Tyrann Mathieu and the price of leadership

It’s no secret that aside from Patrick Mahomes, Tyrann Mathieu has been my favorite Kansas City Chiefs player over the last three years. Shortly — in a matter of hours, or days from now — Mathieu is going to sign a contract to play for another team. Whether due to pricing himself out of a return, the Chiefs’ organization simply wanting to move on, or some combination thereof, it has been made clear that the two sides will not be continuing their relationship.

On Monday evening it became a foregone conclusion, as former Texans safety Justin Reid agreed to a three-year, $31.5 million deal to join the five-time defending AFC West champs. Reid, 25, not only occupies the same position as Mathieu, but figures to come at a substantially cheaper cost.

It is moves like these that make the NFL, by a wide margin, the least forgiving business in all of professional sports. It was only three years ago that Kansas City signed Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year contract of his own — worth $42 million — in which time he immediately became the leader of a reimagined Chiefs defense. In three years with Kansas City, the Honey Badger went to three AFC Championship Games, two Super Bowls, and won a world championship. He became a first-team all-pro following the 2020 season, and won the Derrick Thomas award as MVP of the Chiefs two years in a row (in 2020 and 2021).

But signs began pointing towards a divorce between Mathieu and the Chiefs as early as last offseason when the two sides failed to reach a contract extension, which was further pronounced when a deal didn’t get done during the 2021 regular season. Now that the Chiefs signed Justin Reid, it looks more and more like this was Kansas City’s plan all along:

The hardest part of all of this, as a fan of Tyrann Mathieu, is how badly he seemed to want to continue playing for the Chiefs. Fighting back tears following the recent AFC Championship loss to the Bengals, Mathieu said:

“I hope [to stay in Kansas City],” adding “Ever since I came here I’ve just tried to be the right kind of teammate. I’ve tried to play my part. It’s always that feeling that I could make more plays for your team, but I’m hoping it works out. I don’t have any control over that. I feel like everything that was in my control, I tried my best to handle it, and to do it with a smile. I love this team. I love this locker room. So I’m hoping [it works out].”

It requires no effort to argue that Tyrann Mathieu is the best free agent acquisition the Chiefs have made in the twenty-plus years I have been a fan, if not in the history of the franchise. He took a lead role in turning around the worst defense in the NFL the year before he arrived — which resulted in an AFC Championship loss to the Patriots — and in his first year with the team became a Super Bowl champion. In the three years he spent in Kansas City, the team posted a composite regular season record of 38-11, and a composite postseason record of 7-2.

Unfortunately, one of the problems in having a championship-caliber team is not being able to hold on to all the best players. With Patrick Mahomes signing his half-billion dollar contract, and Chris Jones soaking up about $20 million per season, Joe Thuney getting about $18 million a year last offseason, and Tyreek Hill due for a massive extension this offseason, Mathieu became a regrettable casualty of the salary cap.

The Chiefs already lost cornerback Charvarius Ward to the 49ers in free agency, and had to utilize their franchise tag on left tackle Orlando Brown Jr — who is all but a lock to sign an extension of his own. I can’t say I blame the Chiefs for spending $20 million guaranteed on Justin Reid, who again is five years younger, compared to a player of Mathieu’s pedigree who will likely demand close to double that figure. Kansas City got their money’s worth out of the Honey Badger, and in their eyes they are taking the disciplined route of paying a player based off how they project in the future rather than off of past performance.

The dilemma bad teams are faced with is being able to retain their best players.

The dilemma for great teams is not being able to retain all their best players, because oftentimes there are too many.

A universe exists where Chiefs General Manager, Brett Veach, said Fuck It, and went ahead and paid Tyrann Mathieu his five-year deal with $40 million guaranteed. I wouldn’t have been upset with that, and I don’t think most Chiefs fans would have, either. He was and is a legitimate weapon in the secondary, a playmaker that gets the most out of his undersized frame and who uses that attitude to be a leader on the defensive side of the ball.

At the same time, I kind of get why he isn’t coming back. When you win a Super Bowl and have the best quarterback in the world, it is simply bad business to allow emotional attachments get in the way of the bigger prize. At some point down the line — whether it’s five years from now, or ten — Patrick Mahomes is going to be old enough where the Chiefs are going to have to put all their eggs in their basket to win a Super Bowl that specific year. Their championship window is going to be smaller, meaning they will need to make short-term decisions with that in mind.

At this stage of the game, the championship window remains wide open. Kansas City have not only made, but hosted the AFC Title game four years in a row. (That’s never happened before.) The necessity to make short-term decisions right now is minimal. Re-signing the 29 year-old Mathieu — who has, arguably, one or two prime years — would have been, in my opinion, shortsighted.

Instead they are playing the long game, signing a younger player with upside in Justin Reid, for less dollars, despite him being less talented and less of a leader right now than the Honey Badger. The immediate returns likely won’t be as fruitful. Yet it allows the franchise an opportunity to dedicate more of their resources elsewhere. Whether that means signing a stud wide receiver in free agency like Allen Robinson, or trading for a young cornerback who is going to demand a lot of capital in future years, it at least keeps their options open.

And this is coming from a guy who is severely disappointed that Tyrann Mathieu is no longer going to play for my favorite football team. I’ve been following his career since he was a freshman at LSU, making plays and being fun as hell to watch the entire time. I wanted him to be a Chief forever. I like and appreciate what he stands for as a human being.

But as pro-player and pro-labor as I am — and how much I wish everyone would get paid their true market value — I also identify as a businessman. I feel like such a cuck agreeing with the Chiefs’ front office in not paying for an all-pro level guy, but again, I get it. If I was in their position I would probably do the exact same thing. When I play Madden, I’m prone to trade players like Tyrann Mathieu when they get to this age because I can get a first round pick for him and use that on his replacement.

As it is, I’m always going to cherish the memories I made with Tyrann playing for the Chiefs. I’m never going to forget what he brought to the team in the Super Bowl year. He’s just one of those guys that is going to live forever in the Chiefs Kingdom. He will be back after he retires to beat on the drum during an AFC Championship Game. No matter the differences he had with the fan base over the last year, or the differences he has with the organization currently, he is going to be a guy that we all remember. Because he is a dude who will never let you forget.