In the 5th round of the 2003 NFL Draft, with the 138th overall pick, the Indianapolis Colts selected a defensive end out of Alabama A&M named Robert Mathis. Since then, he has had a tremendous impact on the Colts and has been a major part of their success. On Sunday, Mathis notched two very significant milestones to highlight both his career accomplishments and his accomplishments this season - a season in which he should win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.
In his 11-year career, Mathis has notched double-digit sack totals in 5 different seasons, and he has topped 9 sacks in 8 different seasons. On Sunday, he notched career sack number 108.0, surpassing Dwight Freeney as the franchise's career leader (Freeney had 107.5). He also extended his own NFL record with his 42nd strip-sack.
Entering the season, many (including myself) openly wondered whether Mathis's production would drop off without Freeney there, as the legendary Colt left this past offseason as a free agent and signed with the Chargers. Freeney was so good for so long, and for Robert Mathis's entire career he had Freeney alongside him for at least part of the year. Freeney and Mathis combined to form the NFL's best pass rush duo and enjoyed an incredibly successful stint in Indianapolis over the years, but Chuck Pagano was hired last year and the team made the switch to a 3-4 defense, which included transitioning Freeney and Mathis to outside linebacker from defensive end. Mathis adjusted well, notching 8 sacks in the 2012 season and being a much better overall player. Freeney, meanwhile, struggled, and as the season came to an end it became clear that it was time to part ways.
The Colts failed to replace Freeney with any viable pass rush options, though, and that added to the fact that Mathis was going to be playing without Freeney for the first season of his career led to legitimate questions about whether Mathis could handle it or not.
He has answered those questions with a resounding yes, and in fact Mathis has stepped up his game to a level we have never seen from him before. At the age of 32 and playing with the worst pass rush threats alongside him of any in his career, Mathis has been better than ever, and in fact he has been better than any Colts pass rusher ever. On Sunday, he set the franchise record with sack number 16.5 on the season, breaking Dwight Freeney's single-season franchise record of 16.0 that he set in 2004.
His 16.5 sacks also lead the NFL, with the next closest player still being 1.5 sacks away. He has made 49 tackles and forced 6 fumbles on the year, as well as batting down a pass. He has also been responsible for two safeties for the Colts.
But while he has indeed racked up a very impressive statistical resume this season, his impact goes far beyond that. If they didn't have Mathis, it would be scary to think about where this Colts team would be. The players that were brought in to replace Dwight Freeney (who had 5 sacks last year in a bad year) - Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner - have accounted for just 4.5 sacks combined through 14 games (and two of those came in one game, this Sunday against the Texans). The rest of the Colts team outside of Mathis has recorded just 17.5 sacks - total. Robert Mathis has 16.5 on the season by himself. That means that Robert Mathis is accounting for 48.5% of the Colts' sack total - an insane number for one individual player to be accounting for. Even in 2004 when Freeney had his 16 sack season, he only accounted for 35.6% of the team's sacks. In fact, here is the percentage of sacks accounted for by each of the top ten players in terms of sacks in the NFL this year:
There is no doubt, after looking at that chart, what Robert Mathis's impact on the Colts has been. He has been as important to his team's success as any defender, and the Colts pass rush wouldn't exist without him. It already is bad - imagine where it would be without Mathis. It's scary to think about.
Additionally, Mathis has recorded at least one sack in 10 games this year, and in 6 games he has recorded more than one. And when the Colts have needed him the most, he has shown up the biggest - in the games against the 49ers, the Seahawks, and the Broncos, he notched more than 1 sack in all three of those games and totaled 5.5 sacks combined in those games.
Against the Broncos, Mathis was at his best, sacking his former teammate Peyton Manning twice and one of them was a strip sack that resulted in a safety.
Mathis's leadership has also been incredibly important to this team, as he is a veteran presence and has really taken on a leadership role, and the young guys all look up to and respect him. In a season that has taken many tough turns, Mathis has continued to lead and rally the team, reminding them of the 2006 season and doing his best to help this season end the same way that one did.
On Sunday, Mathis notched the single-season and career franchise records for sacks on the same play, one where he got off the line fast and had a strip-sack of Case Keenum, forcing a fumble that resulted in a safety. He had been getting a lot of pressure all day, and he finally got it. His teammates and coaches weighed in on Mathis after the win Sunday after Mathis set the single-season and career franchise records for sacks.
"He's everything you could ask for in a leader, in a locker room guy, in a veteran, the example he sets, his work ethic."
"I feel honored to just be in the stadium and to get to see that happen and be able to give him a high five. He's one of those guys that all the great things that happen, he deserves because he puts the work in. He does go the extra mile for it. Happy to watch that and maybe years from now be able to tell grandkids that I played with Robert Mathis."
"(Mathis) should be, in my opinion and probably everybody else's opinion that's a Colts fan and part of this organization, should be in the conversation someday to be in the Hall of Fame."
"Doing what he's done for as long as period that he's done and the records that he has, who knows. I don't know, we'll see. He's got my vote. I don't have one, but he's got it anyway."
There are no questions anymore about Robert Mathis. Well, there is one - now, people are beginning to ask whether he is actually a better player than Dwight Freeney, the man who for so long was the key behind the Colts pass rush. But even then, he had Robert Mathis alongside him. This year, Mathis has had no such help, and he has had to do it mostly by himself, but still he set the franchise single-season record for the most sacks in a season and reached the franchise career mark as well. He has had to do it all himself, but he has been up to the challenge. In a season where the Colts defense has been bad often, Mathis has been good even more frequently. He was given the game ball on Sunday as a tribute to his accomplishments, but he deserves more than that. He deserves the NFL's defensive player of the year award. There has arguably been no one better defensively, and there has certainly been no one more important to his team defensively than Robert Mathis has been to the Colts.