The eyes were hidden behind a helmet visor.
But No. 98 was pumped up. He ran out to the field for his first workout with the team after being cleared by doctors in his rehabilitation from a left Achilles tendon tear.
Pagano reminded Mathis is just getting started with individual work and the six-time Pro Bowl pass rusher still has a long way to go to be game ready.
“You guys asked me I think in the offseason and I said if I was a betting man, I remember, I’d put all my chips in on him,” Pagano said. “I’d bet on Rob. It’s great to have him back out there. I still think we’ve got a ways to go. We’re not over the hill yet with him, but it’s a great start and it’s a great place to be for him. We’ve got 20 days until the opener and if he’s ready, then we’ll do what we have to do but if he’s not, we’ll take our time with him.”
Mathis, 34, reiterated his intent to be on the field for the Colts’ regular-season opener Sept. 13 at the Buffalo Bills. How his mended leg responds to workouts will determine if that’s possible.
For Tuesday, the Colts enjoyed an emotional boost with their leader back. They didn’t need to see beyond that visor.
“He had a shield on so I couldn’t see his eyes,” Pagano said. “It had a big horseshoe on it, I didn’t know they put horseshoes on those things now. In all seriousness, it was just great. You saw eye of the tiger, if you will, you saw that passion and that gleam of ‘Man, I’m back, I’m back on the grass, I’m back with my teammates, I get to play football again.’
“He’s a kid. We’re all coaching and playing a kids’ game. We know what the stakes are but he’s able to go out and play four-square, hopscotch, whatever you want to call it. He’s playing football again. Are those girls’ games? Maybe I said that because I’ve got daughters. Maybe dodge-ball.”
Mathis is coming off the first serious injury of his 13-year NFL career. He missed last season after suffering the injury during a September workout in his hometown of Atlanta while serving a four-game suspension.
The Colts have continually said they would be cautious with his comeback. Owner Jim Irsay has suggested Mathis isn’t expected back until late September or early October. But Irsay and Pagano have alluded to the player’s tremendous work ethic and kept the door open to an earlier return to action.
His presence in the lineup could be invaluable. The last time he played in 2013, he led the NFL with 19.5 sacks. He has a franchise-record 111 sacks in his career. When at full strength, Mathis often demands double teams. That opens up pass-rush lanes for teammates.
“You’ve got a great, great competitor, a guy that loves football, loves his teammates, loves being around the building and then all of a sudden you’re taken away from it,” Pagano said. “Early on, you know you have a process and it’s going to be awhile. But when you start feeling better and you start feeling like yourself and you start moving around, you’re with the trainers, you’re doing bags, change-of-direction drills, pass-rush drills, you start feeling really good, that’s when you’ve got to kind of pump the brakes.”
Quarterback Andrew Luck said he was unaware Mathis had joined the team until he heard a cheer from the defensive huddle before the workout. Teammates gushed about having their leader back in uniform.
“It lifts your spirits,” Luck said. “He’s a warrior. In my, a little over three years here now or coming up on the fourth year, he’s been the consummate professional. As good a teammate as I think you’ll ever find. I remember watching him play is a thing of beauty, so glad he’s back on the field.”
Outside linebacker Trent Cole, who signed with the Colts in March free agency, shook Mathis’ hand.
“Just great to see him out there,” Cole said. “He’s a statue here for the Colts. I’ve always known of Robert, watched his game. I’m a big fan of his game. Just to see him back out there was great.”
Pagano said a Monday meeting with the training staff resulted in Mathis being activated off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
“We’ve just got to be smart and protect Rob from Rob,” the coach said of his player’s anticipated eagerness. “Robert’s past that point right now where he can go through the walk-through stuff and do the individual period and we’ll keep incrementally adding some reps onto him.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.