By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Robert Mathis smiled as he listened to the question. Then he pointed to his shoulder and made a quick circular motion.
"That's kind of a big chip on my left shoulder I can't seem to get off since '03," he said. "Just got to keep chopping wood."
Anyone who doubts Mathis can succeed in 2013 without Dwight Freeney — the quarterback chaser he played alongside for 10 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts — likely will get the same answer.
Mathis has been dealing with similar questions since he was drafted in the fifth round out of Alabama A&M in 2003. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, he was supposed to be too small to succeed in the NFL. And, if that wasn't enough, surely he hadn't faced tough enough competition in Huntsville, Ala., to prepare him for the game's highest level.
Mathis blocked out the critics and focused on what he could control. He initially made the Colts roster on special teams and didn't become a full-time starter until 2006 — the season Indianapolis won Super Bowl XLI.
He's arguably gotten better with age, being selected to the Pro Bowl in four of the past five seasons, and he needs just 8.5 sacks to join Freeney as the only players in franchise history with 100 career quarterback takedowns.
But, true to form, that's not at the forefront of Mathis' mind.
"That's a secondary goal," he said. "The goal is to get to New York in February (for the Super Bowl). If getting five sacks or 15 sacks is what's going to get us there, then so be it."
That's the kind of attitude that endears a man to his coaching staff.
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano challenged his young players Monday to emulate Mathis' practice habits. Even with bona fide star credentials, the 11th-year veteran still works as though he might be cut from the roster at any time.
"What I told them today is just match his intensity, match his workload, what he does from a mental standpoint in the classroom and off the field and what he does on the field," Pagano said. "Just match his intensity. I challenged the whole team to match his intensity today, and not only the young linebackers but the whole team."
Offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus joined the Colts as a free agent from the Detroit Lions in March.
He said it was obvious from Day 1 that Mathis was a leader in the locker room, even though he's not the most vocal player on the roster.
Cherilus spent plenty of time preparing for Mathis as an opponent last December, but the outside linebacker still is capable of surprising him.
"He's a great guy," Cherilus said, listing what he's learned as Mathis' teammate. "He's a true professional. He knows the game like no one else. He takes real good care of himself, but on top of that he's a lot stronger than he looks."
Mathis has made a living off others underestimating him.
He made a successful transition last year from playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme to outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. And he's changing positions again this summer.
Free agent addition Erik Walden likely will take over at Mathis' old strongside linebacker spot, with Mathis switching to Freeney's old "Rush" position. It's a spot that has more in common with his old job as a defensive end. So Mathis expects another smooth transition.
But it might take a little longer to get used to not seeing Freeney's familiar face in the locker room.
"It's really weird," he said. "It's just something I have to get used to because for over a decade I've been right there, right next to his side. He's been right there talking, joking and (we) formed more of a brotherhood than just teammates. So it's kind of weird, but it's something that you have to get used to."
Mathis finds himself as a mentor now to first-round draft pick Bjoern Werner. He said the 10-year age difference gives the relationship more of a big brother-little brother feel. But he's more than happy to help bring the young pass rusher along in the Colts' way.
Mathis might need Werner's help quickly. With Freeney now in camp with the San Diego Chargers, Mathis is the only experienced pass rusher left on Indianapolis' roster.
He's going to be looked at more for leadership on and off the field than he ever has before. And his response to that role provides a revealing look at what drives the man who consistently exceeds all expectations.
"I would say I don't think anybody can put any more pressure than I can put on myself," Mathis said. "It's the first time that I'm the No. 1 rusher, the lead rusher or what not. I put the pressure on myself more so than anybody else could. I don't think a coach can fuss at me hard enough than I would at myself if I don't do something right."