Tyrann Mathieu familiar with comebacks

TEMPE, Ariz. -- If there was one person built to handle a comeback, it's Tyrann Mathieu.

He's already stared at the possibility of never playing in the NFL and knocked that possibility on its back, as he's done to receivers all season. He's used his mind and then his body to break through perceptions and barriers on his road from LSU to the Arizona Cardinals.

That's why this comeback won't be all that different from the first one.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians confirmed Monday what he had feared following Sunday's 30-10 win over the St. Louis Rams: Mathieu needs surgery to repair his ACL and LCL, which he tore while returning a free kick early in the third quarter.

He'll have surgery anytime in the next eight to 10 days, once the LCL begins to heal on its own. The rest of this season is gone and Arians doesn't expect him back for training camp, which begins in late July.

"This will be a long one,” Arians said Monday.

And that can be a little disconcerting for the Cardinals.

One of Arizona general manager Steve Keim's biggest concerns with Mathieu was how the rookie would handle the offseason. He'd have more free time and no structure, more money than he's ever had and less responsibilities than he had during the season.

Well, that offseason came a month or two before anyone expected.

Now that he's an NFL player, the temptations that got to Mathieu in college will be greater, prettier and stronger. Arizona has all the faith that Mathieu learned his lesson from college, but if there's anything Mathieu learned during the past year, it's that a dream can be quickly taken away.

There is solace to Keim's concerns, however. Mathieu has bonded with his teammates better than anyone expected. He's close to the rookies and to the veterans. He has veterans like Larry Fitzgerald and Karlos Dansby to look up. His best friend, Patrick Peterson, is two lockers away.

“He's been fantastic and he's a leader,” Arians said. “Very seldom do you see young guys come in and become a leader like he has, especially in the secondary. His personality is infectious with the guys because he loves football. He'll stay out there and practice all day and go as hard as he can. Those are the guys you miss.”

Arizona will miss Mathieu, a front-runner for defensive rookie of the year, even more on the field.

Rashad Johnson will resume his role as starting free safety, but he alone won't be able to fill Mathieu's shoes, Arians said. That'll take at least two players.

Mathieu was Arizona's starting free safety, nickel back and extra cornerback. No one else on the depth chart can give Arians a three-for-one like Mathieu. And no one else can be as dynamic as Mathieu. His big-play ability is rivaled by only a few around the league. The scouting report coming out of college was that he was a ball hawk and had a nose for the ball. So far this season, every word has rung true.

In his place will be a combination of Antoine Cason, Javier Arenas, Bryan McCann, Jerraud Powers and Johnson. Yes, that's five names replacing one. And to think Mathieu was projected to be a third-day draft pick?

Mathieu sobbed in the locker room after the reality of his injury set in. Arians said it was the first major injury of his career, but if the Cardinals have learned anything from the Honey Badger, it's that he doesn't care.

When he began his comeback at the NFL scouting combine in February, he used his mind. He went, hat in hand, to his interviews and talked about what he learned about himself. He took responsibility for getting kicked off the LSU football team and then getting arrested.

And then he used his body to show scouts, coaches and front office types that he was still the same Heisman finalist who would've been a top-5 pick had he stayed in school last season.

It's time to show everyone again.

He'll have stay headstrong while he recovers, avoiding temptation and focusing on next season, and when he's allowed to put pressure on that knee again, which could be as soon as a few months from now, he'll have to use his body to regain the form that made him a rookie standout.

“(I'd tell him) just keep his head up,” Arians said. “It's happened to a lot of guys. He has a bright, bright future, just right now, he's got to work hard at getting his leg back, and I'm sure he will.”

If Mathieu's past is any indication, Arians is right.