Until two weeks ago, no Miami Dolphins receiver had ever caught 11 or more passes and multiple touchdowns in the same game. Only five-time Pro Bowler Mark Clayton had tallied at least 10 catches in a multi-score game, with a 1988 performance against the Jets.
Enter Rishard Matthews.
With $90 million worth of receivers – Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline – lining up on the outside, it was Matthews in the slot who delivered one of the best receiving performances in franchise history against the Buccaneers with 11 catches, 120 yards and two scores.
He followed that up by catching four passes for 52 yards Sunday against San Diego, again filling after Brandon Gibson’s season-ending knee injury.
Not bad for a second-year player who’s still learning a new position.
Matthews was viewed by the coaching staff as more of an outside receiver than a weapon in the slot, but he spent the beginning of the season backing up all three starting receivers – Hartline, Wallace and Gibson. But when Gibson’s season came to an abrupt end Oct. 27 against New England, Matthews moved inside full-time.
“I have to be honest with you: Matthews has exceeded my expectations in that position,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “I see him more of an outside receiver than an inside receiver. The inside guys have to be nifty, and he’s a little more nifty than I gave him credit for.
“[Matthews] kind of has this sleep-eyed look to him – you’re not sure he’s always paying attention but apparently he has been. He’s doing a very good job, I’m real proud of how he performed [against Tampa Bay]. He’s stepped into that role and done a nice job for us, so I’m real proud of him.”
Sherman has been insistent all season that the coverage alone dictates who gets targeted in a game, so while he seems pleased with Matthews’ gaudy numbers, he doesn’t think they’re indicative of the pass distribution going forward.
“If they play certain coverages, those guys have a tendency to get more balls,” Sherman said. “If they play other coverages, the outside guys have a tendency to show up. Because of certain things that can happen in a ballgame, his number came up more.”
So while another 11-catch performance is unlikely from Matthews this season, both he and Sherman said he still has plenty of room for improvement as he learns the nuances of playing in the slot.
Even Gibson, whose role Matthews now plays, sent Matthews a text message last week encouraging him to dig even deeper into the playbook.
“It differs a lot,” Matthews said of the position change. “[Inside] you’ve got to kind of read the coverages on the run, or if a guy shoots in to blitz, you’ve got to quicken up your route. You have to be a smarter and more technical receiver.”
When asked about Matthews, head coach Joe Philbin immediately mentioned the former seventh-round pick’s competitiveness and confidence, and Matthews said he was frustrated at times early in the season when he played sparingly on offense.
When snaps were more limited, Matthews relished being on the field, even for special teams. But he said there’s no substitute for playing often – and playing well – on offense.
“As long as I was on the field I was happy,” Matthews said. “But I’m definitely glad to be playing more offense right now.”
The Nevada product is signed through the 2015 season, so the Dolphins staff should have the opportunity to continue his development.
Matthews said the strength of his game is “everything,” and his versatility was evident against Tampa Bay, when he scored one touchdown by catching a ball in traffic in the end zone and the other by running after the catch on a screen.
Matthews was asked which touchdown he preferred. He answered in classic wide receiver style.
“As long as the ball is getting thrown my way, I prefer that.”
If teams continue to emphasize stopping Wallace and Hartline on the outside with their coverage schemes, there’s no indication the ball will stop being thrown Matthews’ way.