Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Robert Mathis vs. Dwight Freeney

By Brad Oremland

The NFL has tracked forced fumbles as an official statistic since 1993. Since then — 24 seasons — the all-time leader is Robert Mathis, the longtime Indianapolis Colt who retired this offseason. A fifth-round draft choice out of Alabama A&M, Mathis played for the Colts from 2003-2016; this will be the Colts' first season without Mathis since Peyton Manning was 27.

I would argue — indeed, I intend to argue — that Mathis was badly under-appreciated, that he deserves serious consideration as a Hall of Fame candidate, and that he was a better player than longtime teammate Dwight Freeney.

Let's use that last one as a focus for the other two, since most fans regard Freeney as a Hall of Fame-caliber player: if I can make a convincing argument that Mathis was as good as or better than Freeney, I'll have convinced many fans that Mathis is or should be a serious a Hall of Fame candidate, and probably that he didn't get enough credit for most of his career.

We'll begin somewhere basic: career statistics.

Freeney: 280 tackles, 122.5 sacks, 47 forced fumbles, 4 fumbles recovered, 16 passes defensed, 1 TD

Mathis: 397 tackles, 123.0 sacks, 52 forced fumbles, 17 fumbles recovered, 15 passes defensed, 3 TDs

Mathis also intercepted a pass in 2012, and he had more assists (130-49), if you put any stock in that. Statistically, Mathis is clearly ahead. This advantage holds up on a per-season and per-game basis. Freeney has played more seasons than Mathis (15-13), with more games (209-192) and more games started (157-121). Per 16 games, Freeney averages 21 tackles, 9.4 sacks, 3.6 forced fumbles, and 0.3 takeaways. Mathis averaged 33 tackles, 10.3 sacks, 4.3 forced fumbles, and 1.5 takeaways. They both have good stats, but Mathis' are distinctly better.

Freeney's reputation is greater for four reasons:

1. He was a first-round draft pick. Mathis was a fifth-round draft pick.

2. Freeney was a rookie in 2002 and an immediate starter. Mathis didn't start regularly until 2006, so he always had to fight the perception that he was second fiddle to Freeney's star.

3. Freeney was the Colts' best defensive player when Peyton Manning was the best player in the NFL. The Colts were perennial Super Bowl contenders, and even though their poor defense held them back, Freeney was visible as the star defensive player on a successful team with a lot of media attention. Mathis wasn't recognized as the team's dominant player until after Manning's neck injury.

4. Freeney was a pure sack specialist, and — as I noted last week — sacks are the statistic by which defensive ends are judged. Mathis was a much more complete player, far better playing the run, and a takeaway aficionado.

Lest anyone doubt that Freeney's reputation is greater than Mathis', Freeney made more Pro Bowls (7-6) and more Associated Press All-Pro teams (4-2), including more first-team selections (3-1). Freeney was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, as a starter. And more to the point, if you followed professional football during their careers, it is plain that Freeney has been the more celebrated player.

Now, there's a statistical trick sometimes used to "prove" something counter-intuitive. It involves using long-term consistency to mask shorter-term excellence. That is, if Robert Mathis got 8 or 9 sacks every season, he'd be consistently good but never great. Compared to Freeney, who had seven seasons of double-digit sacks but also six seasons with 5.5 sacks or fewer, we'd probably still take Freeney despite the career statistics favoring Mathis: consistency is part of being great, but so is being among the very best at your position.

Of course, Mathis didn't post his excellent career numbers just by being consistently good. He had five seasons of double-digit sacks (to Freeney's seven), plus three more with 9.5 sacks. Freeney, in his three best seasons (as measured by sacks), had 42.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles. Mathis, in his top three seasons, recorded 42.5 sacks and 21 forced fumbles. Mathis also had more tackles, fumble recoveries, etc. Sacks alone aren't a fair measure, since Freeney was notoriously one-dimensional, while Mathis was a sound run defender and the best player of his generation — and perhaps of all time — at forcing and recovering fumbles.

Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated's legendary Dr. Z, mentioned Mathis in his 2007 season All-Pro column, despite that Mathis recorded only 7 sacks, the lowest total between his rookie season and his final season. Zimmerman applauded, "I enjoyed watching Robert Mathis ... at 235 pounds. It's the old Charles Haley syndrome. Everyone says, 'Wow, watch them run against him,' but these guys are just so good, technically, they use such fine leverage, that they just don't get buried. People also used to say that about Deacon Jones, the Rams' great pass rusher. 'We'll run at him. We'll make him play football.' So on first down he slaps the blocker away and now it's second-and-10, and what do you do? Mathis was a high grader on my chart."

It is Mathis, not Freeney, who holds the Colts' team records for sacks in a career, sacks in a season, and consecutive games with a sack. I'm not trying to bash Dwight Freeney. Freeney was a very good player, and his success helped Mathis to succeed: both of them threatened offenses in a way that created opportunities on the other end of the line. To the extent that I'm criticizing Freeney at all, it's only to point out that Robert Mathis was even better, an under-appreciated and underrated player for much of his excellent career.

As a final thought, Freeney and Mathis were rookies in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Here are the career sack totals, through 2016, of defensive linemen who debuted between 2000-05:

1. Julius Peppers, 143.5
2. Jared Allen, 136.0
3. John Abraham, 133.5
4. Robert Mathis, 123.0
5. Dwight Freeney, 122.5

6. Trent Cole, 90.5
7. Justin Smith, 87.0
8. Osi Umenyiora, 85.0
9. Andre Carter, 80.5
10. Aaron Schobel, 78.0

Peppers and Allen should be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Smith, who played inside for much of his career, might make it to Canton some day; I'd vote for him. Cole, Umenyiora, Carter, and Schobel were very good players, but not HOFers. Abraham, Mathis, and Freeney join Smith as maybes. Out of that group, I would suspect that Freeney has the best chance, not because he was a better player but because he had better hype. Robert Mathis was as great a pass rusher as Freeney, but he did everything else better, and he deserved the hype and praise at least as much as his teammate. When the time comes, I hope the Hall of Fame voters will consider Mathis fairly — and that means considering him at least as strongly as Dwight Freeney.

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