The end of the 2011 season will bring a huge decision for the Colts front office.
Both Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis are entering the final year of their contracts. It is unlikely that the Colts will be able to afford to re-sign both, so one of the two will almost certainly end up with another team. The Colts would set themselves up best for Super Bowl runs during the final few years of Peyton Manning's career by signing Wayne, not Mathis. The fact of the matter is that Mathis just isn't as essential to the Colts' success as Wayne.
This article will explore the key reasons why signing Mathis after 2011 would be a mistake.
Mathis has certainly lived up to his $30 million contract extension from 2006. He has been to the Pro Bowl thrice—in 2008, 2009 and 2010—and has piled up 39.5 sacks and 134 tackles. With Dwight Freeney matched on the other side of the line, Mathis wreaks havoc on quarterbacks and is a constant strip-sack threat. He is quick off the line, and his burst and athleticism enable him to consistently harass slower offensive linemen.
Despite these numbers, Mathis' body of work and his role in the Colts organization are not as well-established as these stats seem to suggest. We can break down the most salient reasons for jettisoning him into three general categories: Mathis' skill set, the Colts' evolving defensive philosophy and Reggie Wayne's role in the passing game.
Without further ado, let's dive in.
Robert Mathis' Skill Set is Limited
Mathis is an undersized defensive end at 6'2" and 245 pounds. As a pass-rusher, he has often used his size to his advantage in getting leverage on taller offensive linemen. In running situations, however, he is easily bullied by the bigger players.
This liability, which is also one of Freeney's problems, neutralizes his success in the passing game. For much of the past six years, the Colts have suffered from the combination of weak (or merely adequate) interior linemen and speedy end-rushers who get up-field too fast to help in running situations. The inability of the defense to stop the run has led to far too many sustained drives for the opposition.
There is no doubt that Mathis is a gifted end-rusher, but at the price that he is likely to demand for his services, the Colts should let him walk.
Mathis May Not Fit in with the Colts' Evolving Defensive Philosophy
The Colts have finally realized that their base Cover 2 defense should be supplemented with occasional creative blitzes and wrinkles to keep opposing offenses on their toes. With Ron Meeks as defensive coordinator under Tony Dungy, Colts fans were constantly frustrated with the mind-numbingly vanilla defense trotted out every week. Larry Coyer, who has been defensive coordinator for the past two years, has gradually added a few new packages to their base D.
Last year, the scads of injuries to starters—from Antonio Johnson and Gary Brackett, to Melvin Bullitt and Bob Sanders—forced Coyer to simplify the defense for less-experienced players. But it is clear that under Jim Caldwell the Colts want to be more surprising and hard to predict on defense.
As a result, guys like third-round draft pick Drake Nevis and sixth rounder Chris Rucker are expected to bring physicality and size to a generally featherweight defense. Speed on defense is a good thing, but when other teams know that they can exploit the Colts with their running game, having some heft to stop the run becomes essential.
In addition to this changing defensive philosophy, the Colts also seem to have future-casted for Mathis' eventual departure. Jerry Hughes was drafted in the first round in 2010 as a defensive end, and although he didn't show much last year, he clearly has the talent and pedigree to get the job done opposite Freeney. Hughes can get some more seasoning behind Mathis in 2011 and will hopefully be ready to step in as his replacement by 2012.
Reggie Wayne's Role in the Passing Game is More Important than Mathis' Role on Defense
Many pundits have pointed to the Colts failures on defense as the most salient reason for their early exit from the playoffs versus the Jets in January. The defense can be partially blamed for not stopping the run very well, but the fact is that the Colts only scored 16 points that night. That is not enough from what should be a dominant offense. One of the key reasons for the low point total, right alongside the Colts' repeated failure to convert 3rd-and-shorts, can be traced to struggles in the passing game.
Pierre Garcon is an explosive receiver, but he is too inconsistent to be a No. 1 type guy. Two other top targets, Austin Collie and Dallas Clark, were injured for most of the season last year. Blair White was not an adequate replacement and Jacob Tamme, although effective, is not an elite pass-catcher like Clark.
Without Wayne, the Colts wouldn't have a reliable threat at wide receiver. Reggie Wayne has been the beating heart of the passing game since he took over from Marvin Harrison as the primary go-to for Manning in 2007. His combination of precise route running, excellent hands and above-average speed make him the best option on the field for Peyton Manning.
Keeping Wayne around with Peyton just makes more sense than trying to hold onto another end-rusher like Mathis.
It will be time to bid Robert Mathis a fond farewell at the end of 2011. He contributed many sacks, tackles and highlights during his time with the Colts, but letting him go will give the Colts a better chance to win another Super Bowl or two before Manning dons the blue and white for the last time.