Counted out over age, Lions' Mathis keeps bouncing back

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

For most of this season, Rashean Mathis was the perfect example of the old adage that an NFL player's best ability is availability. He didn't miss one practice and was limited twice, and one of those days was the Monday before Thanksgiving when the Lions had to file a projected injury report for a practice that didn't happen.

Mathis, 34, played nearly every snap during the season before missing his first extended time in the wild-card loss to the Cowboys when he left with what officials called a quad injury in the second quarter. Still, Mathis returned for the final defensive drive, one that resulted in Dallas scoring the winning touchdown.

"I did everything I could on the sideline to get back in there," he said. "It was painful, but that's the life we live; that's the game we play in. You're going to go through some painful moments, but I wanted to be out there. ... The mental went somewhere else, and I was able to step in and give it one more drive."

Now, the Lions will have to decide whether to bring Mathis, a free agent, back next season.

"I'm Father Time right now," Mathis said. "People keeping throwing up this one-year thing. I think I've shown that I have more than a year left in my body."

If the Lions want to keep their No. 2 defense intact, Mathis might be the team's second-most important free agent this offseason behind All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

In his 12th season, Mathis started all 16 games and had nine passes defensed, 51 tackles and an interception he returned for a touchdown. Pro Football Focus charted him as the No. 12 cornerback, a few spots ahead of teammate Darius Slay (No. 19).

"There was a time (last offseason) when I thought last year was going to be it," Mathis said. "But I'm happy that I came back and built the relationships stronger and new relationships that I built."

As well as Mathis played, his teammates and coaches credit him for helping Slay develop into a solid cornerback in his second season, tutoring him on and off the field.

But, it wasn't long ago that Mathis faced the possibility his career was over. A second-round pick in 2003, Mathis played for 10 years for his hometown Jaguars and was a first-team All-Pro in 2006. In 2011, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and didn't look like he'd return to form as he started four games in 2012.

The Jaguars didn't re-sign Mathis, and the Lions were hesitant to give him a chance, too. General manager Martin Mayhew said last week he believed Mathis was too old to help last season, but Sheldon White, vice president of pro personnel, convinced Mayhew to bring Mathis in for a workout.

When the Lions signed him, the expectation was he would be a versatile backup who could play outside, inside or even safety in a pinch — if he made the team at all. By Week 3, Mathis replaced Slay in the starting lineup.

Still, even after playing well in 2013, the Lions waited a month to re-sign Mathis. But the veteran impressed enough to keep his starting job.

"He's like a coach out there on the field," coach Jim Caldwell said. "He sees the whole field from that corner position."

Now, though, Mathis will have to wait to see if the Lions want to bring him back — again.

"Those decisions are not just up to me," he said. "I would love to be here. The relationships I've built in my DB room, it's love there, and I think we have something special and I have never stopped saying that. We built a foundation that we can lay our hats on."