Robert Mathis ‘at home’ working with Colts’ pass rushers
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – This is where Robert Mathis wants to be. Needs to be.
It’s another day at work for the Indianapolis Colts, and one of their all-time greats who retired at the end of last season still is working up a sweat.
Whenever there’s a lull, Mathis is working on the side with the pass rushers. If the team’s career sack leader isn’t backpedaling and tossing small orange plastic cones at Jabaal Sheard to work on Sheard’s hand speed, he’s slapping John Simon with arm pads and having Simon fend off an imaginary offensive lineman’s long arms.
“This is good therapy for me,’’ Mathis said Tuesday morning. “First year removed, I need to be around it. This is who I am. Football is who I am. Colts, this is who I am.
“This is home and home is where the heart is. I’m enjoying it all.’’
Mathis, 36, insists his priorities are in order.
“Faith, family, football,’’ said the father of five, including twin sons. “Chuck (Pagano) does a great job of allowing me to accommodate that.’’
For 14 seasons, Mathis attacked his profession with passion, and tunnel vision. Job 1: get to the quarterback. The 2003 fifth-round draft pick who just wanted to prove he belonged exceeded everyone’s expectations, including his own.
“When I look back, man, what was accomplished? I would never have thought that in my wildest fantasies,’’ Mathis said.
The 123 sacks, a club record and good for 17th in NFL history. The 19.5 sacks in 2013, another club record and a league high. The 47 sack-forced fumbles, yet another league record. The six Pro Bowl selections.
“My dream was to be a pro football player,’’ Mathis said with a smile. “That in itself was very out there.’’
Just making the 53-player roster as a rookie would have been gratifying enough for the unheralded playmaker out of Alabama A&M, until Mathis actually stepped on the field.
“Once I got here, I was like, ‘OK, I can play with these guys. I want to stick around a little bit,’’’ he said. “I basically earned my stripes. I hard to earn my seat at the table.
“I’m blessed. I’m fortunate.’’
Now, he’s paying it forward.
During the offseason, Mathis approached the team about serving in a volunteer’s capacity on Pagano’s staff.
I know how to get to the quarterback. Let me share that. Let me help. Somehow. Some way.
Pagano was on board from the start, and there was no downside. Again, after earning more than $65 million as a player, Mathis is volunteering his time as a pass-rush instructor.
“One hundred percent voluntary,’’ he insisted. “I’m not getting a dime for this. I look forward to it being a solidified position (at some point), but right now I’m just having fun with it.’’
Pagano has noticed Mathis’ unbridled enthusiasm, and ability to relate to eager-to-learn pass rushers.
“You guys have seen all the videos I’ve seen,’’ Pagano said. “He’s all over Twitter dancing around. He’s got the towel on his head doing his thing.
“To have a guy like that with the amount of experience that he has, his numbers and the respect that he brings to the table . . . he’s a guy that those guys can go to.’’
In six seasons with Cleveland and New England, Sheard generated 36 sacks by primarily relying on brute force.
“Honestly, I’ve been a power guy a lot and (Mathis) is helping improve with my hands and getting better at that,’’ he said.
Mathis’ advice: expand your repertoire.
“Don’t be a one-trick pony,’’ he said. “(Sheard is) very powerful. He’s a very strong guy. I’m just trying to throw different things at him.
“It’s similar to baseball pitchers. The power, that’s his fastball. So his speed can be his changeup. You incorporate boxing with hooks, jabs, hand-to-hand combat.’’
Pagano envisions Sheard being a double-digit sack producer this season for a defense that desperately needs someone – anyone – to inject life into what has been an inconsistent pass rush since Mathis’ banner ’13 season.
“I think every defensive end’s goal is to get double-digits,’’ said Sheard, who had a career-best 8.5 as a rookie with the Cleveland Browns in 2011. “Since I’ve been in the league that’s been one of my goals.’’
Like Pagano, Mathis sees big things from Sheard. He was one of general manager Chris Ballard’s key offseason free-agent acquisitions (three-year, $25.5 million contract).
“He’s doing a helluva job,’’ Mathis said. “I see what the big fuss was about with him.’’
As training camp unfolds and the Sept. 10 season opener nears, Mathis goes about his business of schooling Sheard, Simon, rookie Tarell Basham and the rest of the pass-rush corps. Simon, with 10 career sacks in 45 games, listens whenever Mathis talks.
“He’s one of the best pass rushers of all-time, if not the best of all-time,’’ he said. “Anything he says I’m trying to soak it in. You’re trying to pick his brain every day.
“You can always learn. He’s the best there ever was. If you’re not sitting there talking to him every day or every chance you get, you’re stupid.’’
Besides, as Sheard, Simon and the rest listen to Mathis, it becomes evident they’re not only getting the best of him but the best of so many others.
During his decorated career, Mathis found time to talk with other elite pass rushers, eager to pick up tricks, tips and nuances. Long-time teammate Dwight Freeney. Terrell Suggs. DeMarcus Ware. Von Miller. Khalil Mack.
At one of his Pro Bowl appearances, Mathis spent time with Bruce Smith, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL’s career sack leader with 200.
“You can always learn,’’ Mathis said. “When you stop learning, you start dying as a pass rusher.
“Pass rushers are a fraternity, it really is. We all share what we think, our approach to the game, what works for us.’’
Mathis was undersized at 6-2 and 245. But he compensated with quickness, leverage, playing at full speed while staying low and under bigger offensive tackles as he crashed from the edge. At some point, he mastered the spin move first unveiled by Freeney.
Now, Sheard is trying to add that to his toolbox.
“I’m trying to learn that spin from him,’’ he said with a laugh.
Does he have it down yet?
“No. I think he’s a freak of nature at that.’’
But the idea is to keep working at it. It’s one linebacker borrowing – stealing? – a signature move from another.
“Steal,’’ Mathis insisted. “I’m gonna steal it. I’m gonna use it and if it works, I’ll give credit.
“It’s a copy-cap league. If it works, I’m going to do it. I’m going to try it.’’