Chiefs reflect cold-hearted business of the NFL in their swap of Eric Berry for Tyrann Mathieu

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On Tyrann Mathieu’s first day as a Kansas City Chief, there was a fitting amount of talk about other safeties, both during and after his introductory news conference.

Some of it centered on Landon Collins, who had an All-Pro season with the New York Giants in 2016 while playing the same position Mathieu will now assume under new Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Some of it focused on former All-Pro and Chiefs team captain Eric Berry, the player Mathieu is effectively replacing as the defense’s leader.

But when the Chiefs were recruiting Mathieu earlier this week, it was the team’s willingness to compare him to another safety — Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins, whom Spagnuolo and coach Andy Reid both coached years ago in Philadelphia — that most accurately explains the critical role the Chiefs envision Mathieu playing on their defense.

“It made the hair stand up on my back a little bit,” Mathieu told Yahoo Sports with a grin Thursday. “I’m a football historian, so I know everything about the players that came before me, and when coach [Andy] Reid mentioned Brian Dawkins ... all I think about is him jumping over people’s heads and catching all those interceptions, and that’s the kind of player I want to be. That’s part of the reason why I’m here.”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 30: Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Houston Texans takes a moment during warm-up before playing the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The Chiefs signed Tyrann Mathieu to help push the defense, particularly in the playoffs. (Getty Images)

The Chiefs made that much clear after Mathieu’s three-year, $42 million deal was made official Thursday.

“There were a lot of safeties out there, but I don’t think there are many safeties out there that can really do everything on the field — call the show, run everything back there, play down in the box, play slot, blitz off the edge, play center field,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. “And guys like that aren’t cheap … so once you get a guy like that it certainly expedites your process on other players on the team and your decision you make on those players.”

Sentimentality didn’t matter in defensive rebuild

The cost of getting what Veach called “the ultimate chess piece” for Spagnuolo in an effort to improve a 31st-ranked defense that cost Kansas City a Super Bowl berth last season came down to more than dollars and cents. For an organization that has largely valued continuity since Reid’s arrival in 2013, the signing of Mathieu came at the expense of Berry, who at his best boasts some of the same versatility as Mathieu. It was the latest sign of the team’s urgency to improve the defense quickly, and at the expense of sentimentality.

Since their 37-31 loss in the AFC championship game to the New England Patriots – in which the Chiefs surrendered 524 yards – Kansas City has fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, traded its best pass rusher in Dee Ford and released two team icons in Berry and outside linebacker Justin Houston, who set the team’s single-season sack record in 2014.

The release of Berry on Wednesday is the one that, by far, cuts deepest. Berry has, in many ways, been Kansas City royalty since the Chiefs made him the fifth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. His comeback from cancer — which was punctuated by the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award in 2015 and two straight All-Pro seasons — commanded the respect of teammates and fans alike, so much so that some were surprised when the Chiefs cut him Wednesday, despite the injury issues that have befallen him since he signed his six-year, $78 million extension two years ago.

After missing practically the entire 2017 season with a torn left Achilles, Berry was limited to only two regular-season games in 2018 with a nagging right heel issue. Along the way, Berry’s health became a topic du jour in Kansas City, with many fans wondering why Berry didn’t play through it since team officials kept saying he was day-to-day for the first three months of the season. Berry believed that with some rest — and not surgery — the condition would get better. He returned to play all 97 possible defensive snaps in the AFC championship game.

KANSAS CITY, MO - JANUARY 20: Safety Eric Berry #29 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates the fourth quarter interception of teammate safety Daniel Sorensen #49 of the Kansas City Chiefs against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 20, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)
Eric Berry's run in Kansas City came to an end after nine seasons. (Getty Images)

Opting against surgery may have cost Berry $7.25M

After the season, Berry saw noted foot and ankle specialist Dr. Bob Anderson for a second opinion on his injured right heel, and was told by Anderson that he was progressing well and did not need surgery to play in 2019. Berry was relieved, though he knew that by not having surgery, he was contractually giving the Chiefs an opportunity to release him before he was due a $7.25 million roster bonus on March 15.

Now, a selfish player — or one solely concerned with money — would have had the surgery anyway. Not only would it have guaranteed his contract for 2019, it would have guaranteed he remained a Chief, which he hoped to do. Yet, Berry took the risk and opted against the procedure because he felt it was the right thing to do if he wanted to play football this season.

But this is the NFL, a business through and through. And with this being the Chiefs’ last opportunity to spend freely before they make Patrick Mahomes the highest-paid player in football next offseason, the club released the beloved Berry as a post-June 1 cut on Wednesday, freeing up $9.5 million in salary-cap space that will help them accommodate the three-year, $42 million deal they had just signed his replacement to.

Now it’s up to Mathieu to reward the Chiefs for their faith in him by filling Berry’s shoes with his play and leadership, not unlike Dawkins did so many years ago, when he led Reid and Spagnuolo’s Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2005.

And it’s a responsibility that Mathieu is embracing, as the Chiefs’ willingness to make tough choices in the name of winning has never been more clear.

“I think our games are the same,” Mathieu said of Berry. “He was coached by John Chavis at Tennessee, I was coached by John Chavis at LSU. Frankly, I wore No. 14 because of [Berry] — nobody knows that. It would have been an honor to play with him, but I’ll try to do my best to do it the right way ... the way he would want it done.”

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