INDIANAPOLIS — Robert Mathis never got to see Deacon Jones take down opposing quarterbacks in person.
He learned to appreciate Jones’ creativity over time.
The Colts Pro Bowl linebacker and newly crowned sacks champion was honored Thursday as the inaugural winner of the NFL’s Deacon Jones Award, which goes to the league’s sacks leader. Mathis will be recognized at the NFL award banquet Feb. 1.
“Deacon Jones is the creator of the sack, so to be able to win the first award in his honor is an honor,” Mathis told reporters in Indianapolis. “I’m very proud that I was able to win it and I thank my teammates, mainly the d-line, who were very instrumental in helping me get to the quarterback.”
League officials named the award after Jones died June 3 at age 74. Jones was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
Mathis has been one of the league’s top sack artists since joining the Colts as a fifth-round draft pick in 2003. For nearly a decade, Mathis and Dwight Freeney were among the NFL’s most feared pass-rushing tandems.
But when Freeney left in free agency during the offseason, the critics contended Mathis would struggle without his longtime teammate and close friend.
Instead, Mathis used it as motivation. When asked Thursday why he has played so well over the years, Mathis responded: “The fact that I do have a chip on my shoulder every time I play. When people say you can’t do something, you want to show them that you can.”
So the 32-year-old who is in his second season as a rush linebacker delivered the best season of his career.
He broke Freneey’s franchise record for sacks in a season (16) with 19½ and became the Colts’ career sacks leader (111), surpassing Freeney’s previous mark (107½). Mathis finished the regular season with 65 tackles, matched his career high with eight forced fumbles — two of which led to safeties — and helped lead the Colts to their first AFC South title without Peyton Manning.
Indy (11-5) will host Kansas City (11-5) on Saturday afternoon in a wild-card game.
Mathis, who was the sacks leader most of the season, even came up with two sacks in the regular-season finale to move past St. Louis’ Robert Quinn and join Freeney as the only Colts players to win a sacks title. Freeney took that honor in 2004.
NOTE: The Colts appear to be getting healthy in time for Saturday’s playoff game.
Eleven of the 12 players on Thursday’s practice report were listed as full participants. Defensive tackle Fili Moala was the only player who did not practice. He has a knee injury.
It means Indianapolis (11-5) could be as close to full strength as it has been in weeks. Injuries have forced the AFC South champs to use six different starting lineups on the offensive line over the last six weeks. Coach Chuck Pagano has not said who will start against the Chiefs (11-5) on wild-card weekend.
Full participants included Indy’s top three cornerbacks, Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and Darius Butler; and three key defensive linemen, Aubrayo Franklin, Ricky Jean Francois and Cory Redding.