INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Colts coach Chuck Pagano has a simple plan for surviving the first four games without Robert Mathis.
Getting his teammates to play better.
One day after Indianapolis learned the 2013 NFL sacks champion had been suspended for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy, Pagano insisted the Colts could and would survive again — this time minus their best defensive player.
“Somebody will take advantage of the opportunity to show up and play great football,” the Colts coach said Saturday, the second day of rookie minicamp.
When the Colts opted not to re-sign perennial Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney during the 2013 offseason, Mathis finished with a franchise-record 19½ sacks.
When Reggie Wayne’s 2013 season ended with a torn ACL in October, T.Y. Hilton emerged as the young, steadying force among the receivers. The Colts still went on to win the AFC South and reach the divisional round of the playoffs.
And when Pagano left the team in 2012 to undergo cancer treatment, Bruce Arians rallied the Colts and became the first assistant to win the NFL’s coach of the year award.
“We’ll get through this,” Pagano said. “We’ll come together as a team. We’ll come together as a family. We’ll come together as an organization, and we’ll get through this. We love and respect Robert Mathis. He’s a horseshoe guy; he’s a pillar guy. Like I said before, we’ve got his back. Everybody in this organization has his back, and we’ll get through this. And at the end of the day, we’ll all be better for it.”
Mathis said Friday he was suspended for taking a substance to improve his fertility, acknowledged he made a mistake by relying solely on the advice of his doctor rather than contacting the NFL or NFLPA, and apologized to fans, coaches and teammates for what happened.
Mathis will be allowed to participate in offseason workouts, training camp and preseason games, but the timing of his absence couldn’t be worse.
Indy opens the season in a rematch with Denver and Peyton Manning. Last year, it was Mathis’ strip sack in the end zone that led to a safety and completely flipped the game that Indy won.
The Colts face Philadelphia’s fast-break offense in Week 2, a home game in which the crowd noise could have given Mathis a quick jump on the Eagles, before heading to Jacksonville and hosting Tennessee in two critical division games that could help determine Indy’s fate.
The Colts need Erik Walden, Bjoern Werner, last year’s first-round pick, and undersized rookie Jonathan Newsome, a fifth-round selection last week, to press the outside at linebacker while newly acquired defensive lineman Arthur Jones helps provide push on the inside.
Pagano believes his players can get it done.
“There’s going to be adversity and there’s going to be circumstances,” Pagano said. “Nobody’s built better to handle adversity than this group of people right here in this organization.”