KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tyrann Mathieu kept hoping, even as the days slowly went by and he returned one positive test after another, that he would be cleared of COVID-19 in time to join the Kansas City Chiefs for their season opener against Cleveland.
He was. Just barely. And then he sat out anyway.
Mathieu was cleared the day before the Chiefs beat the Browns 33-29 at Arrowhead Stadium, and coach Andy Reid made the prudent decision to hold him out after missing nearly two weeks of practice.
And while Mathieu would have loved to be on the field last weekend, he acknowledged Thursday that the coaching staff made the right decision.
“I think it would be tough on anybody to not practice for 10 days and try to go out there and play a game you have to win at home,” Mathieu said. “I thought coach Reid, the training staff, everybody really made the best decision for me as a player. It was much appreciated, much respected. But I’m very happy to be back.”
The Chiefs are very happy to have the three-time All-Pro safety back.
They were shredded by Baker Mayfield and the Browns offense in the first half on Sunday, trudging off to the locker room in the depths of a 22-10 hole. It took some brilliant adjustments by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and a game-wrecking pass rush from Chris Jones, to hold Cleveland mostly in check as the Chiefs mounted their second-half comeback.
Coincidentally, it was Mathieu’s understudy that helped lead the way.
After Juan Thornhill was victimized as much as anybody by Mayfield in the first half, he made a series of important plays in the second. None was bigger than stripping Nick Chubb, causing a fumble that the Chiefs turned into a touchdown.
“I thought he just got more confidence as the game went on,” Reid said, “and again, Juan is a real smart kid, and him seeing it and putting himself in position gives him a good opportunity to make plays.”
What did Mathieu see from his perch on the sideline?
“We try to hold ourselves to a high standard in the DB room, and I probably thought (Thornhill) didn’t start the game he wanted,” Mathieu said, “but he put his head down, came to the sideline, took the coaching, went back out and made plays.”
Some of that coaching came from Mathieu, who had been fully vaccinated, and was allowed on the field after returning the two negative COVID-19 tests 24 hours apart that fulfilled the league’s virus protocols.
“It was tough,” Mathieu said. “I wasn’t technically injured. I’ve been injured in this league before. But when you can’t help your teammates, it puts you in a bad spot. I was proud of the way those guys fought.”
Still, his return couldn’t come soon enough for the Chiefs, who now head to Baltimore to face Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in a Sunday night showcase. Jackson is winless in three tries against the team he calls his “kryptonite.”
“Look, did we miss Tyrann? Yeah, absolutely,” Spagnuolo said. “But I want to give credit to the guys that played. They did a great job. That first game was tough for us defensively because the offense they run is completely different from what we’ve seen, and to try to simulate that was very hard.”
About as hard as simulating Jackson’s ability to run and throw. It puts an incredible amount of pressure on the back end of a defense, which is where Mathieu’s return comes in handy. Along with being one of the Chiefs’ best playmakers, he often has the responsibility of making sure everybody knows what they’re doing on any given play.
Spagnuolo could only think of one other player in his coaching career that carried a similar burden.
“The one that jumped to my mind was Antonio Pierce in New York. He ran the whole show,” Spagnuolo said of the Giants linebacker. “Those guys that make the other 10 better because they’re lining them up, they’re so valuable.”
DE Frank Clark (hamstring) practiced for the second consecutive day Thursday.
“Hopefully, no setbacks,” Spagnuolo said. “We need Frank out there.”
Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy brushed off rumors that he would be interested in the Southern California coaching job, which came open when Clay Helton was fired this week. Bieniemy grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of La Puente.
“You know me, guys, I’m where my feet are,” he said. “I’m focused on the task at hand, not worried about where my name is being mentioned. I’m making sure we’re preparing for this weekend’s opponent.”