Once Overlooked, Colts DE-Robert Mathis Playing in Third Consecutive Pro Bowl
INDIANAPOLIS – There was a time, not so long ago, Robert Mathis imagined he might never play in a Pro Bowl.
Not that he didn't have confidence.
Not that he didn't believe himself worthy.
And it wasn't that he hadn't performed at a Pro Bowl level.
But Mathis, an eighth-year veteran defensive end for the Colts, had been overlooked often enough that four or five seasons ago, he said he doubted he would ever be named to the game.
Mathis, the second all-time sacks leader in Colts history, not only was named to the game, he has become a Pro Bowl regular, and this week, he's making his third consecutive appearance in the game, which is being played Sunday at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii.
"It's a great feeling, just to be considered a Pro Bowl vet," Mathis said recently near the end of the 2010 regular season, a season in which the Colts won a seventh AFC South title in eight seasons and a season on which Colts.com will continue looking back in the coming weeks.
After eight productive NFL seasons, Mathis is considered just that.
And deservedly so.
Mathis, a fifth-round selection in the 2003 NFL Draft from Alabama A&M, in the last seven years has developed from an oft-overlooked player into one of the most consistently effective defensive playmakers in the NFL.
Mathis this past season registered 11 sacks, the seventh consecutive season he has had at least seven sacks, and the fifth time in the last six seasons he has led the Colts in the category.
Mathis this past season also continued to perform consistently during a season in which the Colts' defense – and the entire team – continued to win despite a rash of injuries.
While neither Mathis nor his Pro Bowl defensive end-mate, Dwight Freeney, missed a game, two of the team's top three defensive tackles – Dan Muir and Antonio Johnson – missed multiple games, as did linebackers Clint Session and Gary Brackett.
Mathis, when asked late in the season if he had learned anything about his younger teammates, smiled.
"Yes, like their names," he said. "A lot of guys that have come in and helped us out."
The Colts' secondary also played through extensive injuries, with safeties Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt, as well as cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Kelvin Hayden finishing the season on injured reserve. Despite the adversity, the Colts improved defensively in the final quarter of the season, winning their final four games to make an NFL record-tying ninth consecutive post-season appearance.
Indianapolis finished the season 13th in the NFL against the pass.
"It was a gratifying year," Mathis said. "We had guys grow up real fast. . . . We had a lot of front-line guys go down, so you learned a lot of new guys, made new friends and teammates. The locker room is like a family, like a brotherhood, and you just try to ride it as long as you can."
A huge reason the Colts continued to win through a difficult season:
The continued consistency of Mathis and Freeney, who over the last half-decade have consistently been one of the top pass-rushing tandems in the NFL.
The duo has combined for 66 sacks – 21 this past season – and 21 forced fumbles over the past three seasons. Since 2004, the first year Mathis played an extensive role, they have combined for 140.5 sacks and 61 forced fumbles.
"Being around them a number of years now, it's something you certainly grow to expect, that you're accustomed to, those two guys being able to be a real force and a real factor in the ballgame," Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said. "Certainly their intensity level has a lot to do with it, but they have an unbelievable skill level. They have the ability to rush the passer, and they do it in a variety of ways. They can bull-rush you, they can speed-rush you and they can rush you inside or outside. It makes it difficult."
"Oftentimes, teams will look at one rusher and turn the entire line toward that particular rusher, but when you have two that makes things a bit more difficult."
In so doing, the duo – and Mathis in particularly – have helped show that players of their physical stature can be effective pass rushers on a long-term basis. And while Mathis was not voted to the Pro Bowl despite eye-catching numbers from 2004-07, he said all he could do during that time was play.
"I'm not a fluke, you know what I'm saying," Mathis said. "You can't tell people how to vote."
And while Mathis said it's true that there was once a time when it was hard to imagine people would see him in a way to garner enough votes to make the Pro Bowl, the experience of not going to Hawaii for several seasons makes seasons such as this all the more gratifying.
Yes, he said, there was a time this was hard to imagine. But now?
Well, now he said, times certainly have changed.
"Back when I said that, it was just full of frustration," Mathis said. "You just have to pay your dues. If everything comes too fast, you don't appreciate it. I appreciate every vote – everything I get.
"I work hard for it and I appreciate everything I get, so I'm thankful."