By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Rashean Mathis enjoyed the luxury of a gradual transition from the old NFL to the new NFL. Back when Mathis came into the league, defensive backs got the luxury of bumping and harassing wide receivers all the way down the field before the quarterback let the ball go.
These days, five yards is all they get. An 11-year veteran now, Mathis got used to the switch over the years, but rookie cornerback Darius Slay just came from college – similar to the old NFL – and struggled early with the different standards.
“Here, after five yards, you better use your feet because they’re going to call a penalty on you if you touch him,” Mathis said. “[Slay’s] going to adjust to it. All good and great DBs do, and he possesses the skills to be that, so it’s just a minor adjustment that he’s going to make. It seems tremendous now, but it’s just trusting your technique, and that’s when technique comes into play. When you’re not able to get your hands on the receiver, just stay down a little longer and use your feet.
“He’ll be okay,” Mathis added.
If Slay will indeed be okay, Mathis will be a part of the reason why. The Lions have benched Slay in favor of Mathis, at least for the time being, but Mathis knows – as he puts it – that he is the present and Slay is the future for the Lions.
“He’s holding up great mentally because he knows my position,” Mathis said. “He knows I’m here to help him, regardless if it’s me starting or him starting or whoever starting. I’m here to help this team, regardless of what role that is, and I think he knows that is genuine, so he’s able to listen to the things that I’m teaching him. It’s not like I’m just here to take his position and turn my back on him and not teach him anything.
“I teach him everything that I can,” Mathis continued. “I try to talk to him as much as I can because he’s a great young talent, and he could be the future of this team, like I said before. I’m the present for this year, maybe, and the year, maybe, after, who knows how long, but he’s definitely the future.”
In the meanwhile, Mathis sees the rookie improving – and not just in the technical aspects of the job.
“Just a willingness to learn, the sense of urgency to get better in practice, because when you become a starter – not saying he was, but you can become a little lax … The sense of urgency is definitely improving, and that’s a good thing,” Mathis said. “That’s a good thing. It lets him know that he’s willing to adjust and willing to work to make himself better.”
Having the humility to acknowledge room for improvement is vital for long-term success, but it is hardly automatic. The fact that Slay is already there, Mathis said, shows that he is maturing faster than most young players.
“It’s very hard because you’re used to being the best,” Mathis said. “You’re used to being the best in college, you’re used to being the best at what you do. But I think a locker room can help a guy as well.
“We have some respectable veterans here that’ve humbled themselves,” Mathis continued. “If a guy has been doing it for six, seven years, or like me, 11 years, and I’m able to stay humble, who are you not to be humble yourself? And it’s just rubbing off, and that’s what makes our league so great. We’re able to teach the younger guys and pass down from the guys that humbled us and taught us how to be humble, and that’s what our role is as veterans in this locker room – to teach the young guys how to be professionals, and being humble is definitely a key point to being a professional.”
By Mathis’ account, Slay is well on his way to that point.