Sweet As Honey

Honey BadgerHe was dismissed from LSU in August 2012 for multiple failed drug tests, arrested for possession of marijuana and had two separate stints in rehab, but there is another side to Arizona Cardinals’ safety Tyrann Mathieu, writes Jim Trotter in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Since being selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2013 draft, the 21-year-old has emerged as a young defensive playmaker capable of turning his once-troubled past into a bright future.

Whether he is on the field or watching film, Mathieu has proved he has the necessary football intelligence needed to make outstanding defensive plays. He is quickly earning recognition from coaches and teammates, especially since he has learned two new positions. “You have to understand how unusual it is, what he’s doing,” says Arizona’s defensive backs coach, Nick Rapone. “Nickel and safety, those are the positions that make all of the adjustment calls. They’re extremely cerebral positions, which is the thing with Tyrann—he’s extremely intelligent. The kid knows he makes a mistake as soon as he makes it, and he doesn’t [repeat it].” (PAGE 43)

In addition to Mathieu’s intelligence, he has also proven himself physically. His quickness mixed with balance keeps him on point during games. “His body balance is off the charts; he’s never out of football position. No matter what he’s doing on the football field, he’s always square-shouldered, his knees bent,” says Rapone. (PAGE 43)

Despite all of the attention surrounding his return to the game and his performance on the field, Mathieu admits it was not only the big plays he missed while he was away; it was also the little things, “like your teammates patting you on the back and getting your coaches’ recognition,” he says. (PAGE 43)

Although proving himself as a crucial component to the Cardinals’ defense, Mathieu’s past and infamous nickname, “Honey Badger,” have built a reputation the NFL rookie doesn’t necessarily embrace. He aspires to become a positive role model moving forward. Something his teammates and Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim see in him.

“When I got to know the young man in the evaluation process, he was a little different than I anticipated,” says Keim. “He had as nice a way about him as any human being, which I didn’t expect –I only really knew what I had read or heard. When you take a gamble with players who have had off-field issues, if they love the game and have a passion for it, a lot of times you can steer them in the right direction.” (PAGE 44)

With support from his team and a goal to become one of the best defensive players on the Cardinals, Mathieu is on his way to building a seemingly successful career in the NFL disproving what many already thought they knew about him. “It means a lot that the guys have accepted me and embraced me,” says Mathieu. “I’m the youngest on the team, and they treat me like the little brother. It’s good to have people still behind me, still encouraging me, still supporting me.” (PAGE 45)

The New Silver and Black

Raiders SI 4 22 13For nearly five decades, the Oakland Raiders, who hold the No. 3 selection in next week’s draft, were one of the top organizations in the NFL under the leadership of Al Davis, the iconic owner who died at age 82 in October 2011. From 1963 until 2002, the Raiders won three Super Bowls and had a .625 winning percentage. Since 2002 however, the Raiders have lost at least 11 games in an NFL-record seven straight seasons. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Jim Trotter examines how the team’s new brain trust is transforming the culture of a franchise that lost its way during Davis’s final decade.

Trotter spent a year behind the scenes with Raiders owner Mark Davis, who took over after his father Al’s death, and Reggie McKenzie, who was hired by the new owner as G.M. prior to the 2012 season.  Trotter writes that since Al Davis’ death in 2011, “the Raiders have undergone a three part healing process: the hiring of McKenzie; the firing of Davis’s last major hire, promising head coach Hue Jackson; and the commitment of new owner Mark Davis to break with his father’s ways and seek a long-term fix rather than a short-term solution.” (PAGE 63)

McKenzie, who was a Raiders linebacker in the mid ‘80’s and spent 12 years in the Green Bay Packers front office, most recently as the director of football operations, faced quite a challenge—he inherited a losing team that was a league-high $31 million over the salary cap. Trotter found that much of the G.M.’s energy the past 15 months has been dedicated to upgrading the scouting and personnel departments, which were not up to speed with the modern NFL. He even had to hire a full-time groundskeeper for the team’s training facility, since one was never previously employed. McKenzie says:

“My mind-set coming in was, I’m gonna have to be highly organized and firm in my beliefs. Because when you’ve got a building that’s used to certain way for so long—I knew change wouldn’t be easy. I had to have a plan and a way to implement my plan.” (PAGE 63)

Before last season, McKenzie fired Jackson and hired 39 year-old Dennis Allen, the former Broncos defensive coordinator, as head coach. McKenzie also released many high priced veterans. The 2012 Raiders suffered through another losing season, but the plan is a patient rebuild. Trotter notes: “As of last weekend 38 of the 53 players on the pre-McKenzie roster had been released, traded or allowed to leave as free agents.” (PAGE 68)

This offseason, McKenzie released veterans Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Rolando McClain, Michael Huff and Darrius Heyward-Bey. He also traded quarterback Carson Palmer to Arizona and sent two middle-round picks to Seattle for QB Matt Flynn. The plan is to be at least $50 million under the cap by 2014 and Mark Davis tells Trotter that he will be patient. The owner says:

“Reggie’s my guy. He did inherit a mess, and he’s still cleaning. I can be patient with him. I’m giving him the whole shot.” (PAGE 68)

Work In Progress? Scary

Von MillerWhile Peyton Manning’s arrival may be the most credited reason for Denver’s ascent to the top of the AFC this season, the maturation of Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller from one-trick pony to a complete linebacker may be just as significant writes senior writer Jim Trotter in this week’s issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. After earning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 thanks in part to his 11 ½ sacks, Miller has taken his game to the next level this season, having recorded 18 ½ sacks, six forced fumbles and his first career NFL interception (which he returned for a TD). While initially being known just as a dominant pass rusher, Miller now wants to be considered amongst the best all around defenders in the league. “I’m a true linebacker. I believe that in my heart,” says Miller. “I want to be a dominant run stopper. I want guys to say when they see 58, they’ve got to go to the other side.”

Miller grew up in East Texas in a home where his parents instilled values such as hard work, respect and accountability. His father once told him, “You have to be your biggest critic.”  At only 23 years old, he has certainly taken his dad’s advice to heart. “It’s not the amount of success you’ve had,” says Miller, “it’s the respect you get in the locker room as a leader, as The Guy. The organization brought me in to be that guy, and I feel like I’ve taken steps in that direction. But I still have a long way to go (page 58).

Back to Backs

Game-changing rushers are once again proving the value of a productive – and protective – ground attack

Reports of the running game’s death have been greatly exaggerated, as game-changing rushers continue to prove the value of a productive – and protective – ground attack. Through 11 weeks, the NFL’s top five in rushing attempts – Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin, Adrian Peterson and Stevan Ridley – have slowed the tide of body-slamming pass rushers and provided valuable protection for their quarterbacks. Peter King, Alan Shipnuck and Jim Trotter take a closer look at the way three of those running backs are reviving the run game.

  • Marshawn Lynch – Joyous, humble and committed to his community—that’s Marshawn Lynch off the field. On it? Alan Shipnuck says you better strap in or get out of the way. With four straight 100-yard games, he’s averaged even better stats in the second half of games than in the first (page 37).
  • Adrian Peterson – Peterson’s ridiculously speedy recovery from ACL surgery is almost as hard to believe as his stats this year, says Ben Reiter (page 41).
  • Doug Martin – The Bucs’ rookie, whose nickname is the Muscle Hamster, is on a wild run straight into the record books writes Jim Trotter. With a franchise-best 251 yards on 25 carries against the Raiders, he is on pace for 2,110 total yards, third most ever for a rookie (page 43).

NFL Playoff Preview – iPad Extra’s of the Week

Jan. 11, 2011 Issue: NFL Playoff Preview

Our NFL Playoff Preview—the cover of which features Patriots 325-pound (yeah, right) defensive tackle Vince Wilfork—delivers game-by-game predictions, complete scouting reports on the 12 teams, key moments from all 44 Super Bowls and a feature on the all-important massive anchors on the defensive line. And the iPad version not only proclaims what will happen but also why it will happen.

Senior NFL writer Peter King’s (@SI_PeterKing) playoff bracket results in New England defeating Green Bay 30–24 in Super Bowl XLV, yet his predictions go well beyond picking the scores. King provides “playoff analysis” for each team as part of their individual scouting reports, and he’s not alone in his prognostications. Fellow NFL writers Damon Hack (@si_damonhack), Tim Layden (@SITimLayden), Jim Trotter (@SI_JimTrotter), Andrew Lawrence (@SI_DrewLawrence) and Ben Reiter (@SI_BenReiter) contribute their picks for every postseason game as well.

As part of a special partnership with Bing, Sports Illustrated has come up with a list of the decisive moments from each of the previous 44 Super Bowls—eight of which have been selected as finalists for being the most decisive in the big game’s history. This week, readers on the iPad can view footage of those “Eight That Endure” and cast their vote here. The winning moment will be revealed the Friday before Super Bowl XLV.

Finally, the iPad extra to Attack of the Space Eaters—Tim Layden’s feature story on the playoff impact of massive defensive linemen—provides a gallery showing how these big and hungry anchors in the trenches have evolved over the years. It’s photographic proof of how their importance in the playoffs has grown in conjunction with their ever-expanding waste lines.

For those interested in football on the collegiate level, we have you covered. As an add-on to senior writer Austin Murphy’s (@si_austinmurphy) recap of TCU’s Rose Bowl win—a statement victory for the Horned Frogs and their non-BCS brethren—readers will enjoy a panoramic shot from this year’s game in addition to BCS title game predictions courtesy of Murphy, Lars Anderson, Albert Chen, Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) and Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples).


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