State Your Case: Robert Mathis
Forced an NFL record 54 fumbles in his career
(Published July 2021)
Dwight Freeney collected 125 ½ career sacks, went to seven Pro Bowls and was voted first-team NFL all-decade for the 2000s.
But was he even the best pass rusher on the Indianapolis Colts?
That’s what the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame selection committee must determine next February – and Freeney isn’t even on the ballot. But his teammate Robert Mathis is.
Mathis didn’t make an all-decade team in his career and went to two fewer Pro Bowls than Freeney. He also has fewer career sacks than Freeney. But…
Freeney arrived in the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2002 and earned a spot on the NFL all-rookie team with his eight sacks that season. He went on to play 16 seasons and collect 125 ½ sacks.
Mathis arrived in the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick in 2003 and started only one game in his first three years. He went on to play 13 seasons and collect 123 sacks. That’s 2 ½ sacks fewer than Freeney despite playing three fewer seasons and starting 36 fewer games.
Freeney also played the right side, the quarterback’s blind side, where speed is a premium. He was a perfect fit over there for the Colts with his 4.48 speed at 6-0, 266 pounds.
Mathis played the left side during the 11 seasons he teamed with Freeney. That’s considered the power side because most teams favor running the ball to that side. That also means more traffic the left end needs to wade through on his way to the quarterback because the tight end lines up on that side in the traditional offensive formations.
Mathis was too light to start on the left side coming out of college at 6-0, 228 pounds with only 4.6 speed. But after three years in an NFL weight room, he bulked up to 245 and worked his way into the lineup.
In their 11 seasons together, Freeney collected 94 ½ sacks, Mathis 91 ½. In three of those seasons that both hit doubIe figures. Their best season was 2004 when they combined for 26 ½.
“We stole sacks from each other,” Mathis said. “I truly believe Dwight would have been nipping at Bruce Smith’s sack record of 200 if I wasn’t stealing his sacks, and I’d probably be up near (Michael) Strahan’s 141 if he didn’t steal mine.
“I had to take the attention off him. He was getting a lot of extra (blocking) attention. It was my job to beat those one-on-ones. We’d race to the quarterback. I was his biggest cheerleader, and he was mine. There was never any jealousy. It was all fun, great memories.”
When Freeney left in free agency for San Diego in 2013, the Colts flipped Mathis from the left to the right side favored by the elite pass rushers. Mathis led the NFL in sacks that season with 19 ½ and forced a league-high 10 fumbles.
Freeney’s best season was 16 sacks in 2004 when he led the league. He also forced a career-high and league-leading nine fumbles as a rookie. Freeney forced 37 fumbles in his career. Mathis led the league in forced fumbles three times and collected an NFL-record 54 in his career. Mathis also recovered 17 fumbles, Freeney four.
Freeney posted a career-high 46 tackles as a rookie. Mathis finished in the 60s in tackles twice and in the 50s twice. He retired with 538 career tackles, 188 more than Freeney.
Sacks alone don’t guarantee anyone a bust in Canton. If so, Kevin Greene wouldn’t have had to wait 12 years for his induction. He ranks fourth all-time in sacks with 160. John Abraham, Bubba Baker and Leslie O’Neal all retired from the NFL with more than 130 career sacks, and none has ever been a Hall-of-Fame finalist. Jared Allen was on the ballot last year with his 136 career sacks, and he didn’t even make the first cut in the voting.
Freeney will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2023. Is he Hall-of- Fame worthy? Is he more worthy than Mathis? Are either one Hall-of-Fame worthy? Are both worthy? That’s what the Hall’s selection committee must start to figure out next February.