Robert Mathis returned Tuesday.
Yes, we're just talking about practice. That might not seem like a big deal, but the Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker hasn’t participated in a team workout in a year. The team leader’s activation from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list was an encouraging development.
His 2014 season lost to a left Achilles tendon tear, the 34-year-old pass rusher will start slow with individual work. It’s doubtful he plays in Saturday night’s preseason game at St. Louis. But Mathis still has his mind made up about when he will be ready.
Despite the Colts’ continual suggestions that they will be cautious in bringing back the franchise sack leader — owner Jim Irsay said maybe late September or early October — Mathis reiterated his plan to be on the field for the Sept. 13 season opener at the Buffalo Bills.
True to his understated nature, Mathis was succinct when asked if he can be ready for Week 1.
“Yes,” he said.
Will he be ready?
“Yes,” he repeated.
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano reminded Mathis still has a long way to go to be game ready, but he didn’t rule it out.
“It’s great, it’s great, really excited for him, long journey for anybody that’s got to sit out a year and has been through all he’s been through,” the coach said. “So it was great to have him back out there. Obviously going to ease him into football, a little individual period. We’ve just got to be smart and protect Rob from Rob.”
Mathis, who has 111 career sacks in 12 seasons, didn’t hide the fact that he was a bit nervous when he ran back onto the practice field.
“It was fun,” he said. “Just had butterflies, nervousness and the boys, they’ve waiting for the (old gangster) to jump back in practice as long as the (old gangster) been waiting to get back with them. A lot of high-fives and smiles, just a great day.”
Mathis is more than just a six-time Pro Bowl star and elite pass rusher. The offseason decision to not re-sign wide receiver Reggie Wayne makes Mathis the team’s undisputed leader. He’s typically not vocal, preferring to lead by example.
That example has been memorable. A fifth-round draft pick out of Alabama A&M started out turning heads on special teams. Although undersized at 6-2 and 245 pounds, he eventually earned distinction for getting to the quarterback. Mathis often demanded double teams, especially after former Colts sack leader Dwight Freeney wasn’t re-signed in 2013.
Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman didn’t realize Mathis had been cleared.
“I just turned around and he was there (on the field),” Freeman said. “I saw the 9-8 was on the field in full pads and everything. So it was a shock to most everybody out there.”
Shock quickly became elation. Players admitted that Mathis being back was a boost.
“It’s Rob, man,” Freeman said. “He’s seeing us out there, watching us go. He’s been chomping at the bit. It’s Robert Mathis. He’s a pillar guy. He’s a legend here for years and years. We’re excited to get him out here.
Mathis said he won’t know for sure how his body will handle playing until he’s actually in a game. Until then, he’ll keep working hard to ensure readiness, be it Sept. 13 or beyond.
That’s all he can control, he admitted, which is why he didn’t waste any time putting on his shoulder pads and getting ready for practice when the Colts gave him the go-ahead.
“Oh, you had to hurry up and do it before they changed their minds,” he said with a smile.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.