A year ago, the expectation was that the Kansas City Chiefs were planning to give their All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu a contract extension before his deal expired last month. Both the team (and Mathieu himself) repeatedly said that both sides wanted a deal — and that they were working to get it done.
“Just being here the last couple of years, I can’t see me wearing any other uniform,” Mathieu told reporters last June. “The fans here are amazing. My teammates are amazing. I spoke about the relationships that I have with my coaches. Some of these things, you can’t buy [at] other places. I’m a guy that’s had to start over quite often, so I would like to stay here — for sure.”
“We like to think we’re going to find a way to get this done,” said Kansas City general manager Brett Veach in a SiriusXM interview during last season’s training camp. “He knows we love him — and we know he wants to be here. Right now — for us and for him — I think it’s just a timing thing.
In that interview, Veach sought to leave no doubt about the team’s intentions.
“The guy’s special,” he concluded. “We love him. And we’re certainly going to work our tail off to keep him here.”
But still, the 2021 season began without a new deal for the veteran safety. When team owner Clark Hunt spoke with reporters in mid-November, he also said that the team intended to sign Mathieu to an extension.
“Those plans haven’t changed at all,” said Hunt. “It was something that we discussed with Tyrann and his representative in the offseason before we started playing regular-season games — but really, once we got into the season, it’s really best for both parties to wait until the end of the year. We would obviously love to have Tyrann back — not only for his play on the field, but his leadership as well.”
But Mathieu now says that by that time, he had come to realize that his time in Kansas City was coming to an end. In an emotional interview with Kansas City Star’s Sam McDowell that was published on Friday — a wide-ranging article that is very much worth your time — Mathieu said that he knew the end was near.
“It was the hardest year of my career,” Mathieu told McDowell. “I’ve been through ACLs. I’ve been through a lot of stuff in this league — having to move my family every two or three years. But that was one of the hardest, longest years of my life.”
Mathieu said that when he realized that his representatives actually had few interactions with the Kansas City front office during the 2021 offseason, it might just mean the Chiefs simply wanted to move on.
“I just knew,” he said. “Everything I was working for, man. Every day I wake up trying to make the Chiefs better, trying to make the community better. I’m just working toward that knowing that there’s an end date. There’s an expiration date to that.”
In the eyes of some observers, Mathieu’s play fell off in 2021. It was often believed that this was simply the result of the nine-year veteran — who will turn 30 before the 2022 season begins — making “business decisions” on the field. But according to McDowell, something else was at work.
He played with different emotion. At times, he played without emotion. He stopped talking trash, as he put it. Stopped celebrating the big moments. He was just playing.
And here’s the thing about Mathieu just playing: When he does that, he no longer stands out. He blends in.
“If you look too hard, you won’t really see my greatness,” he says, gesturing to himself, “‘cause, yo, this dude is not that big and this dude is not that fast.
“I just knew, last year, people’s appreciation for me was kinda going away. I took all that hard. I tried to stay in my routine. I wasn’t going to be a bad teammate. That ain’t me. In the back of my mind, though, I knew.”
And now, it’s become very clear that whatever they might have believed before (or even during) last season, the Chiefs have now decided to move on. On March 15, they signed free-agent safety Justin Reid to a three-year, $31.5 million contract.
By signing Reid, Kansas City is hoping that even though Mathieu will not be on the team, his influence will continue to be felt in the locker room. A former member of the Houston Texans who played alongside Mathieu during his rookie season, Reid says that his former teammate had a big influence on him.
“Tyrann — I will never forget — his thing was the mentality and attitude,” Reid recalled when he spoke with reporters after his arrival in Kansas City. “The work ethic and playing with just a savviness. He called it ‘Championship Swagger.’ Fall forward. His pregame speeches were second to none. He was a big leader in the room. He’s someone that everyone gravitated to.”
And Reid noted that he’s already had to help a team adjust to Mathieu's departure.
“Whenever he did leave Houston,” he said, “I kind of took up a little of that role by the precedent that he had set. Tyrann is an unbelievable guy; he’s an unbelievable player. He’s a friend of mine. Whoever ends up picking him up in free agency is going to be lucky to grab a guy like that.”
So far — although Mathieu has been in contact with a number of teams — no team has done so. After Reid’s signing, it was reported that the Chiefs had never even made Mathieu a contract offer. More than a week later, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Mathieu had decided to just take his time to find the deal that would best suit him.
It’s not hard to imagine, however, that even though he would have preferred a bigger long-term deal, Mathieu might now regret that he didn’t do more to stay with the Chiefs. One of his comments to McDowell would certainly suggest that possibility.
“To be honest,” he told McDowell, “if they would’ve offered me Justin Reid’s deal, obviously I would’ve tried to negotiate, but if that’s where they drew their line in the sand, I probably would’ve took it. I probably would’ve took it. Agents are going to do their thing, but at the end of the day, it’s the player’s decision whether to sign it or not.”
Unfortunately for Mathieu — and perhaps the Chiefs — that’s now water under the bridge. Reid will have to again try to fill the void that Mathieu will be leaving behind. He knows it won’t be easy.
“That’s not something that’s just given or appointed to someone,” admitted the team’s new safety. “That’s something that you earn in the locker room with the guys themselves. So that’s why it’s a big point to me: I want to shake every man’s hand in that locker room, look them in the eye, and know them by their name. In order to receive respect, you first have to give respect.”
Reid knows he’ll have to earn the respect of his teammates. And he also knows he’ll never be able to actually replace Mathieu.
“I have always said this: that a copy is never worth as much as an original,” he explained. “There [will] never — ever — be another Tyrann Mathieu to come through Kansas City. There just won’t. But I can bring the best Justin Reid possible to Kansas City. So that’s my mentality.”