ESPN Wisconsin

'He's going to be a great one'

By JASON WILDE

jwilde@espnmilwaukee.com

 

GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews did not win the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award Tuesday. Not even close, as it turned out.

 

Last week, he missed out on the NFC Pro Bowl team. He finished fourth in the linebacker balloting, losing out to Washington’s Brian Orakpo for the third starting spot, leaving him as a first alternate.

 

But if the Green Bay Packers rookie right outside linebacker ends up being as good as his position coach, Kevin Greene, thinks he will be, then Matthews will end up with plenty of other awards – and maybe even a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio – during his career.

 

It’s fun seeing Clay develop each and every day. Every day in practice he does something a little bit different and I go, ‘Wow,’” Greene said recently. “He has a set of skills that I have not seen in an outside linebacker.”

 

Now, you have to understand that Greene is prone to bouts of hyperbole during interviews. He’s got a little pro wrestler to him at times (he did, after all, do a brief tour of duty in World Championship Wrestling). So just to double-check, Greene was asked if he was including himself in that comparison.

 

Greene, of course, was a five-time Pro Bowl selection who finished his 15-year NFL career with 160 sacks, most in NFL history by a linebacker and trailing only defensive ends Bruce Smith and Reggie White all-time. He is a semi-finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’ll learn on Friday if he’s one of the15 finalists who’ll be considered for selection next month.

 

“Clay has a set of skills that I didn’t have,” Greene said, straight-faced. “He has another gear that I didn’t have. He has an explosive power. I could cover efficiently. He can cover great. He’s very athletic. Not only does he bring the power rush to the table that I used to have, I used to have some nice speed around the corner, but he has that and another gear. And he covers with the best of ‘em. I could cover efficiently, but I wasn’t glorious at it. I don’t think I ever wounded us in coverage, whereas he’s a star at it.

 

“He’s better than Kevin Greene was. He’s going to be a great one. He’s got a skill set that I have not yet seen in an outside linebacker in a 3-4, and there were a lot of good ones when I played in the league. He’s got something that I haven’t seen yet.”

 

For the time being, though, Matthews will have to settle for helping the Packers in their Super Bowl quest after missing out on the individual honors. He enters Sunday’s NFC Wild Card playoff game at Arizona having finished the regular season with 10 sacks, 58 tackles, three fumble recoveries (including one he returned for a touchdown after stripping Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson), one forced fumble and six pass break-ups.

 

Matthews’ former USC teammate, Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, won the award Tuesday, receiving 39 of the 50 votes cast by a nationwide panel of sportswriters and sportscasters in balloting conducted by the Associated Press. Buffalo Bills rookie defensive back Jarius Byrd was second with six votes, while Matthews received three votes and Orakpo two.

 

Cushing finished the season with 133 tackles, five sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. Byrd finished in a four-way tie for the NFL lead in interceptions with nine.

 

While Matthews said last week that the award “would mean a great deal” to him, it means more that he’s been able to have an impact as a rookie after missing a significant portion of training camp with a recurring hamstring injury and not becoming a starter until mid-October.

 

“I can only tell you what I know about Clay Matthews: He comes to work every single day. He's a true pro, whether it's his upbringing, whatever you want to say it comes from, but I love the way he goes about his work,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He's a very talented young man, and for him to have the production that he has had in this scheme, missing a bunch of training camp with the hamstring injuries (is impressive).

 

“He has been so consistent. You don't see that in younger players. He has just had an incredible year for us. … How can you not root for him? Because he does everything right. He does it the way it is supposed to be. I hope he is here for a long time playing that way.”

 

After missing three preseason games with the hamstring injury – an injury that dated back to his pro day at USC and cropped up again during organized team activity practices – Matthews began the season playing only in the team’s nickel package on passing downs. Then, on Oct. 5, Matthews ripped the ball away from Peterson and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown on “Monday Night Football” for his unofficial coming-out party.

 

"I hadn't scored a touchdown since my junior year of high school. It'd been a while,” Matthews said. “I think that was just a foreshadow of things to come."

 

The next week, McCarthy promoted him to the starting lineup, making him a full-time, every-down player. He responded with a pair of sacks against Detroit.

 

“You can see him developing. And trust me, the first people to know are the opponent,” McCarthy said. “When you talk to other coaches, when you talk to other players, he's one of the first individuals that people bring up to me when they talk about my football team.”

 

Matthews appreciates that kind of sentiment, and is happy that the Packers feel he has delivered after general manager Ted Thompson packaged a second- and two third-round draft picks to move back up into the first round and draft Matthews at No. 26, 11 spots after Cushing. The trade was out of character for Thompson, who had traded up only once in the draft since taking over as GM in 2005.

 

“When you get the call on draft day, you just hear that the Packers drafted you. You don't understand what they gave up. You look back on it, you're like, 'Wow,'” said Matthews, a third generation NFL player after his grandfather and father. “Obviously it adds more pressure that the fans put on you as far as living up to those expectations. But I've told countless people that whether it's the expectations of you being a first-rounder or you being a Matthews or just wanting to succeed, I always let them know that the pressure I put on myself is greater than anything the media, my family, the fans, anyone puts on me. I want to be the best, I want to be the greatest. That's my mindset.”

 

Now, it’s up to Matthews to make sure his development into an every-down impact player continues.

 

"The player you saw in the first game was nothing like the player you saw in that second game. The progression, I think, is remarkable,” Matthews said. “I definitely expected to do well. To say that I would be in the talks for being in the Pro Bowl, I definitely couldn't say I would see myself doing that. But I wouldn't say it was unrealistic. I definitely am confident in my abilities, and knew that with the proper amount of time and when I was healthy, I could definitely make some plays.

 

“I think it's a great way to start off my rookie year, and my overall career."

 

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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