one of the most passionate and inspirational speeches I have ever seen from a Cardinals’ player, Tyrann told his teammates that all he was hearing was people saying the Cardinals should win the NFC Championship for him—-to which he scoffed and said, “Don’t do it for me, because I don't do it for me. Do it for yourselves, because that’s who i do it for. I do it for y’all.”

Do yourself a favor and click on the link—-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxY0FihUSew

After the Cardinals got blown out in the NFC Championship game, the Cardinals and Tyrann Mathieu were never the same.

Steve Keim, in an ultimate act of faith, despite Tyrann’s 2nd ACL surgery, tore up his rookie contract and made him the highest paid safety in the NFL to the tune of over $13M a season.

As I have looked back at Steve Keim’s decision, for years now I have pointed the finger at Keim. Even at the time, as enamored as I was with the Honey Badger, I thought Keim should have waited.

But, today I no longer blame Steve Keim—-I mean look at that speech Honey Badger gave the team. How often have you seen leadership like that?

So then—-the question is and will always be—-why did we see only a shell of the Honey Badger his last two years as an Arizona Cardinal?

Certainly having to come back from yet another devastating knee injury took its toll on Tyrann.

But, clearly, something else was hurting him worse than the knee.

It was, imo, his reaction to the country club culture in the organization—-that the players he avowed he was “doing it for” weren't paying him back in kind. And he got sick of having to do a lot of the dirty work himself, while others around him would not make the same kind of sacrifices.

So—-for those like myself who need to recognize the hurtful truth—-the coaches and players in Arizona who created and maintained a culture that was self-serving, self-aggrandizing and hedonistic, rather than disciplined and sacrificial, were the ones who let Tyrann Mathieu down.

Bill Belichick put it best in 2016 when asked by the media what it felt like to win the opener on the road versus a playoff team and Super Bowl contender like the Cardinals when he said, “that's at least what they say.”

Ouch.

To be perfectly honest—-watching Tyrann Mathieu lose his spirit was one of my worst nightmares as a long-time Cardinals’ fan. I became indignant to the point where I was calling him the “Money Badger.” How could he take the Cardinals’ $31M in guaranteed money and play like a shell of his former self—-for two whole seasons?

How could he scoff at a suggested pay cut? How could he force his way out of town and take less money to play for the Texans and then have the temerity to say that he wanted to “play for a team that is serious about winning”?

How could he turn his back on the franchise who took the risk of drafting him and then took the risk of making him the highest paid safety in the NFL after he suffered a second ACL tear in three seasons?

I know today—-I was wrong about Tyrann Mathieu. You will never hear or see me call him the “Money Badger” again.

Tyrann Mathieu was 100% sincere about who he plays hard for. It’s not about the money, it’s about the team—-and ultimately it’s about the pursuit of a championship.

Sure, he cares about the money and prestige that comes with it—-but that pales in comparison to his desire to win a championship surrounded by dawgs of his own ilk.

Bill O’Brien and Andy Reid have raved about Mathieu’s leadership.

In fact, when Andy Reid wanted to sign Tyrann, he called Bill O’Brien and here is what Reid learned: “We knew that was what we were getting,” Reid said. “I had talked to Bill (O’Brien) actually. Bill would’ve loved to have had him there. It’s just a part of the National Football League and the way it works. He told me that he was a phenomenal kid both on the field and off. Great leader. Kind of had a heads-up on what we were getting here. I just wanted him to be himself. You start having to put things on like that, that normally doesn’t work. Guys read through it. I think it just comes naturally with him.”

Recently, Andy Reid has likened Tyrann Mathieu to Patrick Mahomes: “He’s got a knack for it,” said Reid, discussing Mathieu’s nose for the football. “He’s had it since college — he just had the great feel for the game. When I first had a chance to sit down and talk to him, he reminded me a lot of Patrick (Mahomes) that way. Just their sense of the game and feel for the game — it’s special. Tyrann, I think that’s his strength as a player. He works very hard at the game, but I think he also has this innate ability and instinct for the game.” (Pete Sweeney, SB nation).

Man—-it just hurts that the Honey Badger got away.

It also hurts that he’s been outspoken in encouraging other Cardinals such as Patrick Peterson and David Johnson to do what to takes to leave town, the way he did.

But—-the hope is that the Cardinals, under the auspicious and fresh leadership of Kliff Kingsbury and with Kyler Murray at QB, Larry Fitzgerald at WR and Chandler Jones and Budda Baker on the defense, the culture that once compelled the Honey Badger to escape will finally become a thing of the past.

The Cardinals can counter this with Budda, Kyler, Fitz and Chandler. If it’s one thing we Cardinals fans know about #32, #1, #11 and #55—-they are serious about winning.

Tyrann Mathieu just tweeted to Chandler Jones and Budda Baker how he proud he was of them and how they played in the Pro Bowl.

Thus—-the Honey Badger today is a striking reminder that the Cardinals’ culture needed to change—-because champions play for each other.

I never thought I would feel happy to see Tyrann Mathieu win a Super Bowl with another team—-but—-as it turns out—-I would be ecstatic to see him and the Chiefs get the better of the 49ers. Wouldn’t you?

In 5 days we will find out.