Mathis puts it all on the line

Posted: August 07, 2013

EVERYBODY makes mistakes. But 2 years ago, the Eagles' decision-making troika of Andy Reid, Howie Roseman and Joe Banner made enough of them over a 3-month span to merit Guinness Book of World Records consideration.

That April, they swung and missed with their first three draft picks - guard Danny Watkins, safety Jaiquawn Jarrett and cornerback Curtis Marsh. Watkins, who was benched after six games last year, has been a bust. Jarrett was canned after one season. And Marsh has been on the field for a total of 75 defensive snaps in 2 years.

Three months later, after the NFL labor lockout finally ended, they traded for cornerback Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie and signed a small army of veteran free agents, including cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, quarterback Vince Young, running back Ronnie Brown, defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, guard Evan Mathis, wide receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins, tight end Donald Lee and offensive tackle Ryan Harris.

Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha turned out to be monumental disappointments, Young threw nine interceptions in just 116 pass attempts and was responsible for that stupid "Dream Team" nickname they never lived down.

Brown averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and will forever be remembered for that Keystone Kops goal-line fumble in a one-point loss to the 49ers.

Babin gave them one good Pro Bowl season before bottoming out and turning into a locker-room cancer. Jenkins played pretty well for a year, then ran out of gas. Higgins, Lee and Harris never even made it to the starting gate.

The signing that drew the least attention at the time was Mathis, a then 29-year-old journeyman with just 22 career starts in six seasons.

Basically brought in to provide depth at the guard and tackle spots, Mathis' arrival at Lehigh that summer was so far under the radar that the Eagles didn't even bother to have an introductory news conference for him. And they were having news conferences for everybody but the new parking lot attendants that summer.

As it turned out, signing Mathis ended up being the one really, really smart thing Reid, Roseman and Banner did during The Great Personnel Debacle of 2011.

The 6-5, 298-pound left guard has blossomed into one of the top interior linemen in the league, starting 31 games for the Eagles the last two seasons.

In 2,170 offensive snaps with the Eagles, Mathis has allowed just one sack, 10 quarterback hits and 24 hurries, and has excelled as a run-blocker.

The respected website graded Mathis as the top interior lineman in the league both of the last two seasons, and the top lineman overall last year.

He was No. 6 on PFF's list of top 100 players of 2012, behind only Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, Broncos linebacker Von Miller and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

For a 4-12 team.

With backups playing on both sides of him.

"The most important thing was we were 4-12," said Mathis, who came up one vote short of making the Associated Press All-Pro team. "I'm going to do my part no matter what, which is being a leader, being the best left guard I can be.

"No matter what the circumstances are around you, you have to keep your blinders on and stay focused on what you're doing."

One of the big reasons Mathis signed with the Eagles 2 years ago was because he wanted the opportunity to play for Eagles offensive line coach Howard Mudd. Mathis felt his athleticism would be a good fit for Mudd's technique and scheme. He was right.

Mudd helped turned Mathis from a journeyman who had started just seven games the previous four seasons, into a solid starter on a line that was playing as well as any in the league by the end of the '11 season.

"I never stopped believing in myself," Mathis said. "I kept learning. I learned a lot from the offensive line coach in Cincinnati [Paul Alexander] before I came here.

"And it was amazing to play under Howard and learn so much in a short time. And now Stout [new offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland]. I think I've gotten lucky with my past few offensive line coaches with what they've been able to teach me, and the tools they've given me.

"I just keep the mentality that I need to be better than I was yesterday, regardless of how good it may have been."

Mathis hit the jackpot his first season with the Eagles. Had the best left tackle in the game, Jason Peters, on one side of him, and impressive rookie center Jason Kelce on the other. Life was good.

Last year, a much different story. Peters missed the entire year with an Achilles' injury and Kelce tore his ACL in Week 2. Peters was replaced by the undynamic duo of King Dunlap and Demetress Bell, and Kelce's fill-in was former practice-squadder Dallas Reynolds.

But even with lesser talent around him, Mathis didn't miss a beat. PFF gave him a league-best 31.8 run-blocking grade. The only other offensive linemen given a run-blocking grade above 20 were 49ers tackle Joe Staley (25.0), 49ers guard Mike Iupati (23.4) and Vikings center John Sullivan (20.9). Staley and Iupati both were All-Pro selections.

The only interior lineman that PFF gave a higher pass-blocking grade to than Mathis (14.8) was the Bills' Andy Levitre (15.7).

Mathis played much of last season on an injured ankle.

"I think I played decent on it," he said. "It didn't affect my play. It just hurt like a mother.

"In layman's terms, there was a bunch of junk in the joint. It would cause a lot of inflammation and painful swelling. Every now and then, there would be a painful twinge that would kind of neutralize me."

The ankle seemed to improve after the season. But when it flared up on him again early in OTAs, he decided to have surgery.

"It feels great now," he said. "I'm definitely glad we took care of it rather than having to worry about it during the season. Hopefully, it will remain a non-issue the rest of the year."

The offensive line could be one of the Eagles' greatest strengths in Chip Kelly's first season. Peters and Kelce both are back. So is Todd Herremans, who missed eight games with a broken foot. He's moving from right tackle to right guard to make room up front for Lane Johnson, who the Eagles selected with the fourth overall pick in the draft.

"Our line has a lot of potential if we stay healthy," Mathis said. "But we try not to get too excited about it. Just take 1 day at a time. Stay focused on the task at hand. Learn this new offense. Get used to playing next to each other again.

"And just make progress each day. Because no matter what we are on paper, it only matters how we execute on the field."

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On Twitter: @Pdomo


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