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Tyrann Mathieu's Savage Season

Posted Dec 3, 2015

Safety's drive for memorable 2015 has him in Defensive Player of the Year conversation

Tyrann Mathieu crinkled his brow and shook his head. In all honesty, he had no idea when or where he latched on to the term “savage season.”

All he knew was that it perfectly described his feeling of what he wanted his 2015 to be, after a lost 2014 coming back from a knee injury, after feeling so much frustration. The Cardinals’ safety couldn’t make the plays he was accustomed to making, that he liked to make, and that was simply unacceptable.

It wasn’t anger, exactly. But it was primal. They say Honey Badger don’t care, but he did – deeply.

“I just kind of made up my mind in the offseason I’m just going to go all out, no holds barred,” Mathieu said. “I’m not thinking about nothing but dominating. That was my mindset. I’m still in that mindset.”

Mathieu chuckles. The motivations may evolve but the drive never changes. It is impossible to be a great player in the NFL without being pushed by something. Cornerback Patrick Peterson, his best friend since college, could see it. The two communicated daily. Peterson knew what Mathieu was capable of, seeing Mathieu at Louisiana State and during his rookie season.

In 2014, “it wasn’t the same Tyrann,” Peterson said.

It wasn’t the Mathieu who won the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month award Thursday, as the safety who shined in November for the 4-0 Cardinals. It wasn’t the Mathieu who in four NFC West games this season has piled up four interceptions, a touchdown, a forced fumble, eight pass breakups and 30 tackles – with another NFC West game looming in St. Louis Sunday.

This is a player who admits he gets mad sometimes because people might think he’s only giving 99 percent and, math be damned, he wants everyone to know he’s giving 110 percent all the time.

“When I first came into the league I just wanted to prove to everybody I could play on this level,” Mathieu said. “Now I am at the point where I want to be mentioned only with elite players, elite company.”

The promise of a “savage season” – or “#SAVAGE SZN” as his Twitter account proclaims – has been kept thus far.

Peterson thinks he knows where Mathieu found the term “savage season.” The soundtrack to their offseason – lifting weights in the spring, organized team activities, minicamp – was headlined by the song “My Savages” by the artist Future.

“It’s been on his mind since February,” Peterson said.

Peterson was talking about the song, but he could have been talking about the season to come.

“DAMN, IF ONLY I WAS OUT THERE”

The moment is burned into Mathieu’s brain, and he still hasn’t let it go.

His lost season of 2012 – the season in which he was kicked off the LSU football team – left his life in turmoil. But he also remembers the football, and aching to help the Tigers when he could not.

Specifically, he remembers watching LSU hanging on to a three-point lead in their epic showdown with Alabama with just a minute to go, Alabama at the LSU 28-yard line, and freshman defensive back Jalen Mills – not Mathieu -- coming off the edge to blitz. He remembers Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon chipping Mills briefly and then catching a screen to rumble for the game-winning touchdown.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I’d have been blitzing most likely, I would’ve recognized that play, I’d have made the play, and we’d have gone to the (national) championship,’ ” Mathieu said.

Last year was not 2012. Mathieu’s life is no longer in turmoil. He was, in fact, playing football last season, although his knee was never right and a thumb injury cost him time late. Mathieu still had flashbacks of helplessness as the Cardinals faded down the stretch.

“I’m like, ‘If only my team had me at the best of me,’ ” Mathieu said.

The best of Mathieu was flying around and making plays. But he created tangible goals to define just what savage was supposed to mean.

He wanted eight interceptions (he’s halfway there). He wanted six sacks (unlikely, but he does have one, even if he wishes he could blitz more.) His 70 tackles puts him well in range of the 95 he wanted.

Other statistical marks were in his sights. So was Comeback Player of the Year, a reach given how well teammate Carson Palmer has done. But making first-team all-pro? Defensive Player of the Year? Those could happen. The DPOY talk has increased in recent weeks.

“He’s the guy everyone thought he could be,” Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson said.

Peterson has emerged as more of a leader this season, and defensive end Calais Campbell, with his combination of résumé and experience, has long been a defensive captain. But Mathieu is in that mix now, his relatively high-pitched voice – it wasn’t made for screaming – making more of an impact.

Mathieu said he sensed early in the year that “everyone was waiting on me” to take more of a leadership role. Linebacker Kevin Minter, who played with Mathieu at LSU, said Mathieu was a leader there and such a transition was only natural now.

“Ty’s coming into his own,” Minter said.

Mathieu doesn’t see himself as the typical leader. He is not as much vocal as he is emotional. “I am more passion,” he said.

“I want guys to see me and get more motivated,” he added. “I don’t want to talk a lot. I don’t want to step on guys’ toes, I don’t want to disrespect anybody. I want people to see what I’m doing and then follow suit.”

“HE IS A SPECIAL PLAYER AND HE IS A SPECIAL MAN”

When OTAs began in the spring, Mathieu was a backup.

Rashad Johnson was lining up as free safety. Deone Bucannon was lining up as strong safety (with Sean Weatherspoon with the first unit in base at inside linebacker.) Mathieu has nothing but respect for his fellow defensive backs, but he noticed.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘Wherever coach puts me on the field, I gotta make plays,” Mathieu said. “But that helped motivate me.”

He laughs when it is suggested it was purposely done for motivation. “I think it was really to motivate all of us, even Tony (Jefferson),” Mathieu said. “To take a backseat, it was like purposely they did this but it helped. It brought us closer.”

Defensive coordinator James Bettcher said the lineup wasn’t done for motivation but, because of all the talent in the back end, “we wanted to let it sort itself out and play itself out in all fairness to everybody involved.”

Mathieu, however, was always going to play a huge role.

“There is no doubt in my mind, and really from day one, that he is a special player and he is a special man,” Bettcher said. “Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago about putting him on 6-foot-7 tight ends. Yeah. I don’t lose any sleep over that. Not at all. Not one bit.

“Any challenge that man has in a game, in his life, whatever, he is going to make it his mission to make sure whatever obstacle it is, whatever assignment he has, he can get it done.”

Peterson and Mathieu talked often in the offseason of what they wanted to accomplish this season. Peterson is another form of motivation for Mathieu, as he watches his “best buddy” earn things like the Cardinals’ Man of the Year award Thursday, both proud and also pushed to earn something himself.

Peterson, meanwhile, smiles at the idea Mathieu’s savage season has attracted national attention.

“Once I found out he entered the conversation for defensive player of the year, I was like, ‘This is what we talked about,’ ” Peterson said.

The frustration of last season has long faded. His team is 9-2, his play superb. While his background has made for a rough road at times, it virtually guarantees the motivation won’t disappear. Even if the Cardinals win the Super Bowl, even if Mathieu wins major hardware, he is certain his edge won’t dull.

I’m just fortunate to have this life, so I think naturally I’ll just always have this edge,” Mathieu said. “I want to prove a point. I always want to be the best teammate. I always want to be the best player in the locker room. It just drives me.”

Maybe the “savage season” is fated to have a sequel.

“He’s good and he knows it,” Minter said. “That’s dangerous when it’s Tyrann Mathieu.”

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