This time, it’s not “Next man up.”
It can’t be. I know that’s how Colts coaches and players have to look at it. There’s still a long NFL season to play. And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t going to be an observational piece on how this team is dead without injured outside linebacker Robert Mathis.
But the truth is, Mathis is irreplaceable. The Colts will try to generate a pass rush as a team, with timely blitzes and hopefully some improvement from outside linebackers Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden.
We know, however, that Mathis is one of those rare talents, a game changer.
And what I like about the guy just as much, if not more, is how he carries himself. Nobody is more humble.
Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman uttered the words that define No. 98. When Freeman arrived from the Canadian Football League as an unknown just hoping to make the roster in 2012, Mathis told him, “Just shut up and be great.”
That’s Robert, always understated and to the point, a quiet warrior who has set the standard for Colts pass rushers. Freeman listened, too. He has kept quiet and been the team’s leading tackler the last two years.
When Mathis arrived in 2003 as an unknown fifth-round pick out of Alabama A&M, his interviews were like pulling teeth. The dude just didn’t say much, especially about himself. Talk, he understood, is indeed cheap in the NFL. It’s about what you do on the field.
“The more you talk,” he said to me in one of those early chats, “the more you show your ignorance.”
Despite an obvious size disadvantage of being 6-2 and 245 pounds (weight that he has always struggled to keep on during the course of a season), he would attack these 300-pound-plus offensive tackles with a ferocity that was a privilege to watch. I’ve never seen a guy with his motor.
The perception was that Mathis benefited from having fellow Pro Bowl star Dwight Freeney demanding double teams on the other side. Mathis never said a word about not getting the respect of Freeney, who would eventually set team sack records, 16 in a season and 107.5 in his Colts career. In time, though, opponents would sometimes double both guys.
Freeney wasn’t re-signed after 2012. Teams could double Mathis almost all the time now. Yet in his first season without No. 93, Mathis rewrote the record books. He passed his buddy to set new Colts records with an NFL-best 19.5 sacks and 111 in his career last season.
Again, you never heard Mathis say anything about how great he was, that the numbers showed he was in fact better than Freeney. That’s just talk. It doesn’t matter.
At a time when Mathis should have been on top of the world, he made a decision to have another child with his wife by using a fertility drug, Clomid, more commonly associated with masking the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Media and fans jumped to conclusions and condemned the man when he was suspended for the first four games of this season.
He explained his situation on Twitter, saying it wasn’t about using steroids. He had asked his doctor if the drug was OK, but Mathis admitted he made a mistake by not asking the NFL. The man wanted to honor his mother’s wish to have another grandchild. His mother, as it turns out, was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.
Brandi Mathis gave birth to Brielle Emma-Rose on July 19th. Mathis has said in interviews since that when he looks at his daughter, “Brielle sees no wrong.”
Mathis looked me straight in the eyes in the offseason and said, “I don’t take steroids,” and I believe him.
Instead of a dramatic return to the field after a four-game suspension, when you just know Mathis would have been hell-bent on proving his stats weren’t a byproduct of performance-enhancing drugs, he’s been robbed of that next step for now. We don’t know the details of his workout in Atlanta, what he was doing when he tore an Achilles. But knowing Mathis, he was probably busting his butt like usual to try to ensure he would hit the ground running when he returned.
Injuries are without question the harshest part of the business that is the NFL. Some think it’s when teams cut players and move on. But ask players like Vick Ballard and Donald Thomas, who have now been lost to season-ending injuries the past two seasons, and they will tell you the cruelest aspect of the game is when the body fails. There’s no warning. It just happens. And a player is pushed to the side to deal with the physical and emotional trauma. They no longer feel like a part of the team.
Mathis will be back. I concur with Colts head coach Chuck Pagano that Mathis will help in any way the six-time Pro Bowl star can. When Peyton Manning left the Colts after 2011, the Colts became a team with two undisputed leaders, wide receiver Reggie Wayne and Mathis.
The Colts lost Wayne last year to an ACL injury. Many questioned if his career was done, but he made it back.
I look forward to seeing a healthy Mathis next season. It will be a contract year. And unless he’s thinking about retiring, I won’t be surprised if he plays like a man who wants to stick around a little longer.
I’m reminded of how he went back to school a while back and got his college degree, then participated in commencement exercises. If you’re Robert Mathis, you finish what you start.
And Mathis isn’t finished yet.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.