By Tom James Tribune-Star correspondent
Greensburg Daily News
---- — INDIANAPOLIS -- Robert Mathis doesn’t like to talk about himself. The Indianapolis Colts’ hard-charging outside linebacker may be leading the National Football League with 11.5 sacks this season, but he is the last person to talk about it.
Mathis prefers to let others talk about his on-field performance.
If you’re impressed that a 6-foot-2, 246-pound former defensive end who attended Alabama A&M is already being talked about as a candidate for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, great. If not, that’s okay too.
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano -- who has worked with some of the league’s best defensive players during his stint as an assistant coach and coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens -- has long appreciated Mathis’ ability to rush the quarterback.
But this year, with former Indianapolis defensive end/outside linebacker Dwight Freeney now playing in San Diego, it seems as if Mathis has raised his game to another level.
Of course, he’s got a point to prove. Already one of the two sack leaders in Colts franchise history, Mathis grew tired last spring of hearing fans and NFL observers doubt his chances of equaling the success that he had with Freeney.
The conventional wisdom was that Freeney would draw double and sometimes triple-blocking schemes, leaving Mathis one-on-one with his blocker and making it easier to get to the quarterback. With his running mate moving on to the Chargers, most felt that Mathis wouldn’t have the same kind of impact.
They were right. He’s been even better.
Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak isn’t surprised.
“I’m not because I just know for years how difficult it was. A lot of attention was paid to Dwight and those type of things, but I can promise you in my time [as an assistant coach] in Denver and my time here in Houston, they’ve both been a problem as far as trying to get the ball gone and trying to help your tackles and those type of things. So no, it doesn’t surprise me. I think he’s played at an extremely high level throughout his career,” Kubiak said in a teleconference last week.
Kubiak’s Texans has one of the NFL’s best players in defensive end J.J. Watt, who earned Defensive Player of the Year honors at the conclusion of last season. The Houston coach wouldn’t be shocked to see Mathis -- who’s 15.5 career sacks against Houston is the most versus any opponent -- garner the same kind of attention once the 2013 season is over.
“Robert’s so impressive. It seems like I’ve been coaching against him for about 15 years, I don’t know how long he’s played. But just an impressive player, tremendous effort. I think Chuck [Pagano] and those guys do a great job of getting him in position to make plays and be successful,” Kubiak said.
“He’s been one of the most consistent guys at what he does in this business for a long, long time. Tremendous respect for him and y’all’s football team.”
When it came time a year ago to decide which player to give a contract extension to -- Freeney or Mathis -- Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano were forced to make a tough decision. In the end, it came down to the player who made the best transition to Indianapolis’ new 3-4 hybrid defensive scheme.
“The guy is just a pro. Takes care of himself and he works at his craft. You’ve seen it longer than I’ve seen it up close and personal,” the Colts coach explained. “When you take care of yourself and you work year-round like he does, I think obviously you’re able to do the things that he’s doing right now and being as productive as he is this far into his career.
“That’s the thing. We try to emphasize to our guys at every position: you play hard every single down, do your job, know exactly what to, because you don’t know when that play is going to come. Just make sure you’re there when it presents itself. He seems to be in the right spot because he’s always playing his tail off. He’s always full speed. That’s why strip sacks and things like that, and the 11.5 that he’s got so far through seven games, is why he’s playing so well. His motor doesn’t stop.”
So just how good has Mathis been during his 11-year NFL career?
He has been named to five consecutive Pro Bowls (2008-12). Ranks second in franchise history to Freeney with 101 career sacks. He’s had four career 10-plus sack seasons, including a previous career best of 11 in 2010. Mathis has had 24 multi-sack games and three career three-plus sack games. And he has forced 42 fumbles since coming into the league in 2003.
Not bad for a guy who was considered to be too small to play defensive end on a regular basis in the NFL. Or was considered to be playing out of position at defensive end. And, of course, there were the doubters that a player from a FCS college program could be as dominant as he has become.
He’s used to the questions. His answers come on the field.
“I think he’s a self-starter. I think he’s a self-motivated guy. I think that’s obvious at the level that he’s played throughout his career. So whether that [playing with a chip on his shoulder] factors in or not, I don’t know,” Pagano explains.
Mathis has his own special way of describing his philosophy.
“Play football. That’s your job. Do your job,” he stressed.