Cornerback Rashean Mathis wants to go out a winner, and the Lions love it

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Throughout the 2013 season, Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis said he told general manager Martin Mayhew he wanted to return to Detroit in 2014.

But it took more than a month into free agency for Mathis to reach an agreement on a one-year deal with the team that signed him last August because, after 11 seasons in the NFL, the 33-year-old thought about retiring.

“I wanted to come back, but yeah, this game is not easy,” Mathis told The Detroit News Monday. “This game is not easy at all. Did I talk with my family that it’s a possibility that I could retire? Yes. That definitely happened.

“The question was: If I’m here, I need to be all the way here and not half the way because I never do anything halfway.”

Mathis, who will start this year opposite second-year cornerback Darius Slay, considered retiring the year before, too. Last March, the Jaguars chose not to re-sign him after he spent 10 seasons with his hometown team, including an All-Pro year in 2006. He suffered a torn ACL in 2011 and struggled to bounce back in 2012, starting four games early in the season before missing four straight with a groin injury and returning as a backup.

After a few months on the free-agent market, the Lions signed him last year hoping he could provide veteran depth at a weak position because he had the versatility to play in the slot or at safety. By Week 3, he was a starter at cornerback and finished with 15 passes defensed, tied for 17th in the NFL.

The opportunity to end his career on a personal high note and be healthy enough to play with his children was tempting, but Mathis wanted the chance to retire as a winner.

“I know I’m healthy, and I want to leave healthy, too,” he said. “But looking at the core of this team and looking at what we want to accomplish, it was kind of a no-brainer.

“The end is coming to my career, and I want to go full steam ahead. I want to end it running, not hopping. Another year or two here, I’ll hang my hat.”

When the Lions hired coach Jim Caldwell, a pensive and religious man like Mathis, his desire to return to Detroit intensified. And Caldwell is glad Mathis is still around.

“This guy is a quality individual, and his leadership and the role that he plays with our team is invaluable,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell began coaching in Indianapolis in 2002, a year before Jacksonville drafted Mathis in the second round out of Bethune-Cookman, a private school in Daytona Beach, Florida, with an enrollment of less than 3,500 students. Mathis became a starter his rookie year, and for nine seasons Caldwell saw him twice a year in the AFC South.

“He was one of those guys that every week that you played against him you had to know where he was because he was very, very good at his craft,” Caldwell said. “He’d intercept the ball; he’d create problems for you in the run game. (He’s) long with length and intelligence. He was really a tough guy to deal with.

“I’ve come to appreciate him even more now that I’m on the same team that he’s on because he’s smart (and) he’s a true professional — a consummate professional in every single facet. He works hard, he studies, he teaches the young guys, he sets a great pace for them, he’s always up for practice and meetings (and) he’s a first-class competitor.”

With the Lions releasing Chris Houston in June, Mathis became the unquestioned leader in the cornerback room, even if he’s only in his second season in Detroit. Cassius Vaughn, entering his fifth season and first with the Lions, is the only other cornerback besides Mathis and Drayton Florence — who signed last week — with more than two years of NFL experience.

But experience doesn’t lead to wins, and Mathis knows he needs to improve for the Lions to reach their potential this season. Even though he broke up 15 passes last year, Mathis didn’t notch a single interception. In fact, he hasn’t had an interception since Sept. 18, 2011.

In last week’s exhibition loss to the Raiders, Mathis tipped a pass that led to an interception by safety James Ihedigbo, and as long as he is around the ball, he expects to create more game-changing play in 2014.

Mathis also feels healthier coming into this season, now three years removed from his torn ACL.

“I was 100 percent last year, (and) I did what I needed to do to make sure it wasn’t a problem,” he said.

Even when his left knee wasn’t hurting, he would ice it last year. If he felt stretched out, he would stretch more. This year, though, Mathis doesn’t have any concerns about his surgically repaired knee.

And even though he’ll turn 34 before the season begins, Mathis doesn’t think he’s lost a step.

“I’ve got the best receiver in the game on my team, and I go up against him,” Mathis said, alluding to Calvin Johnson. “If you can be close to him, you could be close to anybody.”