TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Honey Badger earned a new nickname Friday.
Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury Friday, cutting his season short for the third time in four seasons. The decision to shut him down for the Cardinals’ final two games ended a frustrating 2016 for Mathieu, whose injury issues may stunt one of the most promising careers in recent memory.
He spent the offseason recovering from the second major knee injury of his career and never regained his inner Honey Badger once the season began. While he has said this rehabilitation and recovery went smoother than his first in 2013, Mathieu was brought along slowly. He wasn’t allowed to play in the box as a nickel corner, where he’s most effective, until Week 5, and he rarely flashed this season as he did last year -- when he was named to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro team.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians summed up Mathieu’s 2016 succinctly after Arizona’s loss to the New Orleans Saints.
“He gave it everything he had,” Arians said. “It ain’t Ty.”
But this was to be expected. It happened in 2014, the season after Mathieu’s promising rookie year ended with an ACL and LCL injury. His play that year was subdued -- possibly because Mathieu came back too early.
It’s no secret that Mathieu is a rare talent. But at the pace he’s on, Mathieu could end up being another star who shined just briefly. Injuries are a part of football, but it's rare to suffer serious injuries at the rate Mathieu has. However, he can’t be blamed for them.
The ACL injury last season against Philadelphia happened without contact. His shoulder injury this season happened as he was defending a pass. His arm got caught in the receiver’s arms, and he was dragged down the sideline. It was a freak injury and was unavoidable to some degree.
Mathieu can’t tone down his play. That would be counterintuitive to being the Honey Badger. But at 5-foot-9, Mathieu has to play larger than life, essentially.
He’s stuck. He can’t tone it down, but he needs to stay healthy.
The Cardinals invested $21.25 million guaranteed in him before this season with a contract extension. There was risk and there was reward. Friday was an example of the risk involved.
Was Mathieu worth it? For now, yes. But if he continues to have games shaved off his seasons because of injuries, will he be worth keeping around in a couple of seasons? The Cardinals will have to make an honest assessment: Are his healthy plays worth the time away from the field? The answer, however, gets convoluted by the seasons after his injuries -- which have both been wastes, as Arians pointed out this year.
If he can stay healthy for the next two or three seasons, Mathieu will be a bona fide superstar in the NFL. He has the personality, he has the backstory and, most importantly, he has the game.
But to live up to those expectations, there’s one place he has to be: on the field.