Colts’ Robert Mathis embracing player-to-coach transition
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There never was much doubt what was next – after terrorizing NFL quarterbacks – for Robert Mathis.
When announcing his retirement in December 2016 following a decorated, sack-filled 14-year career with the Indianapolis Colts, he made it clear he still had more to offer. Mathis already had approached management and informed those in a position of authority he wanted “to push my knowledge of pass rushing on to the younger players. Any shape, form or fashion that can be done, I am more than open to it.’’
In Mathis’ mind, too many pass-rush prospects weren’t receiving the proper, detail-oriented coaching. While people are quick to admire his resume – a team-record 123 sacks, an NFL-record 47 forced fumbles on sacks – he invariably credits the direction offered by John Teerlinck, the Colts’ former defensive line coach and one of the NFL’s foremost pass-rush experts, for helping build that resume.
“He taught me the right way,’’ Mathis said Tuesday afternoon.
Now, Mathis is teaching others the right way. His way.
The first step came last offseason as a coaching volunteer, then advanced to a staff position as a pass-rush consultant for the 2017 season. That remains his role on Frank Reich’s staff, along with the additional responsibility of player development.
Mathis admitted he “just kind of stuck my toe into the water. I kind of liked it and I just took the plunge.
“I came to the conclusion I just can’t get away from it. I’m enjoying it, enjoying the new challenge and embracing it.’’
What kept him from moving on to something else, something that didn’t involve long hours on the practice field, in meeting rooms, in the video room?
“The blue and white. Period,’’ Mathis said. “That’s all I know. I love it too much.’’
Even so, he realized this was a decision that required family support. He and wife Brandi have five children, and long ago decided Indy would be their home.
A smile crept across Mathis’ face as he recalled discussing his pending career choice with Brandi.
“I had to set the mood,’’ he said. “Had to take here to Ruth’s Chris and kind of hit her with the news.
“But no, it was a mutual decision. She’s my rock. We talked about it. It was a joint decision and from there we took off with it.’’
No one should diminish the level of trust the Colts have in Mathis’ ability to work with their young pass-rush prospects and push, prod and inspire them to approach their potential. For the transition from the 3-4 defense to coordinator Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 to be effective, there must be a reliable pass rush.
“The defense is build on athletic speed players that can affect the pass,’’ Eberflus said. “It’s always rush and cover.’’
Mathis is convinced rookie Kemoko Turay, second-year end Tarell Basham and others will thrive in Eberflus’ scheme.
On Turay: “I don’t think he knows how much potential he has. It’s like an untapped oil well with him.’’
On Basham: “He’s taken a big leap from last year to this year. More professional, more mature. He’s hungry.’’
Getting to the quarterback was a major issue with the Colts last season. They finished with just 25 sacks, the second-fewest in the league and tied for third-fewest in team history. Jabaal Sheard led the Colts with 5.5 sacks, or 14 fewer than Mathis’ team-record and NFL-leading 19.5 in 2013.
Not surprisingly, the biggest hurdle Mathis has encountered in his player-to-coach transition has been finding the proper method of sharing his vast experience with the young players. It’s one thing to do it on the field, it’s another to share with someone how to do what you did at such a high level.
“Our defensive staff is teaching me how to coach, how to be a teacher,’’ Mathis said. “I know from my past experience as a player, but actually teaching other guys (is different). I’m just kind of soaking it up from them. They’re doing a great job and I’m just trying to catch up with them.’’
Mathis’ passion is evident during practice as he interacts with players and puts his position group through drills. Even at 37, he appears fit enough to swap his baseball cap for a helmet and take his share of reps.
“It’s awesome to have him,’’ defensive line coach Mike Phair said. “He’s been there and done that. And the cool part is he’s played in this system so he knows exactly everything I’m saying. We laugh at each other because he looks at me and says, ‘You’re speaking my language.’
“He is a teacher. I listen to him and watch him. He’s got the right kind of demeanor. It’s one thing to explain it the right way. He can do that. He’s been there. The guys listen to him.’’
Tom Rathman has made the transition from player to coach; nine seasons as a fullback, including eight with the San Francisco 49ers and more than two decades as an NFL running backs coach. He believes Mathis is cut from a similar cloth.
“He was a dynamic player when he played, so I think he’s going to be able to relate to those young players because he’s fairly young,’’ Rathman said. “The biggest part of it is the ability to teach and your players to be able to absorb what you’re giving them.
“I see that in Robert.’’
Mathis’ daily routine recently received a major boost when Reggie Wayne was brought in as a volunteer coach. They developed a lasting friendship while sharing the locker room from 2003-14.
“Yeah, man, that’s everything,’’ Mathis said. “When he stepped in the building, it was back. He’s my brother. He’s back, so is having fun.
“We’re just enjoying it.’’
Mathis also is enjoying an unexpected perk of his coaching position.
“The funnest part is being able to trash talk now and not have to back it up,’’ he said with a grin. “I make my guys have to back it up.
“I have fun with them. They keep me young.’’