One of the first things Bill O'Brien wants to make perfectly clear is that he never wanted to lose the Honey Badger.
In just one season in Houston, versatile safety Tyrann Mathieu had become such a ball-hawking leader that he was voted a team captain. He piled up nearly 90 tackles, filled in at nickel back when injuries decimated the Texans defensive backfield, and he helped to lead the franchise back to the playoffs after a one-year absence.
So when Mathieu's one-year prove-it contract was up, the Texans made a strong push to keep him. Various reports suggest they offered him a multiyear contract worth about $11 million per year, a nice bump from the $7 million he made last season.
It wasn't enough. Not when the Kansas City Chiefs entered the picture.
With new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo transitioning the Chiefs to a 3-4 defensive scheme, the Chiefs knew they needed to find some help rushing the passer and in the secondary. General manager Brett Veach solved the first problem by trading for defensive end Frank Clark and signing him to a long-term contract, and he solved the second by luring Mathieu to Kansas City with a $42 million, three-year deal and the chance to play for a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Now, the Honey Badger has the Chiefs one game away from a repeat appearance in the AFC title game. And wouldn't you know it? Standing in their way Sunday is the team that wanted so desperately to keep him.
"It was hard. He's a great guy," O'Brien said. "He's got awesome leadership qualities, you know? Really instinctive, good football player. Cares about his team. Cares about his teammates. But that's the NFL. The NFL, every team has a salary cap to deal with, every player has the ability once they reach free agency to do what's best for him and their family. We have a ton of respect for Honey Badger. He did a great job for us last year."
He's done an even better job for the Chiefs this year.
The 27-year-old Mathieu had 75 tackles, a couple of sacks and picked off four passes, the second most of his career. He played all over the field for Spagnuolo, showing a deft ability to switch from playing center field to man-to-man defense to blitzing off the corner depending on the call, the scheme and the game situation.
He also provided leadership for a team whose defense was the biggest culprit in their overtime loss to the Patriots in last year's AFC title game. He brought the same swagger that earned him his college nickname to the Chiefs, and it proceeded to sweep through the locker room, even giving the Chiefs' high-powered offense a boost of confidence.
"The Honey Badger came in, and guys like Kendall Fuller who have been here, they kind of pieced it together. This happened to me in New York and I credited the players that were there and the same thing happened here," Spagnuolo said. "When you bring in a bunch of free agents and new faces, the players who are already here — it's as important as what they do as the people who came in. Our guys have done a really good job of embracing the new players that came on board."
Mathieu, a former Heisman Trophy finalist, had an up-and-down first five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, though injuries were a significant factor in that. But regardless, Mathieu found himself looking for a job last offseason and ended up signing with Houston, where he managed to stay healthy enough last season to reestablish himself among NFL safeties.
There were certainly other ones available in free agency.
Giants safety Landon Collins signed the biggest deal at $84 million over six years with the Redskins. Adrian Amos signed a $37 million, four-year deal with the Packers. Earl Thomas went to the Ravens for $55 million over four years. Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix signed with the Bears and Lamarcus Joyner left the Rams for the Raiders.
All of them were talented options, and there's a chance any of them would have excelled in Kansas City. But the Chiefs insist they targeted Mathieu all along, and when the value and length of the contract matched up with their resources, it made for a perfect match that has turned into one of the best signings of the entire NFL offseason.
Mathieu was voted second-team All-Pro at safety and first-team All-Pro at defensive back.
"We knew that was what we were getting," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "I had talked to Bill actually. Bill would have loved to have had him there. It's just part of the National Football League and the way it works. He told me that he was a phenomenal kid both on the field and off. Great leader. Kind of had a head's up on what we were getting here. And I just wanted him to be himself. Leadership just comes naturally with him."
Well, he's helped to lead the AFC West champions back to the playoffs.
Now, can he lead them all the way to the Super Bowl?