PHOENIX – Bruce Arians is proud, proud of a young man he took a chance on nearly eight years ago.
Arians, then the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, rolled the dice when the Cardinals selected former LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu with the No.69 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Mathieu had just spent a year away from football after LSU expelled him for failing multiple drug tests. He later was arrested for possessing marijuana following his ejection from the program.
Yet the Cardinals decided that bringing in Mathieu was a risk worth taking.
And they were right. Mathieu developed into a Pro Bowl player on the field and worked to become a role model off it. He made an All-Pro team in 2015, picked off nine passes and accumulated 213 tackles in his time with the Cardinals.
“(He’s) my favorite draft choice of all time,” Arians said.
“(Arians) was one of the first people in the NFL that really believed in me,” Mathieu said. “He really allowed me to flourish at a young age in this league.”
Now Arians, as the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Mathieu, a star safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, will face off against each other Sunday in Tampa Bay for Super Bowl LV.
The bond Mathieu and Arians developed in Arizona isn’t the only attachment the state has to Sunday’s big game.
Thirteen members of the Buccaneers coaching staff have ties to Arizona, with most of them having worked under Arians when he was with the Cardinals. Among those names are Tampa Bay offensive and defensive coordinators Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, respectively. Bowles was the Cardinals defensive coordinator under Arians, while Leftwich worked for Arians as an intern coach before becoming the quarterbacks coach in 2017.
“Those guys are great,” Mathieu said of his former Cardinals coaches. “To see those guys, all of those guys really, (to) continue coaching and continue teaching and continue (to be) lead(ers), that says everything about those guys as coach(es).”
And for some on the Buccaneers staff, those ties to the Grand Canyon state goes beyond the professional level.
Buccaneers offensive line coach Joe Gilbert and assistant head coach Harold Goodwin were both on UArizona’s coaching staff in 2018, Gilbert as the offensive line coach and Goodwin as a staff analyst. “I just told them to give me whatever it takes to make sure that I get health insurance,” Goodwin said.
And Mike Chiurco, one of Tampa Bay’s assistants to the head coach, was the head football coach at Seton Catholic High School in Chandler in 2018.
Even Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht had two stints in the Cardinals front office. Simply put, Tampa Bay’s ties with Arizona run peculiarly deep.
“I loved all the time I had (in Arizona),” Arians said. “The relationships we built with everyone out there…. It’s just fond fond memories, the fans are fantastic.”
This Buccaneers coaching staff, now at least two years removed from being in Arizona, has led this talented Tampa Bay team to its first Super Bowl appearance since 2002.
Quarterback Tom Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion who many believe is the greatest to ever play the position, guides a Buccaneers offense loaded with weapons, most notably wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, former All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown and former All-Pro tight end and UArizona alum Rob Gronkowski.
“They have a great offense. They have great weapons all over the place,” Mathieu said. “It’s a big challenge when I really peel my eyes back and take a look at the Buccaneers offense.”
The defense, led by former All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, was a strong unit all year. Tampa Bay finished in the top 10 in points allowed and yards allowed during the regular season.
The group also held the No.1 offense in football, the Green Bay Packers, to just three touchdowns in the NFC championship game.
The Buccaneers have had an accomplished season. But when it comes to Sunday’s game, Tampa Bay enters the Super Bowl as underdogs.
The Chiefs are still the defending Super Bowl champs, also coming off a stellar performance in the AFC championship game, smashing the Buffalo Bills 38-24.
Kansas City is known for its offense, a dominant unit led by superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes is only 25 yet holds the highest passer rating in NFL history in both the regular season and postseason. He’s also already thrown 17 touchdown passes for over 2,000 yards in his short playoff career.
“We understand that he’s very very talented and he has good speed,” Buccaneers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “(He’s) able to throw on both sides of the ball, whether that’s rolling out to his right or to his left.”
Equipped with the speedy Tyreek Hill at wide receiver and a dominant force at tight end in Travis Kelce, the Chiefs aren’t only talented, their top weapons mesh beautifully with Mahomes’ gun-slinging style of play. Kansas City’s offense this year finished in the top three in every major passing category as a result.
But, as the saying goes, defense – not offense – wins championships. And although the Chiefs defense isn’t necessarily their team’s greatest strength, Kansas City still has a solid group.
Just ask Brady.
“They’ve got a lot of great players on that defense, a lot of veterans,” Brady said. “It’s going to be pretty tough.”
This Chiefs unit is already a championship level group, as Kansas City only lost two starters on defense from last season’s Super Bowl winning team. And that’s before factoring in the improvements from players like Mathieu, who snatched a career high six interceptions this year.
For Brady, Kansas City’s defense is much more difficult to handle when the former Cardinals safety is lurking in the secondary.
“I really love Tyrann as a player,” Brady said. “I can tell he watches a lot of film. He’s in on the quarterback, he wants to tell what that quarterback’s doing.
“He’s just one of those incredibly talented players who can do it all.”
The connections between Kansas City’s players and staff with Arizona aren’t as profound. Only three members of the Chief’s coaching staff and six players, including Mathieu, have any ties to the state.
But one of those six players, former Cardinals fourth round pick and defensive end Alex Okafor, is particularly eager for Sunday’s game. Last year, Okafor was unable to play in the Super Bowl due to a season-ending pectoral injury.
“To have the opportunity to come back and do it this year is special to me, and it’s incredible,” Okafor said.
Okafor knows that just getting to the Super Bowl is a once in a lifetime opportunity. He also understands that having the opportunity to play in the game twice requires even more good fortune.
But sometimes all a player needs is that second chance. Just ask Mathieu, Okafor’s teammate now and previously in Arizona, about the importance of just getting a chance.
“(Being in Arizona) meant the most to me,” Mathieu said. “When I think of my time in Arizona, I think about all of the good people, all of the good teammates that I had that really put their arm around me, embraced me and really allowed me to flourish in the NFL.”
It’s safe to say that Mathieu has made the most out of that opportunity.
“I am so proud of the man that he has become,” Arians said.