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SWEET AS HONEY

Oct. 21, 2013
Oct. 21, 2013

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Oct. 21, 2013

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SWEET AS HONEY

WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW ABOUT CARDINALS SAFETY TYRANN MATHIEU? PROBABLY LESS THAN WE THINK WE DO. SO LET'S FOCUS ON THE ONE INDISPUTABLE FACT ABOUT THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR CONTENDER: THIS BADGER CAN BALL OUT

This is an article from the Oct. 21, 2013 issue

AS PART OF this year's rookie initiation, which is not (wink, wink) to be confused with hazing, veteran defensive tackle Darnell Dockett gave each of the Cardinals' young newcomers a haircut. Not the kind that you'd get before a special event. The kind that serves as the legacy of either copious alcohol intake or of a do-it-yourself program without the advantage of a mirror or, well, skill.

Tyrann Mathieu knew this going in. He had watched Dockett butcher one head after another, and when it was his turn to take a seat, Mathieu asked only that the veteran spare his gold Mohawk, which was as big a part of the Mathieu brand as the Honey Badger nickname that he picked up at LSU.

Dockett, who lives life on the boundaries—he once live-tweeted being pulled over for speeding; he broadcast his taking a shower on Ustream; he openly mocked PETA after it complained to the Cardinals and to the feds about his reported purchase of a baby alligator—grinned and nodded. Yeah, yeah. I got you. First Dockett carved his jersey number, 90, into the side of Mathieu's head. Then he bulldozed a clearing through the front of the Mohawk and shaved off the left eyebrow.

The new look was shocking, but the fact that Mathieu barely raised his remaining eyebrow as this all transpired was even more so. The rookie accepted his fate, adjusted to it and moved on, much as he did in the last year when his personal life—and subsequently his NFL prospects—took a detour. First he was dismissed in August 2012 from LSU's football program for multiple failed drug tests; then he was arrested, two months later, for marijuana possession, leading to time in two separate rehab facilities. A narrative had calcified—on social media, in NFL front offices, even in the pages of this magazine—of a troubled young man who had put a promising pro future at risk.

Now, six weeks into the NFL season, it's not Mathieu who is looking for the do-over. That would be the 31 NFL teams that passed on him (most of them multiple times) before Arizona selected the versatile defensive back in the third round of the April draft, 69th overall. Yes, as the Cardinals' nickelback he has emerged—along with the Bills' similarly ball hawking Kiko Alonso and the Jets' human wrecking ball of a tackle, Sheldon Richardson—as a player who belongs in any conversation about Defensive Rookie of the Year. But if you've followed the travails of the Honey Badger, you know, too, that he should be considered a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. A player whose maturity was called into question has proved himself to be a wise head. But this is not a story full of sweeping brushstrokes about a 21-year-old man's character or perceived moral failings. This is a story about football. And Tyrann Mathieu can play football.

IT'S ONE of the seminal sequences of 2013 so far: In the season opener at St. Louis, Rams tight end Jared Cook was off to the races, on his way to a roof-raising first-quarter touchdown. He had found a seam in the middle of the field, and quarterback Sam Bradford hit him in stride for a 20-yard gain. There was nothing but 35 yards of open turf between him and the goal line—or so it seemed until Mathieu, closing what had been a six-yard deficit before Cook crossed the 12-yard line, dived in full stride and punched the ball right out from under the tight end's left arm, allowing Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby to recover in the end zone.

Although that play against the Rams was in heavy rotation on the highlight shows, the Cardinals lost the game. Another play, only a week later against the Lions, though more subtle and less telegenic, is just as effective a representation of Mathieu's football intelligence. Trailing by four and facing fourth-and-four with 1:15 to play in that game, Detroit spread its formation to get the 5'9", 174-pound Mathieu in man coverage on the far right against receiver Nate Burleson, who has three inches, 12 pounds and 10 seasons on the rookie. Based on the Lions' two-by-two formation, Mathieu knew that quarterback Matthew Stafford would likely look for All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson on a slant route from where he was lined up in the right slot, just inside Burleson. Detroit had already run that play from the same formation a handful of times in the game.

But this time Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson jumped Johnson's route, erasing Megatron as an option, and without any extra blockers in the backfield, Mathieu knew that Stafford wouldn't have time to scan back to the other side of the line. That meant the ball would be coming to Burleson on a drag route behind Johnson. Burleson had six catches for 42 yards to that point, having hit pay dirt on plays like this several times. But this time the rook had something special for the vet.

During his film study that week Mathieu had noticed that Burleson didn't protect his chest when coming off the line of scrimmage: He would often face defenders square-shouldered instead of turning his torso to reduce his target area. This, Mathieu believed, made Burleson vulnerable to a disruptive jam in press coverage. Rather than taking advantage of his discovery early in the game, which would have given Burleson time to adjust later on, Mathieu saved his observation for the right moment. Here was that moment.

Mathieu's successful jam at the line of scrimmage caused Burleson to flatten his route, and the receiver came up a yard short of the first down. Game over. Afterward, Mathieu was nonplussed, chuckling at the attention given to the seemingly pressure-packed play. "I'm excited for [QBs] to throw the ball at me because I've got a chance to make a play," he said. "There's no pressure at all."

"He's very smart," observes Cardinals cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, a Pro Bowl corner with the Chiefs in the 1980s and '90s. "He's not going to do dumb things. If he does get beat on a route, I doubt he gets beat on that same route the same way again. He adjusts. I see myself playing the role of a cornerman in a fight: When I see things, I give them to the guys and let them go play. He does that very well."

There is a tone of reverence that has always accompanied talk of Mathieu's athleticism, but of late it has attended discussion of his football acumen, too. Teammates and coaches marvel at how he could go 20 months between organized games yet play at such a high level. (His last real game before that Rams tilt was Jan. 9, 2012, in the BCS title game.) They shake their heads at how the college cornerback could come in and learn two new positions—free safety and nickel—without showing signs of being overwhelmed.

"You have to understand how unusual it is, what he's doing," says Arizona's defensive backs coach, Nick Rapone. "Nickel and safety, those are the positions that make all of the adjustment calls. They're extremely cerebral positions, which is the thing with Tyrann—he's extremely intelligent. The kid knows he makes a mistake as soon as he makes it, and he doesn't [repeat it]."

During film study Mathieu occupies a seat in the front row of the D-backs' meeting room, where he'll fill his spiral notebook with information that's both broad and specific. He recently spent a half hour with me reviewing tape; he broke down route trees and deconstructed plays in which he successfully anticipated a quarterback's intention. On the subject of blitzing, he pointed out how a lineman's footwork was the telltale sign of how he knew he could beat a player off the edge. "Most of those guys are 300 pounds and six-six, six-seven," he says flatly, as if reciting an immutable law of nature. "If they don't kick-step at a 45° angle, nine times out of 10 they won't touch me."

So, yes, there's self-awareness too. Mathieu's quickness is the kind that can't be simulated by opponents in practice—that can be like bringing in a sparring partner in preparation for the speed of Floyd Mayweather Jr. Good luck with that.

Then there's Mathieu's freakishly feline body control. "You could drop him off a building and he'll land on his feet," says Rapone. "His body balance is off the charts; he's never out of football position. No matter what he's doing on the football field, he's always square-shouldered, his knees bent."

Mathieu isn't surprised that he's thriving, but he concedes to being shocked at how quickly everything came back to him after his time away from the game. When he stepped onto the field for OTAs in May, he recalls being eager yet anxious. He wanted to grab everyone's attention. And he soon realized that it wasn't the big plays that he had missed while sitting out—it was the little things, "like your teammates patting you on the back and getting your coaches' recognition," he says. "Even offensive coaches, who don't necessarily have to speak to defensive guys—when those guys speak to you, you know you're playing pretty good football."

The more he plays, the more he impresses, but Mathieu recognizes that he's only at the outset of a journey. He speaks about "the process," about avoiding missteps and about remaining a positive role model for the kids who look up to him.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians observes all of this and sees a model professional, a guy who "practices as hard as you could ever ask a guy to practice, studies the game, is obviously prepared."

His impact has been just as powerful on teammates, many of whom knew the Honey Badger only by the unflattering headlines. "From a veteran's perspective, he's a good rookie in the sense that he doesn't think he's bigger than anyone else," says right tackle Eric Winston. "I tried not to have a perception of what he was going to be, but it's hard not to [wonder] what you're going to get. He just keeps his head down and works and works and works. He doesn't rest on his abilities. That's what will make him a star."

The honey badger, you know (63 million YouTube views and counting!), has been famously referred to by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most fearless animal in the entire animal kingdom. Mathieu, who has never been especially crazy about the nickname, seems himself more nuanced, an attractive nuisance of sorts. He is feral on the field, but he has a gentle soul off it. At LSU he was the homegrown New Orleans kid who won fans over with his tenacity, playmaking ability and infectious smile. Even at his small stature, he backed down from no one in the SEC, home to the biggest and baddest teams in the country. The only thing he took from opponents was the football, setting a school record in just two seasons with 11 forced fumbles. Altogether, he recovered eight spills, intercepted four passes and had six sacks, and he scored four touchdowns, two each on punt and fumble returns, growing so popular that the stories about him took on a folk-hero texture. Have you heard about the kid down South? Goes by the nickname Honey Badger and wears a gold Mohawk. Strikes quicker than a cobra and is nastier than unfiltered moonshine.

So enthralling was every display that fans of the program and throughout Louisiana maintained a soft spot for Mathieu even after he was kicked off the team. His background had made for colorful stories, but married with his various failed drug test results and banishment, a portrait was painted that made the infernally conservative front offices of the NFL question whether he was a character risk. Predraft, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel surveyed personnel people from 12 teams, nine of whom said they flat out wouldn't draft him.

Cardinals GM Steve Keim was among the minority willing to look deeper. "When I got to know the young man in the evaluation process, he was a little different than I anticipated," says Keim. "He had as nice a way about him as any human being, which I didn't expect—I only really knew what I had read or heard. When you take a gamble with players who have had off-field issues, if they love the game and have a passion for it, a lot of times you can steer them in the right direction to avoid those demons."

One of those people helping in the steering, All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald, says that Mathieu is on "high alert" for anyone or anything that might lead to trouble. When the Cardinals traveled to New Orleans to face the Saints on Sept. 22, Keim asked Mathieu if, for his homecoming, the team might set up a private room at their hotel so that he could spend time with family and close friends. But Mathieu declined, pointing out that this was a business trip and that he would say hello to well-wishers after the game. He even changed his cellphone number that week to avoid distractions. In what would seem his most distractable moment, Mathieu had his biggest game to date, racking up 10 tackles and picking off his first pro pass.

MOVING through the team facility at a pace at odds with his football motor—again, with the contrasts—Mathieu projects the ease of a man in no hurry to get where he is going. Likewise, he speaks in a slow, Southern drawl that rarely exceeds library decibels.

But he goes through a transformation when he hits the field. His movements are instantaneous and deliberate, his voice forceful. He believes he can make any play, which speaks to the words SUPER and HUMAN on the heels of his left and right cleats, respectively. When he made his touchdown-saving play against the Rams, Winston rose from the bench and asked aloud, "What happened? Who was that?" When the JumboTron showed Mathieu, Winston was chagrined.

"I should have known," he would say later. "That's the stuff he was doing every day in camp. There'd be a play, and you'd be like, Who's that? Then you'd see it was him and you're like, Oh, O.K. It wasn't even the big stuff—it was the little things. A guy catches the ball and is running free, and the defender [gives up]. But Tyrann takes off down the field just to tag off on him, just to say, Hey, I was there."

Mathieu is bold enough to share his goal of becoming the best player on the Cardinals, but he allows that such a day is far away. He has a micro focus during games but a macro view when it comes to his career. He knows that his leash is more taut than others'. He knows, too, that his teammates have his back. He took no offense at Dockett's rookie initiation. The veteran was so impressed with Mathieu's coolheadedness, in fact, that he purchased a new pair of expensive Air Jordan sneakers for the rookie and promised to take care of him. That puts Dockett in a legion of protectors that also includes linebacker Sam Acho (now on IR) and cornerback Patrick Peterson, a former LSU teammate with whom Mathieu trained for the NFL combine and whose parents he stayed with during his time away from football.

"It means a lot that the guys have accepted and embraced me," says Mathieu. "I'm the youngest on the team, and they treat me like the little brother. It's good to have people still behind me, still encouraging me, still supporting me."

Mathieu's hair has since grown back. So has his left eyebrow. And his reputation? It's coming along just fine.

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Mathieu showed fantastic instincts and athleticism on his first INT, against the Saints. Lined up in outside technique (1) as a slot corner, he played to his safety help and backpedaled a great distance, (2) allowing him to keep an eye on the QB. Receiver Lance Moore stemmed his route (3) toward the pylons, hoping to turn Mathieu around and nullify the help, but the defender remarkably prolonged his backpedal to stay inside and over the top. Tracking the ball through all of this, Mathieu was in perfect position (4) for the pick.

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SAFETY HELP

MATHIEU

MOORE

ROUTE

BACKPEDALING

PHOTOPhotograph by JED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDBACK TO WORK A 20-month layover has proved no obstacle for Mathieu, whose return to form has defied the expectations of the GMs who passed him up.PHOTOL.G. PATTERSON/APPOKER FACE Mathieu's opening-day strip got the Cardinals' defense cookin'. Since then, Arizona has allowed just 12.3 points per game in its three wins.TWO PHOTOSCOURTESY NFL GAME REWINDPHOTOGARY BOGDON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDNOT A STRETCH Mathieu's stats are strong—40 tackles, one sack, one INT—but his feral approach to practice and film are just as impressive.PHOTO