Honey Badger Sighting In The Desert
By Joe Darrah
The Arizona Cardinals have been no strangers to taking major gambles with their football personnel over the last several seasons in their attempts to again reach NFC supremacy.
Since losing in the divisional round of the 2009 playoffs to eventual Super Bowl XLIV champion New Orleans, the club’s last game with veteran quarterback Kurt Warner, Arizona hasn’t strayed from creativity with its roster. It also hasn’t avoided head-scratching moves or draft controversy. Warner’s departure on Jan. 29 2010 opened the door for the team to go after journeyman signal-caller Derek Anderson. That experiment failed in an injury-marred season that saw Anderson start only nine games and throw 10 interceptions to seven touchdowns, as the Cardinals plodded through a 5-11 season and continued a downward spiral after being so near to grace. Choosing Anderson, via free agency, the Cardinals would again seek the services of another one-hit wonder when they traded for Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb.
Coming off a season that saw him sustain a concussion in the season opener — his first action after being named the Eagles’ starter — Kolb never recovered or was even good enough to challenge then-backup Michael Vick for the first-string gig upon his return. Fast forward to the 2013 offseason: Kolb is gone — the Cards went a combined 13-17 in the two years he was there, as is head coach Ken Whisenhunt, fired after a 4-0 start ended in a 5-11 disaster.
In their respective places are a quarterback carrousel that is still spinning. The team acquired Carson Palmer, who was exiled from Oakland. Palmer will take the reins for Arizona under new head coach Bruce Arians, who was hired after leading the 2012 Colts to a playoff appearance in a stand-in role for Chuck Pagano as he recovered from leukemia.
As intriguing an acquisition as Palmer is for a team that has only drafted and developed one quarterback as a viable starter since the franchise moved from Phoenix in 1994 (Jake Plummer started 82 games from 1997-2002) — and as uplifting as the Arians' singing may prove to be — the more talked about storyline remains the Cards’ selection of safety Tyrann Mathieu in the third round of this year’s draft.
Introducing the Honey Badger
Mathieu, a 21-year-old former consensus All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist, hasn’t played a down since being dismissed from LSU in 2012. While it had immediately been reported that he was cut due to violating the school’s drug policy, LSU coach Les Miles didn’t verify these claims. A week later, Mathieu entered a rehab program and he eventually returned to classes for the fall semester. Within two months’ time he and three other former Tigers were arrested for drug possession. Having earned the nickname “honey badger” for his tenacious play on the field, it was legitimate to wonder if the one-time Chuck Bednarik award-winner would ever play at the professional level. According to a recent report by the Arizona Daily Star, Mathieu was reduced to tears and sobs when asked about his feelings on the Cardinals taking a risk on him with the 69th overall pick.
Will the Gamble Pay Off?
In some respects, Mathieu is no more or no less a risk than any prospect taken in any draft. But taking him on the second day brings a certain expectation. It will also bring a scrutiny that won’t diminish unless he stays off the police blotter, regardless of how good a player he turns out to be.
Mathieu participated in the 2013 Combine to the tune of running a 4.50 in the 40-yard dash, lifting four reps of 225 pounds, posting a 34-inch vertical and recording a 117-inch broad jump. He also bolstered his previously plummeting draft status with his showing at his school’s Pro Day on March 27. The Cardinals, who are trying to infuse as much youth into their secondary as they can, saw opportunity. The team is trying to maintain a passing defense that ranked fifth in the league in 2012. They also used a second-round pick on LSU inside linebacker Kevin Minter.
Mathieu undoubtedly walks into a fine support system in Arizona, with former LSU teammate and Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson anchoring the defensive unit, along with newly-signed Yeremiah Bell, an aging Pro Bowl back who replaces another aging veteran in Adrian Wilson. Peterson, reportedly one of Mathieu’s closest friends, vouched for the troubled youth heading into the draft and will surely bear the weight of providing him guidance. He’ll also be rewarded with playing for one of the most professional men the league has to offer in Arians. It would be hard to imagine Mathieu having a better chance to succeed elsewhere.