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Cardinals Camp Report: Super Bowl or Bust

Tyrann Mathieu is finally back on the field after ACL surgery and energizing a team that sorely missed him in the playoffs

GLENDALE, Ariz. — By the time mid-August rolls around, most NFL players wouldn’t mind a few less practice reps. Not Tyrann Mathieu.

On Sunday morning, the Cardinals’ do-it-all defensive back had big plans for his first practice back since tearing his ACL eight months earlier. He told his head coach he’d be doing 7-on-7 drills. Bruce Arians chuckled and told him to talk to an athletic trainer first. A few hours later, Mathieu wasn’t just doing 7-on-7s, he was also working with the starting defense in 11-on-11 team drills. He was only allowed to play two series, and he hung back in the deep safety spot rather than moving up to cornerback and working the entire field. But it was more than anyone expected. As GM Steve Keim says, “You’d have to cut Ty’s head off to get him to stop.”

Mathieu shrugged afterward. “If I am going to practice, let me practice,” he said. “I spectated for too long. Even in the spring, I hated sitting on the sidelines not being able to play. If I am off the PUP list, I am off the PUP list.”

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Mathieu looked comfortable out on the field, running and cutting and chasing receivers. Even if he said he was only moving at 80%—and stopped himself on a couple of occasions from full-on sprinting—his Tasmanian Devil energy invigorated the practice field. Before one rep, Larry Fitzgerald walked across the line of scrimmage to give Mathieu a hug. Just a few days earlier, before the start of the Cardinals’ preseason game in San Diego, Carson Palmer commented to Mathieu, “Man, we don’t have any energy.” They missed having him in the game.

This is the effect Mathieu has on his teammates, from the 36-year-old Palmer down to the undrafted free agents whose alma maters Mathieu has committed to memory. (Chris Hubert? “Fayetteville State,” Mathieu recited to Keim at a recent practice). Three years ago, Honey Badger was a risky draft pick who had been dismissed from the LSU football team, sent to drug rehab and then arrested for possession of marijuana. But today, he’s the lifeblood of a Cardinals team that has a Super Bowl-or-Bust attitude in 2016.

The Cardinals are unusual in that they openly play music in their locker room—on most teams, players use headphones to listen to their own playlists—and the 24-year-old Mathieu is the player whom Arians trusts to play songs that pump everyone up without lyrics becoming too explicit. But nothing stands out more than what happened the night last December when Mathieu tore the ACL in his right knee. Late in a blowout win against the Eagles, he jumped an out route to pick off Sam Bradford and landed awkwardly. Immediately, a team athletic trainer told Keim the dreaded news: Mathieu’s knee felt loose. Arizona clinched the NFC West crown that night, but the locker room afterward was funereal.

“It took all the elation out of winning the division,” Arians says. “I don’t think I even put a hat or T-shirt on. I was concerned with how bad he was feeling.”

“It was devastating from an emotional standpoint,” Keim says. “The players rally around him. That’s why, the day the season was over and the CBA allowed us to start negotiating, that’s when I was ready to start rolling on Ty’s new deal.” Those extension talks began before the bone plugs on the new ACL graft in his right knee had even fully fused to his leg bones. In early August, before he had returned to the field, he signed a five-year, $62.5 million extension.

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The 2013 draft was Keim’s first after being promoted to general manager, and he recalls thinking, There’s no chance I’m taking this guy, because of the off-the-field question marks. Then he watched the tape, and observed the best natural instincts he’d seen in his 16 years of scouting up until that point. The team took Mathieu to a steakhouse on his pre-draft visit to Arizona, and Keim couldn’t get a babysitter that night, so his 7-year-old son tagged along. Midway through dinner, he tugged his dad’s shirt and whispered, This guy is so cool. The Cardinals took Mathieu in the third round, thinking they had the head coach and the veterans in the locker room to put him in the best position to succeed. They probably underestimated how much Mathieu would give them in return.

The only concerns about Mathieu today are his injuries, since two of his three NFL seasons have ended with a serious knee injury. But this second injury was not as serious as the first. At the end of his rookie year, Mathieu tore both the ACL and the LCL in his left knee. It was the first major injury of his life. This time, it was a clean ACL tear, which simplifies the healing process. “Mentally, physically, even emotionally, I wasn’t as drained coming back from this knee injury,” Mathieu says. “I am extremely confident.” Nothing is certain with injuries, but Mathieu believes he is on track to play Week 1 against the Patriots. The Cardinals, of course, have unfinished business from last season.

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“If we fall short of the Super Bowl, it will be a disappointment,” Mathieu says. “Do or die. Great team, talented roster and we have some veterans that we feel like really deserve to win a championship. We really want to do it for guys like Carson and Larry. That’s what is really pushing us and driving us. And B.A. We want to win a championship for him.”

The Cardinals stumbled against the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game last season. Nothing seemed to go right that day, and it’s hard to imagine any one player closing that 49-15 margin of defeat. But Mathieu no doubt transforms the game when he is on the field. Part of his motivation while returning from injury was being that missing piece for a Super Bowl run.

“I would hope so,” he says. “I always watched Ed Reed in the playoffs; Troy Polamalu in the playoffs. Why not Tyrann Mathieu?”

Five Things I Thought About the Cardinals

1. The Cardinals’ reasoning for drafting Robert Nkemdiche sounds a lot like their reasons for picking Mathieu three years ago. The former Ole Miss DT slipped to the end of the first round after a December incident in which he fell out of a hotel window and was charged with marijuana possession. “If we were a team that didn’t have a lot of vet leaders and we were filled with young players that were sort of finding their way as well, there is probably no way we would have felt comfortable taking him,” Keim admits. He says there are about 15 to 20 players with off-field question marks that they take off their board every year, but after getting to know Nkemdiche, they felt confident he could succeed in their environment. “And, quite frankly,” Keim says, “I haven’t seen that many guys with that skill set.” Nkemdiche drew some Darnell Docket comparisons after he was drafted, but Keim points out that he is taller, bigger and faster than the former Cardinal was. Nkemdiche has missed some time this preseason with an ankle injury, but the Cardinals expect him to receive significant playing time in their defensive line rotation this year. While Keim was meeting with The MMQB, the rookie walked by on his way to practice. “I was just telling them why we drafted you,” Keim told him. “Because you know the kind of person I am,” Nkemdiche replied.  

2. Phoenix has gone from a city that didn’t pay all that much attention to football to a city that will be disappointed if this team doesn’t make the Super Bowl. “When I first started scouting here, you could go to Wal-Mart, and if you saw one person with a Cardinals hat, you’d be hitting your buddy and going, ‘Oh s---, there is a Cardinals fan.’ And then you’d probably find out later it was a free giveaway or something,” says Keim, who has been with the organization for 18 years. “Now you are driving down the road, and god forbid you turn on sports radio, it is Super Bowl or bust.”

3. Former Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, hired full-time as a team scout, has his fingerprints on the roster. Here’s one example: He was scouting the NFLPA bowl in January when he spotted safety Marqui Christian from Midwestern State. He came back raving about his range and movement skills. The Cardinals drafted Christian in the fifth round.  

4. Jaron Brown, who made a beautiful 23-yard back-shoulder catch in the Cardinals’ preseason game against the Chargers, has been earning praise from the coaches. The fourth-year receiver has flashed in the preseason before, but what stands out to the staff is his improved consistency down to down. 

5. Second-year RB David Johnson looks really good. And he’s coming off a rookie season in which he scored 13 touchdowns and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Take this as your Fantasy Alert of the Day.

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