KUSA—I had sent a text to Evan Mathis asking if we could chat.
No Denver Broncos player overcame more ailments to play a game on a week-to-week basis this past season than Mathis. I wanted to get an update on the 34-year-old left guard, particularly about the damaged right ankle he played on the final 2 ½ months of the season. He will have surgery on the ankle Wednesday.
Instead of conversing, Mathis wanted me to e-mail him questions, not necessarily because he was guarded as only a Super Bowl left guard can be (although maybe a little) but because he believed he could be more thorough in his explanations through writing.
A conversation would have taken 10,15 minutes. Mathis must have taken two or three hours to write his responses.
Make no mistake, Mathis is a man who prefers the road less traveled. This is a guy who last August turned down a one-year $5.5 million deal to play for the Miami Dolphins and instead accepted a one-year, $4 million package to play for Denver. One reason, and only one reason, Denver trumped $1.5 million: He thought the Broncos with Peyton Manning had a better chance to win it all than did the Dolphins.
The Dolphins finished 6-10. The Broncos finished with a February parade that drew an estimated crowd of 1 million.
Before Mathis encountered his decision between the Dolphins and Broncos, he first needed Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly to release him from his Eagles contract. Kelly was not willing to rework Mathis’ contract, as the previous Eagles’ regime had.
Most players would use their agent to handle such a task. Mathis directly texted Kelly with a YouTube video of Engelbert Humperdink singing, “Please release me, let me go. …’’
Mathis also stated via e-mail that Kelly is not the type of coach who could have handled the 2015 Broncos’ contingent of outsized characters.
“There were many things that Chip had done that showed me he wasn’t building a championship team,” Mathis wrote in his e-mail to 9NEWS. “Two of the main issues that concerned me were: 1. A never-evolving, vanilla offense that forced our own defense to play higher than normal play counts. 2. His impatience with certain personality types even when they were blue-chip talents. The Broncos team I was on would have eaten Chip alive. I don’t think he could have handled the plethora of large personalities.”
Indirectly, Mathis was praising Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, whose low-key, yet firm, demeanor ideally suited a Broncos’ locker room loaded with unique personalities on both sides of the room, from Peyton Manning, Emmanuel Sanders and C.J. Anderson on the offense side, to Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Derek Wolfe, Brandon Marshall, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller on the defensive side. (In the NFL, the characters on the defensive side of the room always outnumber those on the offensive side).
Mathis, a free agent after playing out his one-year deal with the Broncos, also stated he has not yet decided whether to retire but he will condition and strength-train as if he will continue to play.
He also thoroughly explained how it’s not the physical pain from injuries that most affects performance but rather the mental focus that can be compromised by the injury.
Mathis was not the Broncos’ recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award. That went to inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Marshall, who were deserving for how they came back from their major offseason surgeries.
Mathis’ willingness and ability to play hurt, though, was unmatched. He played the opener against Baltimore despite a stomach flu that caused him to vomit several times prior – and during – the game.
“The only fluid I could get into my body was via IVs before the game and at halftime,” Mathis wrote. “I threw up on the sideline every time I tried to drink water or Gatorade and made a few trips to the restroom near our sideline for other urgent matters. I believe we played the hottest game in the NFL that day (88 degrees at kickoff) so it was the perfect storm for misery.
“The No. 1 reason for mistakes or not completing an assignment is a lapse in focus. It can be a fraction of a second and it can happen for a number of reasons: Hearing a call from a teammate, hearing the defense make a call, “daydreaming bout when that hotline bling” (a reference to a Drake lyric), lack of confidence, seeing the lineman shift, listening to something else, years of ramming your head into people for a living, looking at something else, lack of energy, and the list goes on. The stomach flu caused a few lapses in focus for me so I had an above-my-average-number of losses that day. Something I’m not proud of.”
Mathis doesn’t take himself seriously, as he proved by pointing out three of his worst blocks in 2015.
“The first was on my birthday (Nov. 1) in the Sunday Night Football game against the Packers,” Mathis wrote. “Julius Peppers had rarely gone to the bull rush while rushing against offensive guards that season. He came off and did a stutter move. I got distracted and my feet and hands were out of position long enough for him to put his hands on my chest and force me to fall straight backwards.
“I pulled him down with me to save the block but it was embarrassment level 9 out of 10. I kept the jersey from that game as a birthday present to myself. I’ve been meaning to check the back for grass marks.
“The same thing happened against Bruce Gaston during the Bears game. I lost focus, got out of position, got bull rushed, ended up on my back, lost focus again, didn’t grab him on the way down.
“Brock got sacked, I did the awkward one-time hand clap and screamed and obscenity. Embarrassment level: 10 out of 10. I usually end up letting this kind of thing happen maybe once a year on average, that was twice already.
“But wait, there’s more! I was having what I thought was a great game against the Panthers in the Super Bowl and I went to fight for a ball at the bottom of a pile in the second half. I was ripping and tugging in that pile as hard as I could until I got the ball but the referee ended up giving it to the Panthers because I was too late.
“I was spent exerting full effort for that long after already playing like it was my only shot at a Super Bowl. My lungs recovered quickly but on the way to the line of scrimmage for the first play of the next series, my hand started to cramp. I was thrown off for a second and took a poor set. Kawann Short already has a great bull rush so no reason to take poor set on him. Same exact thing happens again, this time as I’m falling backwards I respond by wrapping my legs around his and bringing him down. Oh well, Super Bowl champs fall on their ass sometimes. But those kind of plays can stick with a player. There’s a reel of them from my entire career on repeat in my head.’’
Mathis pulled his right hamstring in game 3 at Detroit and he tore it the following the week against Minnesota. See the nice colors a torn hamstring brings here:
In game 10 at Chicago -- otherwise remembered as the NFL starting debut of quarterback Brock Osweiler -- Mathis left the game late with what was later diagnosed as a grade 2 high ankle sprain. He will have surgery to correct the ankle damage on Wednesday in Birmingham, Alabama with Dr. Norman Waldrop of Andrews Sports Medicine performing the operation.
After his one, triumphant season through much adversity in Denver, Mathis is a free agent all over again. Here was our e-mail exchange:
Me: First, making sure you want to keep going after getting beat up so much in your 11thseason. Second, you confident this surgery will make you right for next season?
Mathis: I haven’t made my decision yet but I will continue to prepare like I’m playing in case that’s the route I decide. I had the same surgery in May 2013 on my left ankle and went on to have an All-Pro/Pro Bowl season so I’m certain this surgery will help me a lot.
Me: If you do play is your first choice a return to Denver?
Mathis: I haven’t put much thought into the future just yet but there’s zero reasons right now why Denver wouldn’t be first on my list.
Finally, I asked Mathis to provide an overview of his remarkable journey that was his 2015 season. He began by going back to the 2014 preseason, when he was negotiating a restructured contract with Eagles’ general manager Howie Roseman.
The Eagles extended an offer but Mathis and his agent Drew Rosenhaus decided to table negotiations until after the season so he could focus on football.
After that season, Roseman was stripped of some authority while Kelly was given full control of football operations. When Rosenhaus reached out to resume negotiations, Kelly said he had no knowledge of previous negotiations.
“Since I wasn’t going to be paid what I was offered and I wouldn’t simply be given better incentives to play for a coach who wasn’t building a winning team, I decided I wanted out of Philadelphia,” Mathis wrote. “I hope Chip learns from his experiences in Philadelphia and grows as a coach. Maybe he’ll find some constructive criticism from this.’’
Kelly was fired with one game remaining in the 2015 season. He is now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Mathis then provided a timeline of his 2015 season. In his words:
March 23rd: A report came out that the Eagles would release me if they couldn’t trade me.
March 25th: I sent Chip a text that had this YouTube link.
June 11th: Chip Kelly calls me to tell me they are releasing me to see if I can get what I want. I replied, “Are you sure you want to do that?”
June 15th: Rosenhaus sends me a list of the teams that expressed interest in me: Falcons, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, Titans, Redskins. Of that list, I was most excited about Patriots and Seahawks.
July: Weirdly enough, I had a dream that John Elway called me.
2nd week of August: Broncos reach out to Rosenhaus and jump in the mix with an offer.
August 20th: Remaining interested teams are Dolphins, Broncos, Seahawks. I get a text from Peyton Manning. It seems he was assigned as my recruiting host. I thought that was pretty cool.
August 21st: Colts inquire about what it would take to sign me.
August 22nd: I take a visit to Seattle for physicals and meetings.
August 24th: Seattle bows out.
August 25th: I decide I need to make my decision on this day and it comes down to an aggressive Mike Tannenbaum of the Dolphins offering 5.5 million after incentives or the Broncos offering their original offer of 4 million after incentives. Denver didn’t bring their offer up after hearing Miami’s offer.
Denver says I have to be there that night so I pack up quickly and hop on a flight.
Now for the wrap up.
“Playing through the pain wasn’t easy, but I didn’t allow myself to get away with complaining about the situation I was in,” Mathis wrote. “I obviously wasn’t performing at my max ability but I feel I did what I could given the circumstances. I just did whatever I could to make it better because there were so many reasons to do so and very few reasons not to.
“There’s no reason not to look at every game like a must-win game. Had the Patriots beat the Dolphins in the final game of the season to secure home field advantage, would things have played out differently? Who knows, but no reason to have to test it. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of the guys in the locker room would have sacrificed what needed to be sacrificed in order to get to the Super Bowl and win. There were a wide variety of personalities but I know we all had that one thing in common.”
February 7, 2016: Super Bowl Champions
“Creating this timeline and reflecting on all of this season has been a very entertaining task,” Mathis wrote. “Seeing my personal road to a Super Bowl Championship unfold is fulfilling. What I included was a small percentage of the story but still interesting pieces to share. I look at every step of the road as part of the journey to the Super Bowl. I’m a sports card and memorabilia collector and I just scored a game-used Super Bowl uniform (it’s white with “Mathis” and the number 69 on the back) with a Super Bowl ring on the way. It’s only a dumb lineman’s stuff but it’s still pretty cool.''
(© 2016 KUSA)