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How Tyrann Mathieu went from 'Honey Badger' to 'Landlord' of Chiefs Kingdom in just one season

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The music blared, the red-clad fans screamed uncontrollably, and amid the chaos of the greatest comeback in Kansas City Chiefs history, two of the team’s most influential players repeatedly shared an interaction.

This was Jan. 12, during the course of the Chiefs’ 24-point comeback in their 51-31 divisional round win over the Houston Texans, and damn near every time quarterback Patrick Mahomes came off the field following another touchdown drive, he locked eyes with safety Tyrann Mathieu, the Chiefs’ leader on the other side of the ball, and conveyed the same message.

“Every time he came off the sideline, he looked me in my eyes and he said ‘lead ... lead …. lead,’” Mathieu told Yahoo Sports. 

The fact that Mahomes, 24, would say that to a more veteran player in Mathieu, 27, is a reflection of their symbiosis.

After the game, Mathieu marveled over Mahomes’ focus. Much of the NFL world did as Mahomes’ superstardom is set to reach another level during the weeklong buildup in Miami for Super Bowl LIV. But the duo’s interaction should also be taken as a reflection of the ownership that Mathieu, who was signed to a three-year, $42 million contract last offseason, has taken over the defense, despite being a Chief for less than 11 months.

“He is really a unique person — I've enjoyed being around him this year,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid recently said. “He is everything everybody said he was, plus a little [more]."

The Chiefs' Tyrann Mathieu (32) and Patrick Mahomes soak in the glory after Kansas City won its first AFC title in 50 years. (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

With a “little more” being a tempo-setting force, someone who leads with his words and actions, and is commanding an increasingly larger presence, both in the Chiefs’ locker room and on the field.

“He’s kind of, like, the soul of this defense,” defensive tackle Xavier Williams told Yahoo Sports. “The intensity that he brings gets everybody else in the right state of mind.”

Williams noted that Mathieu’s post-play trash-talk also gives the defense its spine.

“Which is more impressive because stature-wise he ain’t, like, the biggest guy,” Williams said with a chuckle of his 5-foot-9, 190-pound teammate. “But you see him talking down to like, a 6-3 wide receiver or something like that, and I mean, he’ll come down there and get with the linemen, too. So I think that just kind of really gets you like, ‘Aw, man, if he’s gonna go like this, I have to, too. I have to match it.’”

Mathieu’s maturation from a troubled player at LSU into a team leader in the NFL is one of the top league feelgood stories this season. He is careful to keep the rise in perspective.

“It’s not that they didn’t have leaders here,” Mathieu told Yahoo Sports. “It’s more, I think, that he [general manager Brett Veach] was looking for a certain personality that could really kind of lead other alphas.”

Mathieu has fit the bill, and perhaps the best proof of that is how now, less than a year within his arrival in Kansas City, the man known as “Honey Badger,” a nickname bestowed upon him nine years ago during his days as a turnover-creating machine in college, has earned another moniker from his teammates: “Landlord.”

Chiefs’ Mathieu explains origin of ‘Landlord’ nickname

During Mathieu’s first six months as a Chief, he learned that the club openly refers to its multi-state fandom as “Chiefs Kingdom.” So right before the season opener, the word “landlord” popped in his head while he was firing off a tweet, which garnered over 6,000 likes.

Six weeks later — with the Chiefs fresh off a Thursday night win over the Broncos that ended a two-game losing streak — Mathieu took the “landlord” gimmick a step further on Twitter, thrusting the title upon himself.

“I think ultimately, they brought me here to kind of be that guy, right?” Mathieu told Yahoo Sports. “Obviously, you don’t really like to rush nicknames … but I just felt like that was my position, that was the title Veach gave me during the first conversation we had. He didn’t say ‘Landlord,’ but he made me feel like hey, this is gonna be my ship to run, and that’s kinda where that comes from.”

All of which explains why Mathieu has used the nickname on Twitter nearly 20 times since that Denver game, compared to “Honey Badger” just twice.

Mathieu doesn’t dislike the “Honey Badger” nickname — he still responds to it — but the new one is a better fit for where he is now in life.

“I feel like the Honey Badger was a splash-play guy, he just took the ball from people,” Mathieu said. “I feel like the Landlord, he governs the entire field. Like, it’s not so much about him reacting, it’s about him understanding what’s really going on. I feel like landlords understand that, and their tenants don’t always know how the building is built ... but the landlord does.”

Mathieu is playing the best football of his life

Mathieu finished first on the team in pass deflections (12) and interceptions (four), and third on the team in tackles (75). He made it easy for the nickname to take hold among teammates and Chiefs fans alike. 

For his efforts, Mathieu earned first-team All-Pro honors for the second time in his seven-year career, and he is convinced he’s playing the best football of his life

“I may have made more splash plays, maybe, in the past,” Mathieu said, “but I feel like what I’m doing now, the guys I’m playing with, this is by far the best ball I’ve ever played. No doubt.”

Some of that also has to do with the way he has been deployed by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Mathieu is utilized as a Troy Polamalu type, someone who will line up in multiple spots and is given the freedom to make plays with his instincts.

”I’m so grateful man that I got to be with Spags, and to have a coach that really believes in you,” Mathieu said. “[When they recruited me], they made it seem like I was gonna be doing everything I’m doing now, and that meant everything to me. It’s been a blessing, man, because it doesn’t happen like that all the time. Maybe some teams just [say whatever to] get you in ... but there’s been a lot of honesty here.”

Truthfulness that has helped cultivate a trust between player and coach that has allowed Mathieu to become a megaphone.

“There have been a number of times during the year where I have sat in my office and said, ‘I need to convey some message to these guys somehow, someway,’” Spagnuolo said. “Ultimately, what I normally do is I go to him and say, ‘Look, can you steer them a little bit this way.’ Usually, [he says] ‘I got it, Coach,’ and we roll.”

So when Mathieu was designated one of six team captains before the playoffs — the Chiefs are one of the few teams that wait all season before doing so — it was hardly a shock. Neither was the fact that even in the minutes immediately following the Chiefs’ win over Tennessee in the AFC championship game, a man now called “Landlord” didn’t seem satisfied with half payment on a season.

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