It was the end of last July, and the Eagles were in the middle of their now-infamous free agency spending spree. They had already shocked the NFL world by signing All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, following up a day later by signing Pro Bowl defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins. But it was a signing on the last day of that blisteringly hot month that may have been the most significant of the team’s offseason.
From the outside looking in, it didn't look like guard Evan Mathis would provide the Eagles with much more than depth. Drafted by the Panthers in 2005, he also spent time with the Dolphins and Bengals before coming to Philadelphia. Mathis started 16 games for the Panthers in 2006, but only played sporadically. His only other significant playing time came in 2009 when he started seven games for Cincinnati.
For him, though, the goal was singular – win a starting job in Philly.
On his first day at training camp, Mathis got a ride to practice with fellow linemen Todd Herremans and Jamaal Jackson. "On the way, I asked Todd if he would move to right tackle so I could play left guard," Mathis said in a recent e-mail exchange, "A few weeks later I found myself playing right tackle in our preseason game against the Steelers. At that point in time I was trying to win the right tackle job."
"Fast forward two weeks to the end of camp and [offensive line coach] Howard Mudd calls me and tells me I’m starting at left guard… I was ecstatic."
In many ways, Mathis’ career reflects the city for which he dons a uniform. Through intensity, hard work and determination, he has battled through adversity to earn a place on the Eagles, and, this offseason, a shiny long-term contract.
The Eagles were the first team to offer Mathis a deal after the lockout, and he saw an opportunity with the team’s new line coach Howard Mudd, widely considered the best in the NFL.
"This mattered for many reasons, one of which was all linemen having a clean slate with him," Mathis explained, "This meant that the lockout’s impact on the offseason would be eliminated and I would be starting fresh with Howard Mudd like everybody else."
At 6’5 and a svelte 302 pounds, Mathis fit perfectly in Mudd’s system, which requires active, athletic linemen. Immediately he found his game improving. "He’s helped bring my game to a whole new level. If there is ever anything I’m doing wrong or inefficiently, Howard has an answer for how to fix it," Mathis said, "I just listen to what he says, try to perfect the techniques, and always keep an open mind."
"A lot of things that used to be difficult for me he has made easy."
Mudd’s presence drastically changed the complexion of the offensive line. Gone were the mammoth linemen former line coach (and current defensive coordinator) Juan Catillo preferred. No players were safe, and even longtime Eagle Jackson found himself on the bench in favor of sixth round rookie Jason Kelce.
The offensive line remained a large question mark leading into the regular season opener against
But despite the team’s early struggles, the line gelled and Mathis had a stellar year. Though he spent most season blocking for Michael Vick and Vince Young, two quarterbacks known for their ability to escape the pocket, the new left guard didn’t allow a sack all season.
For his efforts, Pro Football Focus voted Mathis the best guard in the NFL. His reaction?
"I asked them for a t-shirt."
Though Mathis had a great season, he was one of the few Eagles who did. The team wasn’t able to recover from its 1-4 start, and very few of the normally potent stars had memorable seasons. Still, Mathis enjoyed his first year in the City of
Nearly eight months after signing with the Eagles, Mathis was rewarded with a five-year contract, keeping him in midnight green until 2016. Now, for the first time in years, Mathis has professional stability. Gone are the days of playing under short-term deals, though he said it never changed his approach.
"For me, a one-year deal always translated to having a short-term apartment," he said, "The length of the contract never changed my approach to the game, just my living situation." Mathis now lives in South Philly with his girlfriend, with whom he recently had a baby and bought a house. They plan on staying "for many years to come."
That’s good news for Eagles fans, both on the field and off. In fact, Mathis may be even more entertaining when he’s not wearing a uniform.
Many NFL players use social media to connect with fans, but Mathis’ approach may be one of the best. His Twitter feed is full of sarcasm and wit, and he recently participated in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on reddit.com, where users could, as the name suggests, ask the guard anything. Not surprisingly, the results were insightful and often hilarious.
In his younger days, Mathis spent hours online, even meeting his first two girlfriends through AOL. "My screen name was MilkBone 15 because I was the missing white member of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony," Mathis said, "In the late 90’s I met my first two girlfriends on AOL by searching the member directory for girls close to me in age and proximity."
"I was kind of embarrassed by the situation, so if people asked where I met [my girlfriends] I said the mall or Chick-fil-A. Now I have accepted my nerdness and don’t mind sharing these fun little anecdotes."
If he likes sharing stories like these, fans certainly love hearing them. His Twitter account has over 14,000 followers. "When I get to 30,000 followers I’m selling my account to Sarah Phillips & Nilesh Prasad." he joked.
It’s that kind of attitude that has endeared him to fans. But that wasn’t always the case.
Last October, as the team muddled through a four game losing streak, Mathis and Kelce noticed a sign outside the NovaCare Complex, where the team practices. Created by a fan known as 'Signman', it read, "Andy the times [sic]… to go."
Neither player found this amusing. They asked the fans to take the sign down, and while they did, a storm of radio and Internet outrage followed.
It wasn't the last time Mathis would face scorn. After the season’s end, much of
If Mathis didn’t already understand the passion of the Eagles’ fanbase, he did then. But it’s something he embraces, even after these incidents.
"As a player who does everything with extreme passion, I can relate," he said, "Signman and I had it out for a few seconds but quickly made amends and are good friends now. The tweet about people wanting Andy Reid gone being idiots didn’t go over too well. I sowy <3 [sic]."
"I’ve definitely noticed how passionate the support is in Philly," he continued, "When I’m out grabbing a bite to eat, there’s always a fan with friendly, positive things to say and not [throwing] D batteries at me."
For the Eagles to go far in 2012, Mathis will need to continue his strong play. And if last year is any indication, he will be worth watching, both on Sundays and during the week.
Ultimately, it’s Mathis himself who sums up his personality best. When asked what he’d like Eagles fans to know about him, he had a couple things to say:
"If I called you an idiot for wanting Andy Reid fired, I’m sorry. I call my friends and family idiots all the time but I still love them and I still love you."
Oh yeah, and this: "If you don’t follow me on Twitter, you’re an idiot."
If you're not already, follow Evan Mathis on Twitter at @EvanMathis69. To keep up with the Evan Mathis of journalism, follow Patrick Wall at @PatrickWall_NFL.