A preseason without a single snap of game action kept Robert Mathis refreshed, but also meant doubters wouldn’t give it a rest.
If you’re Mathis, that’s not necessarily a negative. The 35-year-old Indianapolis Colts pass rusher has been driven by doubt since Day 1 in the NFL.
“I have never really had a lot of (butt) kissers my whole career,” the 14th-year pro said last week with a chuckle, “so I really don’t know what that feels like. It’s all about working, grinding and earning my seat at the table.”
Entering the final year of his contract, there’s no shortage of those wondering how much Mathis has left. And that’s just where the questions start. Can the six-time Pro Bowl selection play to that level again? Can the franchise’s all-time sack leader make enough impact plays? On a defense without pass-rushing depth, can Mathis be disruptive enough to draw some double teams to make his teammates better?
Or is he just too old? It’s always something.
Once an unknown fifth-round draft pick out of Alabama A&M, Mathis hasn’t forgotten what so many “experts” said when he arrived in Indianapolis. His Twitter bio @Robert Mathis98 provides background: “I’m TOO (SMALL 235 lbs, DUMB 3.4 GPA, SLOW 4.5 forty, SHORT 6’0, TALENTLESS 2 SBs and 5 Pro Bowls) to be where I am today.”
“Ironically, people who said that when I was 23, 24 and 25, they’re still saying it when I’m 33, 34 and 35,” Mathis said with a shrug.
Sometimes athletes feed off self-perceived disrespect. But Mathis isn’t just creating critics. Today’s sports world has so many know-it-alls, Mathis finds his share while active on Twitter. People forget or don’t realize his career numbers: 118 sacks, 506 tackles, 49 forced fumbles.
“Yeah, I hear it more,” he said. “Now I’m too old. It’s a whole bunch of ‘toos.’”
He shrugs again.
Those haters said he took steroids when Mathis was suspended four games for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing drugs in 2014. Mathis has always said emphatically that he never took steroids; he admitted to using a fertility drug to help get his wife pregnant. Still, many who cheer him didn’t buy it.
While suspended, Mathis tore his left Achilles tendon during a workout in his hometown of Atlanta. They said he was washed up.
He endured 10 surgeries to make it back in 2015, starting slow but regaining his strength during the season. His seven sacks tied Kendall Langford for the team lead. Six of those seven sacks came in the last 10 games.
“Later in the year, I felt a lot better, closer to where I feel now versus earlier in the year,” he said. “I was playing catch-up for the most part. I’m feeling healthy now. That’s really all you can ask for.”
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano decided he couldn’t risk playing Mathis in preseason. Why risk it?
“You don’t need to see him play,” Pagano said. “I don’t need to see him play. Nobody in this room needs to see Robert play. He has not forgotten how to play football and how to rush the passer and set edges. So he’ll be fine.”
While some players suggest they need at least a few snaps to be prepared for the regular season, Mathis didn’t seem to mind.
“At this age, it’s more mental, being mentally ready and sharp than actually going out there and physically beating yourself down,” Mathis said. “The older you get, the slower the healing process is. I feel like I’ll be ready. I’m just keeping myself in good shape. I’ll be ready for Week 1.”
The Colts open the regular season Sunday at home against the Detroit Lions at Lucas Oil Stadium. The list of Colts starters who won’t play includes cornerback Vontae Davis, offensive guard Jack Mewhort and defensive tackle Arthur Jones. Missing key players places more importance on the team leaders to set an example.
“We’re not a team that likes to hang our hat on excuses,” Mathis said. “We know this game has a 100 percent injury rate and it has to be next man up, whether it’s myself, our franchise quarterback, our number one receiver or our number one corner. It just has to be next man up.”
Mathis doesn’t sound certain about if his career will extend beyond this year. He leaves that option open.
“I don’t necessarily feel like I’m 25, but I still feel like I’ve got something to offer this game,” he said. “As long as I feel that way, I’m going to keep going.”