GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews has a rather vivid memory of his first NFL sack.
“Yeah, Cincinnati. Carson Palmer, spin move, and I wasn’t supposed to,” he said. “I was supposed to stay on the outside, but I got it anyways.”
That was Week 2 of 2009, Matthews’ rookie season. Eight years and one week later, it’s coincidentally Cincinnati coming to Lambeau Field again as Matthews sits one sack away from grabbing the Packers’ franchise record.
With 1½ sacks last week at Atlanta, Matthews upped his career regular-season total to 74, just a half-sack behind Kabeer Gbaja Biamila, whom Matthews actually met on an airplane on his first flight to Green Bay after being drafted.
Thinking back to then, when the Packers traded up to select Matthews in the first round with the No. 26 overall pick in 2009, Head Coach Mike McCarthy isn’t shocked by any means that Matthews is on the verge of the franchise mark. But he also believes he’s not close to finished.
“I hate talking like this because he’s got a lot left,” McCarthy said. “This is just a milestone he’s getting ready to jump over.”
Calling Matthews “a class act his whole career,” McCarthy went so far as to describe Matthews’ professional approach and attention to detail from the beginning as “anal,” in the most complimentary of ways.
It’s a big reason he hit double digit sacks as a rookie and four times in his first six seasons. The sack numbers have trailed off the past two years as Matthews spent more time at inside linebacker and dealt with some injuries, but his preparation habits have remained diligent regardless of other circumstances.
“He’s always been that way,” McCarthy said. “Growing up in a football family, you can see the discipline he has.
“I go back to his rookie year. He’s a No. 1 draft pick, and every meeting, whether it was rookie orientation or any type of seminar, Clay always sat in the front row. I think that speaks volumes about his approach and how he goes about it.”
Since then, Matthews’ seat has changed – “I’m in the second row now. I graduated,” he said – but his passion for the game hasn’t.
Unfortunately, the vision for 2017 that included him and the re-signed Nick Perry as Green Bay’s bookend pass rushers already has hit a snag. Perry is having surgery on an injured hand, and his timeline to return is uncertain. Perry has played with his hand clubbed up before and likely will be trying to do so again before long.
With another veteran edge rusher, Ahmad Brooks, signed as a free agent as the preseason concluded, there was also a lot of anticipation for what Matthews, Perry and Brooks might do on the field together this season, but it’ll have to wait. Brooks sustained a concussion in Week 1 and is now back, right when Perry goes out.
“It’s a tough position to play,” said Matthews, who has dealt with his share of hamstring, thumb and shoulder issues over the years. “Last year, Julius (Peppers) is Julius. He was the only guy not to miss a game at that outside linebacker position.
“We’ll weather the storm. At some time we’ll get the band back together and we’ll get after the quarterback.”
The Packers also could be without their best interior rusher this week in defensive lineman Mike Daniels, so the onus will fall on Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry inside, with Matthews, Brooks and Kyler Fackrell outside to make Bengals QB Andy Dalton uncomfortable.
For his part, Matthews was admittedly not all that comfortable talking about the Packers’ sack record, but in his own ad hoc, self-deprecating way, he kept the conversation light and amusing.
- On passing franchise greats like Reggie White (68½ sacks) and KGB along the way: “I’m fortunate Reggie didn’t play here longer than he did.”
- On the numbers he aims for: “I don’t know. I’m shooting for a lot. Isn’t that what everybody wants?”
- On how he feels at this stage of his career: “I tell everyone I feel just as good today as I did back in 2009. Obviously a lot smarter, wiser and more crusty just from being around.”
- On any planned celebration for the record-breaking sack: “Thanks for reminding me. I’ll have to think something up and do something real corny.”
Matthews’ sense of humor is on display even more often away from football, according to Aaron Rodgers. The joint effort from the two on a new State Farm Insurance television ad hit the airwaves this month.
The quarterback summed up his longtime teammate and friend this way: “Slightly above-average commercial actor. Terrible drone pilot. No respect for trucks or dogs,” Rodgers said, including direct references to the new ad.
Matthews didn’t hesitate with his retort.
“We can all agree that while he may be the State Farm endorser, I pretty much stole those commercials,” he said. “If they could just switch those contracts, too, I’d really appreciate that.”
In all seriousness, though, Matthews hopes the upcoming historical mark is just another new beginning, as he’s the healthiest he’s been in a while.
He’d like to take advantage of that first and foremost, and see where it goes from here.
“I’m sure it’ll mean a lot more once I’m done playing,” Matthews said of the record. “Hopefully we can get it this Sunday.
“I think the next milestone is probably shooting for 100 or something like that. Hopefully we can get after the quarterback this week and get back on track as far as winning more than anything.”