RUN WITH IT
Ty Montgomer y leads new-look backfield
Inside: Clay Matthews faces critical season; Rob Reischel previews the receivers
It’s been the better part of a decade since there was this level of skepticism and doubt surrounding Clay Matthews.
Back in the fall of 2007, Matthews was a 21-year-old linebacker at USC who posted a less-than-inspiring 40 tackles and one sack during his first three seasons with the Trojans.
Today, Matthews has been named to six Pro Bowls, won the Butkus Award in 2010 given to the top linebacker in football, and has 72 1⁄2 career sacks, two shy of the Packers record.
Make no mistake, though, there haven't been this many questions swirling around Matthews since he was riding the pine for Pete Carroll’s USC teams.
Can Matthews stay healthy? Will the old Clay ever return? Are Matthews’ better days behind him?
These are questions Green Bay’s fan base — and many inside the Packers organization — are asking today. Matthews admits he paid close attention to the doubters earlier in his career. Now, he tries blocking out the noise, even though he’s fully aware it’s awfully loud.
“I think when you’re younger, you listen to the detractors and the people who feel as if they’re within this locker room, even though they’re not,” Matthews said. “But at the same time, the reality was I was fighting through a myriad of injuries last year. So my excitement for this year is I’m healthy and ready to get back to what I’m capable of doing.”
Matthews is coming off the most pedestrian of his eight seasons in Green Bay. Some of that was undoubtedly due to injury. What remains unknown is how much slippage can be attributed to Father Time?
Matthews battled ankle and hamstring injuries early in the season last year. But the greatest blow came when he suffered a separated left shoulder in Week 12 following a blindside block by Philadelphia’s Allen Barbre.
The injury didn’t require off-season surgery. But Matthews’ production dipped dramatically down the stretch.
Matthews finished the year with five sacks, the lowest total of his Green Bay career. After Matthews averaged 53.1 tackles during his first seven seasons, he had just 24 last year.
Injuries limited Matthews to just 51.4% of the snaps. And Matthews ranked last among Green Bay’s outside lineback- ers in tackles per snap (one every 22.8).
Many players would have shut it down after suffering a shoulder injury like Matthews’. Matthews — whose father, grandfather, brother, uncle and cousin all have enjoyed NFL careers — comes from a family that doesn’t roll that way.
But Matthews knew he was damned if he played and damned if he didn’t.
“The hard part is if you play through it, you’re not yourself on the field,” Matthews said. “But if you don’t play, then people are on you. So it’s a decision you make. It was tough, there’s no doubt about it. I said it was probably the most adversity-filled year I had to deal with, just in that every week it seemed there was something new, whether it was the ankle or hamstring or shoulder.
“Week 1 might have been the only game I was completely healthy for. It was difficult, but I felt myself coming on later in the year, especially towards the playoffs and there was kind of a slight glimpse of getting back to being healthy. Really, I’ve always felt when I’m healthy and I’m out there, it’s hard to stop me, even in Year 9.”
That’s what Matthews most prove now in what’s arguably the biggest season of his Green Bay career.
As recently as 2014, Pro Football Weekly — the bible of football publications — ranked Matthews as the No. 2 outside linebacker. Today, he checks in at No. 19.
Matthews, 31, counts $15.1 million against the salary cap this season and accounts for 8.6% of Green Bay’s total cap. His contract runs through 2018, but there is no dead cap money after this season — meaning the Packers could move on without a cap hit.
In essence, that makes 2017 a true “prove it” year for Matthews.
“Any time you get injured in this profession, people are quick to turn on you,” Matthews said. “I get that. But at the same time, as soon as you have a great year they’ll put you up on a pedestal. I’ve learned that’s part of the game.
“The big thing is last year is last year and trying to overcome a few of those things certainly made it a challenging year. So I’m just looking forward to this year and just getting back to being healthy and doing what I can do, which I know is more than enough.”
Matthews has enjoyed his greatest health at inside linebacker in recent seasons. But with the Packers dangerously thin at outside linebacker, most of Matthews’ snaps figure to come on the edge in 2017.
Can Matthews be as impactful and disruptive as the player who tore up the league early in his career? Or might those days be behind him now?
Matthews said he’d like to play five more seasons, and even joked: “Hey, let’s talk again in five years and then we’ll see where I am. I might even tell you I still have five more years.”
For now, though, all that matters in 2017 — and quieting the doubters that have returned.
Matthews did a remarkable job of silencing the naysayers a decade ago. Doing it again will be an even greater challenge.
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews is looking to rebound from a subpar season where he had just five sacks.