GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews figures to spend the final week of organized team activity practices doing the same thing he did during the first two weeks.
Being a spectator.
The Green Bay Packers’ four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker is still recovering from breaking his right thumb twice – and undergoing a pair of surgeries to repair it – last season, when he played in a career-low 11 games as a result. He went in knowing that he probably wouldn’t do much during OTAs, but that hasn’t made watching any easier.
“Obviously I'd love to be out there with some of the scheme we're putting in, the new players. Just getting my feet wet again, especially missing a few games last year with the injury,” Matthews said. “But I think it just provides enough time [for the thumb] to heal properly and get the extra attention that I'll need in healing. So I'm excited about that.
“Once the season rolls around can put it behind me, get back to being 100 percent.”
Although Matthews expects to be full-go when training camp opens on July 26, he may not take part in next week’s minicamp, either.
“It’s kind of week-to-week,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said following the team’s open OTA last week. “We’ll see how he’s doing.”
Matthews spent last Tuesday’s OTA practice supervising linebacker drills and talking with teammates and coaches. McCarthy said after that practice Matthews was going through his rehab and conditioning work with the medical and training staffs.
“He’s progressing,” McCarthy said. “[But] I really don’t have a handle on if he’ll practice in the offseason or not.”
With both Matthews and Nick Perry, who suffered a foot injury last October that hobbled him the rest of the year, both sitting out OTAs, the Packers’ starting outside linebackers in the base defense have been Mike Neal and Julius Peppers, who signed with the team after being cut by the Chicago Bears this spring. And if there’s one person who’s more anxious than anyone to share the field with Matthews, it’s Peppers.
“I haven’t really played with a guy like Clay, really, my whole career,” Peppers said. “Early in my career I played with a guy, Mike Rucker, who was a threat on the other side (with the Carolina Panthers). But like, a really dominant player on the outside? I really haven’t had that – ever. I’m excited to get out there with him and see what he can do.”
Matthews initially broke his thumb on Oct. 6 against Detroit and re-broke it on Dec. 22 against Pittsburgh. Matthews missed a total of six games – including the team’s Jan. 5 playoff loss to San Francisco – after missing four games with a hamstring injury in 2012. Matthews, who signed a five-year, $66 million contract extension before last season, ended up with just 7.5 sacks last season in 11 games after registering 42.5 in the previous four seasons and being named to the Pro Bowl each year.
In 571 snaps, Matthews was credited with only four quarterback hits and 21 hurries by Pro Football Focus. And just like Peppers, who had 7.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and 27 hurries in 865 snaps last season with the Bears, he’s hoping that working in tandem with another great rusher will change his game.
“I was a little shocked. We don't make too many offseason acquisitions – especially, you know, such a big name,” Matthews said. “Obviously I'm happy to have him on this side of the ball. I know he's a tremendous threat. Tackles know what he possesses, as well as offensive coordinators. So I think it's just going to present new elements to this defense that we've been looking for. I'm excited, I know he is. [We’re] looking to make some plays this year.”
But first, Matthews has to get healthy. The initial fracture of the thumb, called a Bennett’s fracture, required one type of surgery; the second surgery, which occurred on Dec. 24, was different and more complicated because the break was different. The first surgery was a closed-pin reduction after the thumb was fractured and dislocated; the second surgery was a tendon transfer meant to tighten his ability to grip with his thumb. He expressed frustration with the pace of his rehabilitation and physical therapy – as well as the “real rudimentary” exercises he does – but said he understands the importance of being able to use his hands, especially after being rendered ineffective while playing with a club cast against Philadelphia on Nov. 10.
“It's little things that I need right now to get comfortable [with] – playing full speed, shooting my hands into an offensive player and being comfortable doing so,” Matthews said. “It's been a long offseason, but I'm looking forward to continuing to heal up, being healthy, in time for the season.”
Once he is, Matthews said he and the coaches have talked about using him – in concert with Peppers, Neal, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Datone Jones and others – to create “mismatches,” which he said works hand-in-hand with McCarthy’s repeated goal to use more personnel groupings while simplifying the defensive scheme.
“With the plans they see me having this year and the type of player they see me becoming, I think it’s great the changes that we’re putting in – not only with the personnel, [but also] the scheme,” Matthews said. “I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s a shot in the arm and will provide kind of a little rejuvenation to this team, especially to the defensive side of this locker room. I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully it will present some problems for opponents.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.