GREEN BAY — Clay Matthews said he hadn’t given it much thought. Aaron Rodgers had.
Ever since Matthews joined the Green Bay Packers as a first-round pick in 2009, Rodgers has watched him grow. And there’s nobody in the Packers locker room who knows Matthews — a private, go-about-your-business type of player whose advertising persona belies his actual personality — better than Rodgers.
From being on the Super Bowl XLV championship dais with him, having had Matthews sling a championship belt over his shoulder after Matthews’ momentum-shifting forced fumble (“fantastic player”), to sharing both an in-season locker room and offseason workouts with him in Southern California (“great teammate”), to doing State Farm ads with him the last few years (“slightly above average commercial actor”), Rodgers is completely qualified to speak to what it would say about Matthews if the pass-rushing outside linebacker records a sack in today’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, thereby breaking the Packers’ franchise record of 74.5 sacks. Matthews enters today’s game with 74 career sacks.
Especially after Matthews himself claimed that, while made aware of the record — “I think more people brought it to my attention than I really knew where I was at,” he said — he didn’t have much to say on the matter.
So ask Rodgers what it might say about his friend, and Rodgers in turn seizes the opportunity to paint a fuller picture of perhaps the team’s second-highest profile, but perhaps least-known, star.
“It’s really impressive. He has been an elite player for us for a long time, and brings a lot to our defense. It’s been great playing with him over the years,” Rodgers said.
“I’ve known him for a number of years now. I’ve trained with him in the offseason for a number of years as well. He’s gone from that young, single, long-haired Fabio to now, he’s a father of two. He’s a great dad, and a great family man.
“He’s been great in the locker room. I sometimes rib him a little bit. He’s a blast out there working out in Calabasas and L.A. He’s just a lot of fun. He’s always cutting up, and ripping on people, and just fun to be around. He’s a little more focused, I think, at the stadium and during the week, but he’s been a lot of fun to play with. He’s been a fantastic teammate, and great player for this organization, for a number of years.
“Some of my favorite memories, though, are just being on set, filming those commercials. We were just cracking each other up all day, or working out (in Los Angeles), and him and his brother are just riffing on funny ‘90s movies all day. That’s the Clay I get to see, that you guys probably don’t get to see a whole lot.”
Never mind that sacks weren’t an official NFL stat before 1982. And forget that the Packers’ most legendary pass rushing force, Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, only played five seasons in Green Bay, totaling 68.5 career sacks. (The record is currently held by defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, a one-dimensional speed rusher who recorded 74.5 sacks from 2000 through 2008.)
Whenever Matthews breaks the franchise record, now seems like an appropriate time to take stock of the player he’s been. Unlike KGB, Matthews has been a complete player — remember the way his move to inside linebacker stabilized a struggling defense in 2014, making the Packers a legitimate Super Bowl contender? — whose injury issues have perhaps lessened some outsiders’ appreciation for his field-tilting talent. If there’s any room for criticism, it’s that his durability has impeded his productivity, as he’s missed only 15 of a possible 128 games but has seen his effectiveness at times diminished by playing through injury.
“When Clay’s healthy, he can rush with the best of them (in NFL history),” said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, an NFL coach for three decades. “You’ve watched what all we’ve done with Clay. I mean, he still does a lot. I’ve said in the past that Clay is probably our best drop linebacker. He can cover ground, he had good instincts off the ball. That’s the thing you don’t find a lot of times in pass rushers, their instincts when you ask them to go play other positions. I mean, he’s been really unselfish that way.
“You remember, what two, three years ago when we took him midseason and put him at inside linebacker, he played there. And we’ve played him a lot there since then at different times in a game with different schemes, so that’s the thing you like about Clay. He’s willing to do whatever it takes that’s in the game plan that week. He’s not one of those guys, you feel like you’ve got to always rush him.”
Still, Matthews hasn’t put up the eye-popping sack numbers — combined total: 11.5 — the past two years, and struggled through a difficult 2016, when he missed four games with ankle and hamstring injuries and played through a painful shoulder injury during the second half of the season. That’s led to loud criticism in the echo chamber of social media, but those inside 1265 Lombardi Avenue remain convinced of his importance to everything the Packers do defensively.
“I hate talking like this because he’s got a lot left and this is just a milestone that he’s getting ready to jump over. (But) I think it speaks volumes,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think anytime you can stand up and say you broke an all-time record for the Green Bay Packers, that speaks volumes because we have such a great tradition and a lot of those players are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“He’s very detailed as far as his approach in everything he does, and he’s always been that way. Growing up in a football family, you can see the discipline that he has. I go back to his rookie year. He’s the (first-round) draft pick, and (in) every meeting, whether it was a rookie orientation meeting or any type of seminar, Clay always sat in the front row. I think that (shows) his approach and how he goes about it.”
Not much else has changed with Matthews since. The grandson (Clay Matthews Sr.), son (Clay Matthews Jr.) and nephew (Bruce Matthews) of NFL players, Matthews now sits in the second row in team meetings, but other than getting married (to wife Casey) and having two children (son Clay IV, daughter Madeline), he insists all he’s done is matured.
“I don’t know how much I’ve changed as a player. I tell everyone I feel just good today as I felt back in 2009. Obviously, a lot smarter, wiser and a lot crustier from just being around,” Matthews said. “Everything outside the locker room hasn’t really affected me on the field. Obviously, it puts things in perspective more. That’s just a different deal. You’re growing up. (But) I still feel the same way.”