Tyrann Mathieu is changing the game
The Super Bowl champ and Chiefs MVP is the NFL’s new model defender
But what position will he play? Back in 2013, that was the main question on the minds of NFL front-office types about Tyrann Mathieu. That uncertainty, even more than the suspension and off-field concerns that dogged the Heisman finalist, kept one of the best players ever to come out of football factory Louisiana State University from being selected before the 69th pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
But what position will he play?
Seven years later, NFL teams are still asking that question. But gone is the tone of curiosity and skepticism. It’s been replaced with anxiety and fear. Because, for the Chiefs’ opponents, the dilemma that is Tyrann Mathieu is no longer theoretical. Any hope of beating the defending Super Bowl champs depends on knowing not only where on the field Mathieu will be — but what he will be.
The Chargers learned that lesson the hard way last year in a Week 11 matchup with the Chiefs. In shotgun on third-and-8, Philip Rivers surveyed the defense. The Chargers were in a speed trips formation — three receivers left and a tight end opposite. Mathieu was on the right, 12 yards deep, mirroring free safety Juan Thornhill on the left — a conventional alignment for a strong safety, signaling to Rivers a traditional Cover 2. With a perfect 2-beating double-in and clear route combo dialed up, the Chargers had one receiver going long, forcing the playside safety deep. The first in-route dragged the middle linebacker away, leaving the remaining backer in an expanded zone against a receiver. Rivers snapped the ball and whipped his eyes to the left, firing confidently as Keenan Allen wheeled behind the linebacker’s hook zone to drop into a gaping hole just beyond the sticks. It looked like an easy first down.
Mathieu, far from a Cover 2 safety’s deep half responsibility, sliced in front of Allen, intercepting the ball in the hole. Despite his pre-snap alignment, he wasn’t playing safety. He was the middle linebacker in a Tampa 2 zone. Mathieu is one of a few players in the NFL who is comfortable enough to assume the linebacker’s role but even better able to decipher and react to the offense’s attack than a ’backer would be. Now, with the ball in his hand, the onetime return specialist took the ball back 35 yards to the Chargers’ 6-yard line.
In the same way that Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes have settled the debate over pro-style and dual-threat quarterbacks, Mathieu has changed the perception of what it means to be a defensive back. He has become the model defender in today’s NFL: He has the instincts and physicality to play in the box as safety or linebacker, as well as the athleticism to cover receivers and tight ends. He is the skeleton key that can unlock defenses. His All-Pro selection in 2019 tells the story: He earned the AP’s first-team honors as a defensive back and second-team honors as a safety.
Mathieu — who back in 2013 was too small, too controversial, too hard to place — is the most important defensive player on the best team in football, the 4-1 favorites to win a second consecutive Super Bowl. He was the missing piece that turned the Chiefs’ defense into champions. But he didn’t set out to change the game. He just did the jobs that needed to be done. Now his work extends beyond the field of play. “I think I’m centered right now, more than any other time in my life,” Mathieu says. “It’s not about money, it’s not about chasing rings, it’s not about making people feel like I’m this special person.”
After a journey through the NFL with infamous ups and downs, Mathieu, finally, is exactly where he’s meant to be.
“I try my best to be a servant,” he says. “I think the guy who serves, he’s always going to get his blessing. It may not be on his time, but he’ll get it eventually. That’s the space I’m in right now.”
Just before the kickoff of Super Bowl LIV, Mathieu watched a kid deliver the game ball to midfield. Seeing the contrast of the kid’s brown skin and bright yellow mohawk, Mathieu leaned over to a teammate and said, “I started that hair.”
“I’ve always been a leader,” he says now, remembering the hairstyle he made famous when he became known as the Honey Badger at LSU. “I’ve always been a trendsetter. I’ve never really paid much attention to the one eye black, or the blond mohawk — I’ve just done some of those things off impulse, and I think other people ran with it.”
“I think other guys just naturally follow him,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo says. “He’s got one of those personalities. And I’m not just talking about football. Whether it’s his smile or his personality or his intensity, his confidence, his boldness, people tend to gravitate to him, follow him, let him lead and know that he’s going to steer them in the right direction.”
Eight years into Mathieu’s NFL career, he has also steered the way in defensive trends. Jamal Adams and Minkah Fitzpatrick, two of the other safeties named to the AP’s 2019 All-Pro team, are disciples of his do-it-all style. This offseason, Seattle gave up two first-round picks to get Adams from New York. The Cardinals, two seasons after releasing Mathieu, made Budda Baker the highest-paid safety in the league because of his ability to impact the game from everywhere on the field. Logan Ryan played seven seasons and won two Super Bowls as a cornerback, but when the former Titan hit free agency, he and his agent marketed him as a versatile safety, “similar to Tyrann Mathieu.”
And based on this year’s combine interviews, we’re in for a new slew of baby badgers sprinting into the NFL. When 2020 defensive prospects were asked whom they play like, the name cited most was Mathieu. Even 6-foot-4, 238-pound superhuman linebacker Isaiah Simmons said, “The first name that comes to mind is Tyrann Mathieu.” Simmons was later drafted at No. 8 by GM Steve Keim of the Cardinals, the same GM who took a chance on Mathieu in 2013.
Back then, it would be hard to imagine that every defense in the NFL would either have a player it uses like Tyrann Mathieu or be looking for one. In the minds of some NFL decision-makers, Mathieu had fallen from Heisman finalist to practically undraftable after getting kicked off the LSU football team for a failed drug test and arrested for marijuana possession (offenses that, like Mathieu himself, look different in modern context).
His history with weed also branded him a guy with “character issues,” a label that proved to be the most inaccurate of all the pre-draft critiques — and the most painful for Mathieu. To hear analysts paint him as a bad teammate stung. And worse, for months, he couldn’t do anything about it. He was a man without a team, far from the game he loved.
On night two of the draft, he sat in a New Orleans restaurant surrounded by family and friends, with a few purple and yellow balloons hanging on the wall behind him. When his name was finally called in the third round, the room erupted around him. Tears of joy streamed down his face. Upon hearing his name, “I was relieved,” he said, voice still quivering, during his on-air interview. “Seven months ago I didn’t think I’d be here.” Then he affirmed his deepest desire — and put the focus back on the field. “I’m ready to play football now.”
It didn’t take him long to make an impression. Mathieu can recount with pinpoint accuracy the play he says is the most memorable of his career, during his debut with the Cardinals in 2013 — his first competitive football game in 20 months. His NFL career was only a couple of plays old when Rams quarterback Sam Bradford exploited the Cardinals’ inverted-2 man coverage by hitting Jared Cook in stride on a seam route with linebacker Karlos Dansby in coverage. Cook pulled away from Dansby — and the rest of the veteran Cardinals defenders — for what looked like a certain 55-yard touchdown.
Mathieu, playing as the nickelback, darted past his teammates, slowing as they gave up the pursuit, and lunged, knocking the ball free just before Cook crossed the goal line. Dansby recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback. Mathieu sprinted to the sideline to celebrate with his team before the TV commentator could even acknowledge his touchdown-saving effort. As the game went to commercial, Dick Stockton hilariously said, “It remains no score, thanks to Karlos Dansby.”
“It was like slow motion. I could see me punching the ball out, I could see my teammates jumping on it, everybody going crazy,” Mathieu says now. “But for me — for a whole year I had to listen to people say I wasn’t the best safety in the draft, I wasn’t the best defensive player in the draft. That I wasn’t worthy of being a good teammate, I wasn’t worthy of providing for my family.
“So to make that play, the first play in one of my first NFL games, that was the moment that I knew: ‘Hey, man, that’s why you don’t listen to what people say. That’s why you continue to just believe in what you can do.’”
For the next five seasons, Mathieu might have been the Cardinals’ most impactful defender. With Mathieu on the field, Arizona allowed a QBR of just 45.5. That would have been the best in the league for that time frame, better than the Legion of Boom Seahawks’ 50.5. Without him, the Cardinals’ QBR rose to 61.6. That would have ranked last.
But Mathieu wasn’t always on the field long enough to make that impact clear. Due to frequent injuries, he played in all 16 games just once in his first five years. An ACL tear ended his rookie season and delayed the start to a disappointing second season, which also saw him miss games for a broken thumb. Back to form in 2015, Mathieu earned All-Pro honors, but his season ended early when he tore his other ACL. In 2016 he played in just 10 games, the fewest of his career, because of a shoulder injury. “When I came to the league, for me it was all about trying to show people I was a good teammate, that I was worthy of being an NFL player,” he says. “Then, I go through these injuries, and it was a different emotion for me. I don’t think I was really able to handle it how I know I could have.”
Mathieu finally played a full 16 for the Cardinals in 2017, but it was too late. “Once I had my injuries, I was no longer functioning. I think that was the reason why me and the Arizona Cardinals divorced, in my mind. I don’t think I was practicing how I normally practice. I don’t think I was walking how I was normally walking.”
When he was a free agent in 2018, Mathieu’s best offer came from the Texans in the form of a one-year, $7 million “prove it” deal. And that he did. Mathieu played all 16 games on the Texans’ top-five defense, leading them to a division championship. A “special dude,” former coach Bill O’Brien says of Mathieu.
By the time the 2019 free-agency period opened, the Chiefs — whose league-best offense had been saddled with the No. 31 total defense in the NFL — had zeroed in on Mathieu. They hoped to spend about $11 million per year, a substantial increase over his salary with the Texans. When his price rose to $14 million, some in the organization thought the team should pass. But in the end, the pro-Mathieu contingent won the day, and not because of Mathieu’s ability to cover anyone on the field. The Chiefs believed their locker room needed more than just an influx of talent — it needed a veteran presence. As one front-office executive said then, “He will make our guys believe.”
“I knew a coach that had been with the Texans who said, the day he stepped through the door, the whole culture changed,” Spagnuolo says. “And he was talking about the team, he wasn’t talking about the defense. Based on that comment, and what I saw on tape and the ability, I just felt like it would be really important to have that kind of guy at that position. Because we value the safety position for all the things that we’ve got to do back there. He would be a perfect fit for us.”
The three-year, $42 million gamble worked. Mathieu led the defense in snaps, recording 75 tackles, 2 sacks and a team-high 4 interceptions. Thanks to Mathieu and Spagnuolo’s revamped defense, the team’s defensive rank jumped 23 spots in 2019, up to eighth in the league.
“Kansas City really offered me the opportunity to be who I am as a teammate, to be who I am as a leader, and also giving me the joy to play defensive back,” Mathieu says. “Because Spags is a defensive back in his mind, it’s fun to come to work every day, knowing certain game plans will be centered around you.”
Last season, in a Week 3 clash against the Ravens, Mathieu showed how impactful he could be. It was the type of play that often goes underappreciated by fans — a touchdown-saving maneuver that he makes look routine, even though he is probably the only player who would have made it. In the fourth quarter, with Kansas City leading 30-19, the eventual league MVP, Lamar Jackson, had driven 64 yards down the field to the Chiefs’ 16-yard line.
The Ravens were in an empty set, with a tight end and two receivers in a bunch to the right and a receiver and running back in a stack on the left. The Chiefs had spent most of the game in Cover 3, and the Ravens were trying to exploit it. The play set up a receiver vertical route to occupy the free safety and a receiver shallow cross to pull down the linebacker, creating a hole in the middle of the defense to allow the tight end to slip behind for the easy touchdown. Mathieu was lined up on the left, at linebacker depth, playing Cover 3 strong safety — responsible for the wide left curl to flat zone.
But after so many years in the league, Mathieu has seen every play from every position. He recognized the Ravens’ route combination — and wasn’t about to let the coverage rules keep him from making the play. Rather than cover the backside curl, Mathieu sprinted to the hole and broke up the pass. The Ravens were held to a field goal, and the Chiefs held on to beat the NFL’s eventual No. 1 seed 33-28.
”It was pretty evident early on that Tyrann could handle a lot of different things, so I knew I wanted to use them that way. … When you challenge a guy to play different positions and they love that and embrace it, that certainly helps you as a coach,” Spagnuolo says. “Anytime we can get him in a spot that we think is going to produce for us, we’re gonna try to do that.”
And off the field, Mathieu had done just what Spagnuolo hoped back in March: completely changed the culture as soon as he got there. For the third time in four seasons — and on the third different team — Mathieu was named a captain.
“He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” says Chiefs quarterback Mahomes. “The first day we were at camp, it was more than just his play on the field. It was putting people in positions like he had been in that defense for years, even though it was his first day.”
And 190 days later, the night before the Super Bowl, it was Mathieu who was chosen to speak to the team. The next day, in the huddle just before the game, he gave an impassioned plea to leave it all on the field, referencing a 2-4 stretch the Chiefs had earlier in the season. “We knew what kind of team we was, dog. All we had to do was believe in each other and play for each other,” he said, surrounded by his teammates. “I watched a lot of people step up, dog. That’s what we need today. We need energy. We need oneness, dog. We need to be remembered!”
For many of his teammates, Mathieu’s message resonated as much because of his actions in the preceding months as his words in the moment. He calls himself a “practice All-American,” a term normally meant as a slight toward players who practice overzealously during the week but don’t produce on Sundays. Mathieu produces on Sundays because he is overzealous the rest of the week, constantly trying to soak up new information about the game.
“I knew that he was going to be a very cerebral player because of the questions that he asked,” says Del Lee-Collins, Mathieu’s defensive backs coach in high school. “He absorbed every single thing that was being said to him. And he just stuck in my back pocket. Anytime I was coaching anybody else, he was getting the same coaching without being on the field.”
“I’m not the biggest, I’m not the fastest, I’m not going to be nobody’s first pick, but in my mind, I should be,” Mathieu says. “And that’s because I really practice how I perform, and I rely on that. I don’t rely on speed, I don’t rely on athleticism — I rely on my preparation and what I did in practice that week.”
Which helps explain how it was Mathieu, not Mahomes — who seemingly perfected the quarterback position and orchestrated three consecutive comebacks en route to a Super Bowl win — whom coaches and teammates voted team MVP.
“That was cool, man,” Mathieu says. “That was definitely gratifying. It’s really everything I’d been working for. That had nothing to do with performance on the field. I feel like that award came from just who I’ve always been as a teammate.”
Ask Tyrann Mathieu how he thinks people would describe him and you might expect to hear compliments on his game: relentless, ferocious, versatile, instinctive, fearless.
Instead, he says: “I would hope people describe me as sensitive, supportive and really just loyal. I would hope that more than anything.” Rather than focusing on his place among the greats of the game, Mathieu concerns himself with his place in the lives of the people he touches. Because the pioneering player’s greatest influence never stepped onto a football field.
In the earliest years of his life, his grandmother Marie was the only maternal influence he knew. She created the foundation Mathieu needed, “making me feel special, making me feel wanted.” And her motherly nature wasn’t limited to just her family. In their troubled Central City New Orleans neighborhood, she was a loving light.
“I feel like my grandmother did that for even some strangers,” Mathieu says. “She opened her house to them. I look at my life today and I’m still trying to be like her. I’m still trying to make people look at me and feel wanted.”
That started in the locker room, where his teammates were all treated like “brothers,” he says. But now, as Mathieu’s profile has grown, so has his sense of responsibility off the football field. “I think when I first started my foundation, it was like any other ballplayer. Camp, put on a turkey drive and call it a day,” Mathieu says. “Now we’re getting personal.”
Now, The Shift, a mentorship program Mathieu created under the Tyrann Mathieu Foundation, connects Mathieu with a group of young men via Zoom. “For an hour in their day, they’re not in the streets. They’re on a FaceTime call with me,” he says. “These are kids from Louisiana who are in gangs, who are in violence, who are living a life that they’re trying desperately to get out of. So for a lot of them, I’m saving their lives. That’s given me great pride and a sense of responsibility.”
He urges these kids to see beyond the limitations of their surroundings and encourages them to serve their communities. “I think the next step for me is to bring about change in our world, the real world,” Mathieu says. “I urge a lot of my teammates to do the same thing.”
Mathieu and Mahomes are the faces of the Chiefs’ voter registration initiative. Together, they pushed their teammates to respond to this summer of unrest by registering to vote and using their elevated profiles to encourage others to do the same. Mathieu took it a step further, hosting a voter registration drive in Kansas City in September through his foundation.
“He challenges me to be in the community like every week,” Mahomes says. “Since the moment he got to KC, he has something that he is working on and asking all his teammates to be a part of it. It’s special, man.”
In November, Mathieu will be voting for the first time. He never believed that government was for people like him. “Growing up in inner cities, you feel like the left-out kid,” he says. “You don’t believe those things work for you.” Now he believes there is power in his vote, and he plans to exercise it.
“There’s so many people that have gone through so much to give us this opportunity, this freedom to vote,” Mathieu says. “I think it’s my responsibility to bring awareness and to let everybody around me know that is their obligation and their responsibility as well. You have that right. You have that voice. So just be confident in it, use that.”
In mid-September, two days after his Chiefs open the season with a win against the Texans, Mathieu walks into a garage in New Orleans, powering through the aches of the debut to lob life lessons to the youngsters he mentors with The Shift. Dark clothes, dreads pulled back, eyes smiling above his mask, Mathieu entered the room of boys: “Wzapnin?” His greeting is five syllables in one, a question and a statement — one word, like him, doing the work of many more.
These boys idolize Mathieu. Many of them aspire to athletic success. Mathieu encourages them to see both the improbability of a sports career and the limitations of its impact. “In order for us to really save the world, all of us can’t be ballplayers,” he says. “Some of us have to take the hard jobs.”
Yet Mathieu aims to do both. He is a Super Bowl champion, the Chiefs’ MVP and one of the most respected voices in the league. And now, at a time when he finally feels at home on the field, he is turning his focus off it, to the communities that made him.
“Never forget where you come from,” he says. “Always go back there. Start there. Right now, it’s all about my communities that I’m living in, trying to push them forward — whether it be voter registration, peacefully protesting or some athletes simply using their platform to inspire others to be better. I don’t think enough of us do that.”
This offseason, as COVID-19 threatened the start of the season and social justice appeared to be as important to Americans as sports, Mathieu was vocal about support for the Black Lives Matter movement, eventually appearing in the viral player-led video directed at the commissioner. When he and the Chiefs opened the NFL season with a resounding win against the Texans, the game began with a moment of unity — which was booed by the crowd of 16,000 in Kansas City.
“Obviously that’s not what we were trying to accomplish,” Mathieu says. “I think that was a moment for everybody to take a deep breath, you know, breathe a little bit. And for all of us to kind of accept our roles in this going forward.”
By Week 4, the season was back to the 2020 version of normal: The game, expected to be a marquee matchup between the 3-0 Chiefs — coming off another dominant win against the Ravens — and the 2-1 Patriots, led by Cam Newton – was postponed by a day after Newton tested positive for COVID-19. (After news of the postponement broke, Mathieu tweeted, “Wear your mask, wash your hands” – and also “I need a f—ing hug.”)
On the field, as he has for his entire life, Mathieu found his solace. After a sluggish first half for both teams, the Chiefs took a 19-10 lead in the fourth quarter. As the Patriots started the next drive, Mathieu was playing the nickel position over a bunch left formation. The Patriots ran a curl flat combination with a clear. Mathieu broke on the flat to Julian Edelman, who was in space awaiting backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s pass. Mathieu gathered himself for the tackle — just as the pass slipped through the normally sure-handed Edelman’s grip. It fell almost perfectly to Mathieu, who grabbed it and ran 25 yards down the sideline for an easy touchdown.
“Obviously it’s cool anytime you can score points defensively, you know, especially for myself — I don’t always get on the stat sheet,” Mathieu said after the game. “I just try my best to do my job and be where I’m supposed to be.”
It’s the story of Mathieu’s career. The man who has always had to do extraordinary things to make room for himself in this league and in this life, who has created opportunities where there were none, has finally found himself in the perfect position.
Styling by Sarah Thompson Lift; Grooming by Heidi Seager Bowles; Production by Michael Lopez; red jacket and black pants by Keiser Clark. Play animations courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats.