As his team enters the FOX America’s Game of the Week against visiting Dallas (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday), left guard Evan Mathis is the lone surviving starter on Philadelphia’s offensive line.
The injuries that have decimated the unit began in the preseason when four-time All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters wrecked his Achilles tendon. The player to Mathis’ right – center Jason Kelce – was lost for the season to torn knee ligaments in Week 2.
The dominoes have continued to fall. Right guard Danny Watkins has missed two games with what Eagles head coach Andy Reid has described as a “chronic ankle condition.” And now, right tackle Todd Herremans (foot) is out for the season after getting hurt during Monday night’s 28-13 loss at New Orleans.
Even Mathis isn’t immune. He had a bout with vertigo during the preseason and appeared on the team’s injury report Wednesday as having practiced despite a knee problem.
“It’s been a rough one,” Mathis told FOXSports.com about the 2012 season. “It’s one that will test your will. It’s crazy to think the line we had is almost completely gone.
“I remember getting the call hearing about Jason tearing his Achilles. The thought of that is just crushing to know you’re losing one of the best tackles in the NFL. It’s crushing to know your teammate who wants to be out there with you can’t. It’s a guy you got comfortable next to. And then one by one it happens to everyone else out there. It’s kind of unbelievable.”
The next player who goes down may be the quarterback for whom the line is entrusted to protect. Michael Vick has taken a beating this season by getting sacked 27 times and hit far more. Vick went down a season-high seven times against a Saints defense that entered with only 13 sacks through its first seven games.
Against the Cowboys, King Dunlap will shift to right tackle so Demetress Bell can play where he is more comfortable at left tackle. Dallas Reynolds, who had never taken an NFL snap in three-plus seasons until Kelce was hurt, will remain at center. Dennis Kelly, a 2012 fifth-round draft pick, gets the nod at right guard, a position the former Purdue tackle had never played until receiving limited snaps in the preseason.
The impact of all this shuffling was painfully felt by Vick when the Saints blasted the line with blitzes the Eagles usually failed to pick up.
“The communication and calls with the guys who come in, they usually do a pretty good job of figuring all that out,” Mathis said. “But continuity does go a long way for the offensive line. That’s one of the biggest things impacted by injuries.”
The Cowboys’ defense – especially down the middle — can relate.
Inside linebacker Sean Lee (toe) and strong safety Barry Church (Achilles) are gone for the year. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff’s status for the Eagles game is in doubt because of a sprained ankle suffered in Sunday night’s loss to Atlanta. And a sprained neck suffered by Lee’s replacement Dan Connor forced the Cowboys to field a makeshift unit against the Falcons.
Mathis said he didn’t notice Dallas doing much different schematically versus the Falcons but the personnel changes have taken a toll.
“The guys are just coming in trying to fill those spots,” Mathis said. “It might not be to the level that the guys before them were, but that’s the case if you take out any starter in the NFL.”
There is one second-year Cowboys defender who has stepped up in the absence of his linebacker brethren. Bruce Carter had his best game of the season against Atlanta and is the favorite to lead Dallas in tackles for the rest of the season.
“You can see when a guy is focusing and finishing the play,” Mathis said. “That’s what stands out about (Carter).”
It took Mathis almost eight NFL seasons to begin standing out himself. A 2005 third-round pick by Carolina, Mathis bounced between the Panthers, Miami and Cincinnati before finding a home with the Eagles.
Although he started 15 games for Carolina in 2006, Mathis didn’t secure a first-string spot again until the 2009 season in Cincinnati. Even then, Mathis was relegated to a rotational role after being sidelined by a high ankle sprain.
Mathis credits Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander for providing a big boost to his NFL development. But when a chance to join Philadelphia and play under line coach Howard Mudd came about in the 2011 offseason, Mathis jumped at what he described as a “do or die” opportunity for his football career.
It was a wise move. Amid the threat of losing him in free agency, Mathis was considered valuable enough by Eagles management during the offseason to receive a five-year, $25 million contract extension.
“When I looked at the whole thing, this was a new offensive line coach coming into a good organization,” said Mathis, 31. “I knew that everybody had a clean slate. Nobody had any kind of history with him here and I had heard that he preferred linemen in the athletic mode. I like to say that I fit that mode.
“I knew if I could show what I could do that I would reap the fruits of my labor.”
Mathis has that bounty on the table in front of him. But the meal doesn’t taste as good with the Eagles at 3-5 and Reid’s job security coming under heavy fire.
“It’s really frustrating that we haven’t performed to the level that we expected of ourselves and is expected of us,” Mathis said. “There’s no drop-off in preparation or belief. Everybody still believes in each other and the coaches.
“Our mentality this week is, ‘Let’s be 1-0. Don’t worry about the past. Learn from it. Correct what needs to be corrected and move forward.’”
Even if more linemen are getting left behind seemingly every week.