RUN WITH IT

Ty Mont­gomer y leads new-look back­field

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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.

MARK HOFF­MAN / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SENTINEL

Pack­ers line­backer Clay Matthews is look­ing to re­bound from a sub­par sea­son where he had just five sacks.

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