By Dan Pompei
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Colts first heard about an undersized outside linebacker from Alabama A&M back in the spring of 2002, they could not possibly have known Robert Mathis might someday merit consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The team's area scout who first vetted him had understandable concerns about his lack of size (6-foot-2, 235 at the time) and the level of competition he faced. Mathis was not deemed impressive enough to get an invitation to the combine. But when Dom Anile studied the tape, the Colts' wise director of football operations saw something special. "The more I watched him, the more I thought he was a little shorter version of [Dwight] Freeney," said Anile, a legend in the scouting community who since has retired. "I fell in love with him. I made sure we made a great highlight tape, and then Bill [Polian] and I looked at him. He had tremendous speed, and could turn speed into power."
Polian, then general manager of the Colts, quickly saw the same thing. So did many on a gifted scouting staff that included future general managers David Caldwell, Chris Polian and Tom Telesco, and possible future general manager Tom Gamble. Mathis' 44 career sacks were impossible for them to overlook, no matter who he was playing against. Mathis might not have fit on every NFL team, but Tony Dungy, who was the Colts head coach, assured the scouts that Mathis was a fit. "This guy is ideal for us," Dungy said in draft meetings.
When the Colts targeted Robert Mathis as a player they should select, nobody could have dreamed that 11 years later only three players chosen ahead of him would be invited to play with him in the 2014 Pro Bowl. The area scout put a second round grade on Mathis. Polian and Anile put a first round grade on him. The Colts thought most teams would devalue Mathis because of his size. "Bill, the master of masters, figured we could get the kid in the fifth round," Anile said. So the Colts traded a 2004 fourth round pick to the Texans for the 138th overall selection in 2003, which was used on Mathis.
When Robert Mathis showed up for his first meeting with the Colts defensive linemen, the veterans had no inkling he would one day be the king of their room. Mathis was about three inches shorter than a defensive end is supposed to be. He spoke so infrequently, it was easy to forget he was even around. And then came his first practice. "The minute he stepped on the field, we could tell," Polian said. "John Teerlinck, our defensive line coach, had him for one practice and said, 'Whoa, we have something special here.'" Mathis was beating the Colts' best offensive tackles in one-on-ones, something he has done with consistency for 11 years now.
Being short was part of his gift, not his curse. "His lack of height actually helped him," Anile said. "He was so low to the ground, those 6-6 tackles couldn't get their hands on him." His stature also gave the man his fuel. "People tell me what I can't do," Mathis told reporters in Indianapolis last week. "It makes me want to do it and show you that you don't have to be a 6-5, 315-pound end just to be this stud. You can play ball. Football doesn't discriminate. You can be 5-10, 5-11 and play some good football just like 6-5 guys."
When Robert Mathis was merely a pass rush specialist early in his career and most of his plays were being made on special teams, no one could have foreseen that he eventually would develop into an all around, every down force. Colts owner Jim Irsay brought up the possibility of moving Mathis to weakside linebacker. Polian and Dungy spoke repeatedly and at length about the possibility and wondered if Mathis could be a younger Derrick Brooks. "We were sending him up the field every down, so it was difficult for him to set the edge," Polian said. "We thought Robert could wreak havoc every down if he moved him to Will. But there is an old axiom. Don't move 'blues.' He was a 'blue' from day one. Tony finally said, 'The front four is the engine of the defense. Let's leave him where he is.'"
Mathis put on about 10 pounds and learned to set that edge just fine. "People don't give him enough credit for how well he plays the run," one AFC general manager said. "He plays with rare leverage and strength for a guy that size."
When teammates voted Robert Mathis the Ed Block Courage Award winner in 2011, no one outside of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center could have possibly known why they considered him a model of courage, inspiration and sportsmanship. Jim Caldwell, his head coach at the time, said he was "amazed at the level of intensity Robert plays with each week," and called Mathis a "true professional in every way."
Mathis helped set the standard for work ethic and toughness on a team that made eight consecutive playoff appearances and won a Super Bowl. In a very understated way, he became the Peyton Manning of the Colts' defense. And today, on a team that has been almost completely made over, he is every bit as respected. Andrew Luck has said it's an honor for him to be able to high-five him. "If you said, 'Describe the type of player on your team you want everybody on your team to be like,' it would be Robert Mathis," Polian said. "He is completely and totally self-effacing. A total team guy. He is such a worker, that he perfected the strip sack, the tomahawk punch out. He is there every day. I can't remember him being hurt, I cannot. He is the ideal teammate, the ideal football player."
When Colts new general manager Ryan Grigson signed Robert Mathis to a four-year, $36 million contract and gave him $15 million up front in March of 2012, nobody was convinced his best football was yet to be played. He was 31 years old at the time, an age when most football players are checking their retirement funds every few hours. Mathis, however, was not in decline. "He has gotten better with age," Polian said. "He's such a smart player that he has learned by film study and conscientious effort how to attack various styles of tackles." And age somehow has made Mathis harder, hungrier. "The older you get, the more important it is to you and you just know how precious that time is," Mathis said last week. "You can't give it back, you got to seize the moment."
When the Colts decided to allow Freeney to leave as a free agent last spring, nobody predicted Robert Mathis would have more production by himself than he and Freeney had combined the year before. Mathis always had operated in the shadow of Freeney, but he was one heck of a Robin. Four times, they each hit double digits in sacks in the same season, giving them the most seasons of 10-plus sacks by teammates in NFL history. Their 186.5 combined sacks from 2003 through 2012 made them the most productive pass rushing duo in the league.
It was fair to question if Mathis would still be able to get to the quarterback as frequently without Freeney giving the quarterback nowhere to run. Mathis would have the added disadvantage of having to learn a new position-rush linebacker in Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense. Instead of primarily rushing from the left side, he now would be rushing from the right. One NFL scout said the changes actually benefited Mathis because the Colts have been able to scheme him free at times, and rushing from the quarterback's blindside also was an advantage.
All he did was win the inaugural Deacon Jones Award for leading the NFL with a career-high 19.5 sacks. With 111 career sacks, Mathis now has three more than Freeney, the former first-round pick who preceded Mathis on the Colts by one year.
When the Colts were trailing the Chiefs by 21 points with 9:11 remaining in the third quarter last Saturday, no one would have believed Robert Mathis' strip-sack would have been the turning point in the Colts' stunning 45-44 wildcard victory. Mathis blazed past tight end Anthony Fasano, and then bounced off a block from pulling guard Jeff Allen. He flushed quarterback Alex Smith from the pocket, closed from behind and chopped. Out came the football. Colts linebacker Kelvin Sheppard recovered and the Colts outscored the Chiefs 28-6 the rest of the game.
It was a defining play for Mathis. But also a typical one. In his 11 seasons, his 49 forced fumbles are most in the NFL. No other defensive lineman is within ten of him during that span. "You have to understand where he's at," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady told reporters in New England this week. "He really has a sense of urgency. It's one thing to sack the quarterback. It's another thing to strip-sack him and the ball's flying all over the place."
When Robert Mathis takes the field against Brady's Patriots Saturday, no one will think of him as the most important player wearing a horseshoe. And he may prove everyone wrong. Again. Said Anile, "The heart and soul of that team is my boy Robert Mathis."
Robert Mathis. We had no idea.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.