Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu puts on his knee brace while the players cleaned out their lockers Monday following the NFC Championship loss to the Panthers.
Before Tyrann Mathieu headed off to the Cardinals' final team meeting of the season Monday, he sat in his locker putting on the bulky brace he must wear on his right leg so soon after ACL surgery.
The All-Pro safety is facing a long road of rehab, although he was optimistic about next season and hoping "I'll be back by summertime."
It can't hurt that the Cardinals are expected to try to work out a contract extension with Mathieu this offseason – he is scheduled to hit free agency after 2016 – despite his injury and the left ACL tear before that. Certainly, Mathieu is open to the idea.
"Obviously, I love this team, I love this locker room, I love the coaching staff, upper management," Mathieu said. "I think this is the perfect place for me. I wouldn't mind spending the rest of my life here."
Mathieu said whether or not he gets a new contract won't change how he will work to play in 2016 – "I don't play for money," he said – and that he wants to have a better follow-up year to this ACL tear than he did to his first injury.
"The first time I was kind of rushing it," Mathieu said. "I wanted to get back so fast I didn't come back quite how I wanted to. Now I want to take my time with this, so I can come back 100 percent and not have one of those 2014 seasons."
PALMER WILL "BREAK THROUGH," OPTING OUT OF PRO BOWL
Carson Palmer met with the media a final time Monday, acknowledging there are going to be those out there who do not think the quarterback "can win the big one" after he struggled through a six-turnover night in the NFC
"Until you do, it's one of those things where you have to break through," Palmer said. "And I will."
Palmer said he felt "extremely confident" in both himself and the team heading into the game. His preparation was good, he said. The execution was not.
While Palmer consistently said his injured finger was not an issue, he is citing the finger as the reason he will not play in this weekend's Pro Bowl. Coach Bruce Arians reiterated he didn't think Palmer's finger was a problem in Carolina, but the coach added he "probably" should have held Palmer out of the season finale against Seattle.
As for skipping the Pro Bowl, "that's the right thing to do," Arians said. "You don't need to take a chance with it."
SECONDARY IN FREE AGENCY
The Cardinals have a lot of players who will be free agents when the league year ends in March, but it is the
secondary that could be most affected. Safety Tony Jefferson will be a restricted free agent, while safety Rashad Johnson and cornerback Jerraud Powers are unrestricted free agents-to-be.
"You're trying to answer questions from your wife whether you should pack boxes or not," Powers said. "I just tell her to hold on a little bit. … Every player thinks about it. You just can't let it affect your play. It's a business at the end of the day. We understand how it goes. All the guys who are here, we want to be here next year because we feel like we have something special, especially in the secondary."
Said Johnson, "I would love to come back to Arizona. I think we have a great group of core guys. I want to be a part of that. Anything I can do on my end to help out, I'll do my best. But I definitely want to retire a Cardinal."
THE ONE-YEAR VETERANS
Two key pieces this season -- running back Chris Johnson and linebacker Dwight Freeney, the team's leading rusher and sacker, respectively – will also be free agents.
Johnson, who missed the last five games and both playoff games with a knee injury, said he'd like to return. He also thinks he can fit in a backfield with David Johnson, who will be the starter going into 2016.
"Me and David, we're two different type of players," Johnson said. "David, he can go into the five-receiver sets and do a lot of those plays that B.A. likes to run. Even before I got hurt, the kind of situation that me and David had – I was doing a lot of the running and he would still come in and do a lot of the running and a lot of the pass plays. I think it's something that could work."
Freeney, who had eight sacks, was near retirement before the Cards called and wasn't committing to playing 2016.
"We'll see what happens," Freeney said. "I'd like to give it a month or so, let whatever emotions kind of die down. This has been a great experience, a great ride."
LOOKING BACK AT THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP
Arians only briefly looked back at the NFC Championship Monday. He said it would take him about 48 hours to get past the loss – at least, that was the hope, given that he doesn't have another game for which to prepare for months.
Not that there was a lot of public analysis needed for the 49-15 decision.
"My hat's off to them," Arians said of the Panthers. "They played well. We did not play well. Why? That's for you all (in the media) to decide and write about. I've got my ideas and that's about it."
Images from the locker room cleanout the day after the 2015 season ended