The Arizona Cardinals 2013 schedule begins in Green Bay Friday.
Oh, you can see it now. Wisconsinites drinking to excess, shotgunning Cheez Whiz, playing round after round of "who's got the brat?", and then there are the people at the game.
As for Cardinal fans, Friday will serve as something of an orientation. There's a new coaching staff to learn, and fans will have more new faces to sift through than a 40-year-old virgin during his first night on Match.com.
But of all the new Cardinals, and I mean all of them, for my money THE player to watch in game one is rookie Tyrann Mathieu.
There doesn't seem to be a middle ground with Mathieu. Analysts seem to agree he'll either be the steal of the 2013 NFL draft or a wasted pick on a ticking time bomb of a personality.
Time for Tyrann Mathieu to be weighed and measured on this, the third installment of my "Cardinals: New Faces" series.
|The Superlatives - Here is a short list of words NFL scouts have used to describe Tyrann Mathieu: Instinctive, fearless, explosive, physical, ball-hawking, a "turnover machine." These are football terms used to describe great football players, not great athletes who play football. Whatever the sport, there are some people who just know how to play the game. By all accounts, Johnny Unitas was as dumb as a box of hair, but he was one of the first quarterbacks to call his own plays and many who played during his era refer to him as the smartest player to ever don a helmet. Mathieu stepped on the field at LSU, and as a second-string freshman cornerback recorded 57 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, forced five fumbles, picked off two passes, and led the team in passes deflected. Then, he came out his sophomore season and improved upon those numbers, earning him consideration for the Heisman. Dude forced 11 fumbles during a two-year collegiate career! Make no mistake, this cat can play.||Smoke - You know what they say about smoke? Where it is, there's usually fire. We now know there were many teams that would have never drafted Aaron Hernandez because of character concerns coming out of college. We also know that every team, including the Patriots, weren't willing to risk a draft pick that matched his promise as a player. And now we know that Aaron Hernandez, after three seasons of being labeled a draft day steal, was a pick the Patriots deeply regret... Look, I'm not comparing Tyrann Mathieu to Aaron Hernandez personally. That would be horrifically unfair. I only draw a situational comparison to point out what NFL organizations are putting more and more stock in every year. If a person's character led him to bad decisions in college, what will money in the pocket do to one's decision making process, and how long before the shoe drops? Mathieu deserves this chance, and deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt that he's learned his lesson. However, he could have a Rookie of the Year-caliber season in 2013, and the Cardinals will still have to manage the player differently than others. After all, Mathieu's substance abuse treatment is ongoing.|
|Playmaker - Best QB? No. Best defense? Nope. Best stadium nachos? Uh-uh. I'm not sure the 2013 Cardinals will make the top rung of any "best in the NFL" lists, with one possible exception- "Most dangerous punt returners." Patrick Peterson is a Pro Bowl return man and his understudy finished fourth in all of college football in 2011 with a 16.2 per return average. Mathieu has an undeniable knack for making plays when he gets his hands on the ball.||Polamalu Light - It's been said of Mathieu that he has Troy Polamalu potential. Wow. That comparison is damn lofty. The Pittsburgh Steeler is one of the great safeties in NFL history. Of course, Polamalu was never a Heisman candidate. Mathieu's production as a player to this point in his career is unimpeachable. However, this is the NFL. You've heard it a million times -- the players are bigger, faster, and stronger. And a 20-pound difference between safeties is significant. Mathieu is 5'9", 185, which is undersized for a cornerback, much less a safety, and he might play both positions for the Cardinals this season and for years to come. Mathieu also plays with physicality. That aggressive fearless nature of his could balance out his physical shortcomings, or it could expose them.|
|The Bromance - Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu seem to be thunder buddies for life... Of course, that term comes from the movie, Ted, and, well, Marky Mark and his teddy bear did smoke a tremendous amount of weed together in that film, so... Take 2. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu seem to be good, would-never-dream-of-using-recreational-drugs-together pals. And I don't think it's a coincidence that Mathieu entered what he describes as "his dark period" once Peterson left his side at LSU to enter the NFL. I also believe the Cardinals would not have drafted Mathieu had Peterson not encouraged them to. As long as one is lifting the other up, as opposed to one dragging the other down, the Cardinals' Bayou Brothers could make for a dynamite pairing for years to come.||Coach Peterson - Patrick Peterson is a great player, but he still hasn't reached his full potential. The Pro-Bowl cornerback has not only accepted the assignments of defending the other team's best receiver and returning punts, he's excelled in the roles. Now, in his third year, the Cardinals new coaching staff brings in a new defensive coordinator, has introduced a new offensive package that includes Peterson, and he'll be asked as a third-year star to undoubtedly take on more of a leadership role with the defense, especially with Adrian Wilson gone and Daryl Washington suspended for four games or more. So, can Peterson also be expected to add to his plate the role of babysitter? I love Peterson. I think he can handle it all, but that does seem like an awful lot to be dumping on a 23-year-old's plate.|
|Something to prove - We won't know for years if Tyrann Mathieu has learned from the mistakes that nearly ruined his football career, but to prove his maturity the rookie has put his money where his mouth is. Mathieu signed the type of contract that makes agents have night terrors. He agreed to have his signing bonus spread out over three years, as a goodwill gesture to the franchise that took a chance on him. If Mathieu screws up off the field, the Cards aren't held to paying him the rest of his bonus. It's the kind of financial risk third round picks just don't take. Losing money from the bush is one thing, to bet the money in hand is the act of a serious man.||What about the Badger? - Tyrann Mathieu has said he wants the "Honey Badger" nickname to go away, that it reminds him of the darkest period of his life. Sorry folks, but it turns out the Honey Badger does give a s***. I understand where Mathieu is coming from, and I'm going to try -- really try -- to respect his wishes. However, it's not going to be easy forgetting one of the greatest nicknames in sports history. I mean, Honey Badger is right up there with the "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange and Dick "Night Train" Lane. Hows about we don't call you Honey Badger to your face? But we still get to use the name behind your back? Deal? Let's shake on it, Hone--, I mean, Tyrann.|
The love affair with Tyrann Mathieu is underway. I've heard one NFL analyst call him a Rookie of the Year candidate, another describe him as the best player in this year's rookie class. But as quickly as analysts and fans will prove willing to jump aboard the Mathieu bandwagon, they'll be just as eager to jump off at the first sign of off-field trouble.
I don't know Tyrann Mathieu the person. So, I'm not going to judge him for any questionable behavior he might display in the future.
I will simply say this. I think the seventh pick of the third round was an excellent moment to take a chance on a potential game-changer. It was, dare I say, a Belichickian move. And I can't wait to watch the kid play.