There’s a chance that Sunday’s game between the Colts and the Jaguars could wind up meaning just a little bit more to one player in particular, as it’s entirely possible that this will be final game of Robert Mathis’s career.
The 14-year veteran has said that he’ll make the decision this offseason and hasn’t indicated either way, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decide to hang it up. He hasn’t been nearly as effective this year, is 35 years old, and is set to become a free agent (leading to the question of whether the Colts even want to bring him back). He’ll go down in Colts history as one of the franchise’s greats, but it seems like an appropriate time to move on and for him to walk away into retirement.
He’s been a big part of the new era of Colts football as well as the previous one, and when Chuck Pagano arrived in 2012 Mathis made the switch to a 3-4 outside linebacker after playing previously as a 4-3 defensive end. He made the move well, and in 2013 led the NFL in sacks with 13.5. When asked today why Mathis was so successful in that transition, Chuck Pagano began explaining what makes Mathis so special for a couple of minutes, giving a passionate ‘thank you’ to Mathis that would be fitting of a ‘goodbye’ message if indeed this is it for him.
“Because he’s a selfless guy, and he’s a heck of an athlete and all that stuff,” Pagano said. “But he’s been instrumental, obviously, and [I’m] forever grateful for Robert taking a leap of faith back in 2012 when we came in here and talked about the position change and what he’d been doing for a long, long time in a 4-3 defense and then moving to an outside linebacker. He could have went another direction, and because of the man that he is and the love that he has for this organization, the love that he has for this city, and his team, he decided to ride that thing out and took a leap of faith, and we wouldn’t be sitting where we are today and had the success that we’ve had over the last five years without that guy. And so it’s a debt I cannot repay.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for him as not only a football player but as a man and as a father and a husband and a human being and all that he does inside this building, all that he does outside this building for the community, he’s a warrior and they don’t make them like that. I wish they all had his drive and his passion and his love for the game and his toughness and durability and coachability and tenacity and resolve and everything. He’s a guy that nothing was given to him, he earned his way into this league, and he’s never taken it for granted not one day. He never let any of the success or fame or money or this, that, and the other ever get to him. He’s been the same guy, for fourteen seasons, and he looks at it as a privilege and so many times you find it the other way. I wish they all got it and figured it out like he figured it out. He came with that gratitude every single day, and I guarantee he’s walked in this building every single day for fourteen years and walked in that locker room and looked up and saw his nameplate still up there and jersey number still up there and said, ‘you know what, I’m going to die before I let somebody take this from me.’”
Given all of that, however, Pagano doesn’t know whether Mathis will retire.
“We’re promised today,” Pagano said when asked about it. “And we all got one more game guaranteed, it’s on the schedule, and that’s it. So I don’t know.”
The signs are clear, though, that it might be the end. And if so, there’s no shame, as he’s had a tremendous career. He’s played in 191 games, and this Sunday will tie Justin Snow for the seventh-most games with the Colts in franchise history with 192. He’s the Colts’ all-time leader in sacks with 122 and is the NFL’s all-time leader in strip-sacks (he’s forced 51 total fumbles), while he’s also recorded 524 tackles, 15 passes defensed, and an interception. He’s been a team leader and a team captain in addition to his efforts on the field. He recorded five double-digit sack seasons (and eight seasons with at least 9.5 sacks), was a six-time Pro Bowler, and a first-team All-Pro in 2013 when he also led the league in sacks with 19.5.
We don’t know either way whether Mathis will retire, or even if the Colts would bring him back if he wanted to keep playing. But it wouldn’t be a surprise whatsoever if this Sunday’s contest winds up being his last game as a Colt, so it’s a fitting time to reflect on all he’s done for the franchise.