• Cut by the Cardinals after declining a pay-cut, the electric but oft-injured hybrid-type safety now is looking for a team where he can win and get the most out of his ability
By Albert Breer
March 15, 2018

Tyrann Mathieu’s been through a lot in his life, but what Wednesday presented him with something new. When the Cardinals made the decision to release him over their contract disagreement, it was the first time he’d ever been cut from a team. Ever.

“Obviously, I was expecting it,” Mathieu told me a couple hours after getting word from the team. “But when it happened, I was still kind of shocked. I was supposedly one of the best players on my team. Now, I’m cut. It was shocking.”

And therein is a lesson for all players signing deals this week: Check your contract, look for the first out the team has in that deal, and know that no matter how great things may be going now, nothing is guaranteed past that point.

It was just 19 months ago that Mathieu—coming off a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season that ended with a torn ACL—inked a five-year, $62 million deal in Arizona, the kind that has players thinking they’ll finish their career in the place they started it. The contract was trumpeted to carry $40 million in “guarantees.” Mathieu wound up making a little less than $22 million of that.

Truth be told, the reality that his circumstances could change started to hit the 25-year-old Mathieu during the early stages of last season. His rookie year ended with a torn ACL in his left knee, his third season was short-circuited by a torn ACL in his left knee, and a shoulder injury hampered him for much of his fourth season before ending it all together.

Going into Year 5, all the injuries and related rehab had taken their toll. And he says it was more about his mindset than his body at that point.

“I wasn’t playing well, I didn’t hit the ground running,” he explains. “And so there was noise, chatter about me and about what I can do and whether I was all the way back from the injuries. I’d listen to the radio, look at articles, they’d put that out there. The Cardinals can cut him. I was aware. So I just tried to put myself in a position where people would want me again. I thought I finished the season strong.

“I had a few years where I’d come back from injuries and play at a high level. And to do that over and over, it was poking at my confidence. That held me back, my confidence level down, and keeping me from what I was having to do.”

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Eventually, it came back. He wasn’t all the way to where he’d been during his breakout 2015 season, but, “I was on that track, believing in myself, being instinctive, and not worrying about messing up and just playing football.”

And Mathieu thinks now with a full offseason, he’ll get there. That brings us back to his contract, which featured figures that required Arizona to take a leap of faith and ultimately challenged Mathieu’s value.

Arizona’s coaching change didn’t help. Where Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinators—first Todd Bowles and then James Bettcher—called for versatile, interchangeable safeties who could slide to corner, new coach Steve Wilks’ scheme would cast Mathieu in a more traditional safety role. That diminished what he was worth.

So Mathieu says the Cardinals first wanted to shave $5 million off the $11 million he was due in 2018. That was about a week ago. When he said no, Arizona came back and asked if he’d take a $3 million pay cut. And when he rejected that, the writing was on the wall, and Mathieu was just waiting for the call that came Wednesday.

What’s next? Well, Mathieu says he’d love to find a football-centric landing spot with strong defensive history. And he says fit will be important.

“It’s not all about money for me,” he says. “I want to go somewhere where I can be completely immersed in football, and it’s not too much about anything but winning. I want to be a part of winning culture, where you feel that all the time. That’s all I want.”

In short, he wants back what he had a couple years ago playing for Arians—a place where he can win and get the most out of his ability. And again, there’s a lesson in there for every player, on how everything can change in the blink of an eye. Mathieu learned it, and he’d be happy to explain it to any younger player.

“I’d tell them, don’t have any regrets, just put your best foot forward,” he said. “And don’t worry about the business of the game, because it can get to you. Just handle what you can handle, don’t set your heart on being with one team, because things can change. I’d tell all those guys to just keep pushing forward.”

And Mathieu can say that now having little choice but to do so himself.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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