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As much as the Indianapolis Colts try to spin outside linebacker Robert Mathis' four-game suspension as an “opportunity” for the “next man up,” it's a massive blow.
Mathis will miss chasing Peyton Manning in Denver in the opener, he'll miss helping to slow down the rapid-fire Philadelphia Eagles offense on Monday Night Football and he'll miss two AFC South games. The Colts better pray to come out of that stretch at least 2-2.
The Colts don't have a pass rusher within a zip code of Mathis' ability on the roster. This is akin to taking quarterback Andrew Luck out of the offensive lineup, but even if that happened there's savvy veteran Matt Hasselbeck ready to step in.
Mathis' absence means the Colts essentially give opposing quarterbacks one more play in the upright and locked-in position and a lot less to fret about.
“Somebody will take advantage of the opportunity to show up and play great football,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said.
That's wishful thinking.
The Colts won't just be losing their best pass rusher as Mathis, they're losing the NFL's best pass rusher. He'll sit out four games for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug. He explained that he took the drug for a fertility problem, but the NFL said "You're still suspended."
Even in games when Mathis doesn't get a sack, opposing offensive lines and coordinators and – most of all – quarterbacks have to account for his whereabouts. There's no question that Manning could have been figuratively looking over his shoulder for Mathis in that opening game, based on Mathis' strip/sack of Manning in last year's game.
Will Manning be as nervous about Erik Walden, Bjoern Werner and rookie Jonathan Newsome? Short answer: No.
I'm not saying Walden, Werner and Newsome or another outside linebacker can't do the job. I'm saying none of those players is even close to Mathis' level. They simply don't strike fear. Maybe they can eventually, particularly as Werner and Newsome mature as pros. But we're talking about the here and now.
When the Colts lost wide receiver Reggie Wayne with a knee injury in last season's win over Denver, it was more than a month before they found some passing-game rhythm without him. It was never the same.
The good news this time is that the reality of Mathis' absence comes in May, well in advance. That gives the Colts organized team activities (OTAs), veteran's mini-camp and full training camp at Anderson University to work on life without Mathis. But the tricky part is that Mathis is allowed to participate in all of those things, even the four preseason games, so Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will have to balance working Mathis with the defense but also planning for those four games without him. It'll be awkward at best.
We can debate about the believability of Mathis' explanation of how the positive test came about, but the bottom line remains the same: He's out for four games.
That's one-fourth of the season. That month could mean the difference between winning the division and fighting for a wildcard berth. Or, in the worst case scenario, it could spell the difference between being in the playoffs or missing out.
“Any time you're faced with circumstances and you have adversity and setbacks, whatever it is, it doesn't matter, again you come together and you regroup,” Pagano said. “We take care of one another, we've got each other's back and we'll find a way to get through it.”
Maybe there's an upside. Maybe Mathis' month without play or pay will make him that much hungrier when he returns. Maybe it'll help give him a freshness for the last 12 games of the season that will come in handy in a challenging stretch of consecutive games against the Bengals, Steelers, Giants and Patriots.
Right now, I don't see much upside.
Right now, I see a big-time vulnerability in the Colts' defense and a huge chuck of pressure off opposing quarterbacks' shoulders. Mathis' absence affects the pass rush and trickles back to make the secondary more vulnerable. There are some huge ramifications in those first four games.
“There's going to be adversity,” Pagano said. “There's going to be circumstances. And nobody's built better to handle adversity than this group of people right here in this organization.”
If Mathis' explanation is an accurate one, and he has a track record of honesty to back him up, a four-game suspension seems too harsh for the violation.
Harsh is, in fact, the right word. Wait until the games start and the quarterbacks drop back knowing Mathis won't be paying them a visit.