INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts kicked the Houston Texans while they were down, but that's not the top story. Robert Mathis' greatness is.
In the midst of the Colts' 25-3 win over the Texans on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Mathis did what he does best: He barreled in on unassuming Houston quarterback Case Keenum, hit him from behind, stripped the football and caused him to fumble. The Colts ended up with a safety. Mathis ended up topping Dwight Freeney.
Mathis has 108 sacks, a Colts record. He has 16.5 sacks this season, a Colts record with two games yet to expand it. He has 42 sack/strips, an NFL record.
And he's finally out of Freeney's shadow.
“Maybe years from now, I'll be able to tell grandkids that I played with Robert Mathis,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said.
The rest of us will be able to say we watched him. We should be grateful, too, because the way Mathis has built his potential Hall of Fame career speaks volumes about his drive and character. His career was not built through the standard route of playing at a national powerhouse college program and ending up as a first-round NFL draft pick and darling of the media.
Mathis' mark was forged through the most unglamorous of ways. It was forged through what coaches preach and parents plead for and the supremely skilled occasionally take for granted. Mathis reached his status today, as the best in the game, through the most old-fashioned approach.
“Hard working paying off,” Mathis said. “My D-line counterparts take pride in helping me get the quarterback. We have a good crop of DBs (defensive backs) that give us that extra second. It's enjoyable. The fact we got a win is most pleasing.”
The win improved Indianapolis' record to 9-5 heading into their final games at Kansas City next Sunday and home against Jacksonville on Dec. 29. Playoff seeding still has to shake out, although the Colts are likely to be the fourth seed.
Those details will unfold.
Today, let's marvel over Mathis.
A year ago, if we're honest, we thought Mathis might be heading toward the twilight of his career. He had made the switch to outside linebacker in the Colts' new defensive system, and seemed to lose steam as the season progressed. He finished with eight sacks, but only two in the last eight games. He made the Pro Bowl, but had his fewest sacks in six seasons.
This year, on a defense that has had its ups and definite downs, Mathis, 32, has simply played his best ever. The stats show it. The respect from his teammates and opponents reflect it.
“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,” Luck said. “I feel honored to just be in the stadium and to get to see (the record) 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.”
Mathis was a fifth-round draft pick out of Alabama A&M in 2003, a guy few knew outside of the Colts and a player that even fewer, if any, were targeting for a spectacular career.
Mathis wasn't worried about records or legacies then.
“I was just worried about getting a spot on special teams,” Mathis said.
Most of his career, Mathis had been the other dynamic pass rusher on the Colts. He was the sacking sidekick, so to speak, to the great Freeney. After the Colts decided not to re-sign Freeney after last season, Mathis was tasked at essentially flying solo.
Some speculated that Mathis' numbers had been a nice byproduct of playing with Freeney, of dealing with single blockers while teams double-teamed Freeney. He's proved that theory wrong.
Turns out, Mathis is even better when every team knows they have to game-plan to slow him down.
As the Colts harassed Keenum all day (four sacks, eight knockdowns, 13 hurries), it seemed only a matter of time before Mathis landed his record-setting sack. How fitting that it would come on a sack/strip, something he has made into his trademark.
It came late in the third quarter. The Colts were leading 23-3, having started fast for once (an opening-possession touchdown for the first time since beating the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 22) and built a lead that wouldn't require a comeback. With a lead comes more aggression on defense, more freedom for the defense to attack.
Mathis senses when quarterbacks are feeling jittery, when they're desperate, when they're primed for a sack.
“(Houston left tackle) Duane Brown is a very good O-tackle; he's a very strong guy,” Mathis said. “I just had to stay with it and I saw the quarterback roll out and was able to get to him. That was about it. Just make a play for the team.”
Mathis celebrated, “freestyle,” he said. “I know my teammates got a kick out of it. That's pretty much what it was about.”
When the video board highlighted his records, the fans cheered louder and longer than they had when Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk were inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime.
Mathis' name will be up on that ring someday, and he should join Dickerson and Faulk in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Right now, in the moment, it's about getting to New York (for the Super Bowl) and completing the mission,” Mathis said. “I'll look back when I'm done, sit and open the book with my sons. But right now, it's nose to the grindstone and getting to New York.”
Mathis' mastery of the grindstone brought him to this point, the greatest sack artist in Colts history. He put in the hard work. He deserves the rewards.