The Indianapolis Colts are no strangers to adversity. In 2012, it was head coach Chuck Pagano being diagnosed with leukemia and missing much of the season. In 2013, it was a number of injuries but most notably the torn ACL by team-leader Reggie Wayne, forcing him to miss the second half of the season. In 2014, the Colts will again face adversity. Star outside linebacker Robert Mathis tore his Achilles while working out away from the team last week (as he's suspended) and is out for the year.
In 2012, the Colts overcame the loss of Pagano and won 11 games, making the playoffs. In 2013, the Colts overcame the loss of Wayne and won 11 games, the AFC South, and a playoff game. Will the Colts be able to overcome the loss of Robert Mathis in 2014? Sure they can, but this one might be the toughest of all of them to recover from.
Robert Mathis racked up 19.5 sacks last year, the most in the league. Robert Mathis accounted for nearly half of the Colts' sacks last year, an insane number. He was inarguably the team's best defensive player and quite possibly their second best player overall behind just Andrew Luck. When it was announced that Mathis was suspended for the first four games of the season, we all knew it was a huge blow to the Colts. But we knew it was only for four weeks and that after that Mathis would be back.
Now, he's not walking through that door after week four. Instead, Robert Mathis will miss the entire 2014 season with a torn Achilles tendon. It's seriously hard to overstate how huge the injury is to the Colts.
Look at last night. The Colts notched just 3 quarterback hits and 1 sack despite Peyton Manning throwing the ball 36 times. The Colts got next to no pass rush against the Broncos. None. It was hard to watch the game last night without thinking about how much of a difference Robert Mathis would have made, and given the fact that the Colts only lost by seven on the road to the Broncos without Mathis, it's absolutely reasonable to think that the Colts would have won last night if Mathis had been playing. He was the one who changed the game against the Broncos in 2013 and he has changed many, many games in the past too.
If there's anything we know for certain about the Colts, it's this: never rule them out. With Andrew Luck at quarterback, he consistently and routinely makes amazing things happen in the toughest of situations. He almost brought the Colts back on the road against the Broncos without Mathis. Last year, he brought the Colts back in a number of games. If there's only one thing we know about the Colts, it's this - the Colts are never out of anything as long as Andrew Luck is at quarterback.
But the loss of Mathis seems hard to recover from.
Sure, the expectation is still for the Colts to win the AFC South. I mean, after all, the team nearly won the toughest game of the regular season without Mathis last night. The division won't be any push-over this year, but even without Robert Mathis the Colts are the clear favorite in the division. Andrew Luck is just that good. But when it comes to the playoffs? Can the Colts overcome this one? This is a season that began with Super Bowl expectations and with many people predicting the Colts to get there. Can the Colts still do that without Robert Mathis? Again, I won't rule them out as long as Luck is there, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which they do without Mathis. This is a crushing, crushing injury to the Colts.
The Colts will still be a good team simply because they have Andrew Luck. But their ceiling is now significantly lower. Their defense is going to struggle. A lot of people will say that the pressure is now on Bjoern Werner to generate pass rush, and that's true. Werner absolutely MUST step up - but he didn't last night against the Broncos and there's not a ton of reason to think he will as the season goes on, either. As such, the pressure actually is placed on Luck and the offense. They're now going to have to score points to win. They must be elite if they want to win. Luck and the offense now have a much smaller margin for error - they must be great.
Look, the bottom line is that the Colts aren't out of it, they'll still win more games than they'll lose, and they're still the favorites to win the division. But the Colts' hopes go beyond that, and without Robert Mathis it's hard to envision them achieving those hopes. The Colts are used to adversity and I'll never say never with Luck and the Colts, but the loss of Robert Mathis is crushing and it'll be a hard one to overcome.