Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu walks off the field after Sunday's win over the Giants.
The offseason idea, Tyrann Mathieu had planned a couple of times, was to learn how to play golf.
Patrick Peterson, Mathieu’s close friend, plays, as does Larry Fitzgerald. It looked fun, Mathieu figured, and so he’d zero in on getting a coach and truly getting into the game.
But injuries got in the way – the torn ACL his rookie year, the bum thumb the year after. Any plan started to feel like a jinx. Mathieu is thinking about doing it this offseason again, but “as far as making plans or reservations for it, nah.”
There is still a game to go in Mathieu’s season, so the safety has no desire to challenge karma, not when he’s about to play in all 16 games for the first time in his five NFL seasons. Then again, being careful led Mathieu the wrong way earlier in the season.
After a laundry list of injuries his first four seasons – a torn ACL in each knee, a broken thumb, a wrecked shoulder – Mathieu admittedly lost confidence.
“Always in the back of your mind, you don’t want to get hurt, so you play safe rather than just play your game,”
There is no one on the roster more introspective than Mathieu, and he inadvertently played mind games with himself the first half of the year.
“I didn’t start the season with that intensity and that energy that I always brought to a team,” Mathieu said. “That was the hardest part for me the first six, seven weeks. I’m sure it was obvious to a lot of people.
“The last seven or so weeks, I felt like I’ve been playing very consistent. Clean football. The only thing I can look back on this season, I wouldn’t really say it was a disappointment but it was surprising, I didn’t make as many ‘wild’ plays as I normally would make, even though I had a clean season and technically I didn’t give up any touchdowns. It was missing those wild plays, and that’s what I’ll take from this season.”
The “wild,” or “splash,” plays have been mostly absent. It is inevitable Mathieu’s play is compared to his NFL defensive Player-of-the-Year-worthy 2015, when he had 89 tackles, five interceptions, a sack and more disruptive plays than offenses knew what to do with – all in 14 games, before tearing an ACL for a second time.
He has 72 tackles this season, with a sack and two picks, and a forced fumble. All the turnovers mattered, including a pick in overtime to set up the Cards’ win, and a pick late against the Jaguars to shut down a potential game-winning Jacksonville drive.
But the Honey Badger has been trending up, much like a defensive unit that has been stout – moving up to sixth
in total defense from 24th since Week 10.
"When I watch him play, I see him loving playing now," defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. "Not that he wasn't then, but there was so much focus on whether he was playing well or wasn't playing well, there were some games that Ty played really well and maybe didn't get the credit."
No Cardinal has played more snaps than Mathieu. Defensively, Mathieu has played 998 of the Cardinals’ 1,004 total defensive snaps – 99.4 percent – with linebacker Chandler Jones next at 988. Mathieu has also played another 200 snaps on special teams, and his total of 1,198 total snaps on the field is the most in the entire NFL.
“He’s flying around,” General Manager Steve Keim said recently on 98.7 Arizona’s Sports Station. “The thing you always love about Tyrann is his instincts and his ability to see things before they happen. The fact he’s continuing to get healthier and healthier and he’s improving in confidence and all those sorts of things, (they) are all coming together at the right time.”
Mathieu is guaranteed to earn more than $18 million on his current deal for 2018 and 2019 assuming he is on the roster March 14. It’s one of many things Keim has to consider going into an offseason in which coach Bruce Arians is considering his future, quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will consider retirement, and the Cardinals have a host of free-agent and other decisions to make.
Changes on a team happen every year, Mathieu said. That’s the NFL.
“I’ve been here half a decade now,” Mathieu said. “That’s the nature of the business. When we were winning, we couldn’t keep everybody. Maybe some people weren’t happy. Especially when you lose, you raise a lot of question marks. It’s a high-demand business. Everyone expects perfection even though it’s impossible. I try not to listen to it too much. Obviously it’s in the back of your head. But you’ve got to stay professional.”
That means one more game in Seattle, in which the Cardinals want to play spoiler. And if Mathieu gets through that, maybe he’ll finally be able to get into golf.
“I haven’t even bought golf clubs,” Mathieu said, chuckling. “I’ve got some (golf shirts). I don’t even know what club to use. I have to start from scratch. That was the whole point of me trying to find a coach.”
Images from past matchups between the Cardinals and the Seahawks