“I’m not going anywhere,” Clay Matthews told himself.
Sure, his contract had expired, and his 33rd birthday loomed just months away. And he knew he hadn’t had his most productive season while adjusting to a new defensive coordinator and more restrictive system.
But as free agency approached, the former all-pro pass rusher really believed his time in Green Bay would extend to an 11th season and beyond.
A decade’s worth of work, a Super Bowl trophy, six Pro Bowls and the franchise record for sacks had to account for something, he figured.
But in the end, they didn’t.
Just before the official start to the NFL’s free agent window, Matthews’ phone rang, and on the other end was Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst.
“When the decision was made that I wasn’t coming back to Green Bay, you’re obviously taken aback, thinking I had put in a decade of work there, probably going to finish your career out there,” Matthews told USA TODAY Sports in a recent interview. “It was right up against the wire. We thought we were coming back, but I think they were trying to make some moves. I think they would’ve liked to have me back, but all the while they were trying to wheel and deal, which sometimes, you just want to be talked to like a man, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’”
Soon after Matthews did finally get the blunt assessment of his standing with the franchise that drafted him in the first round of 2009, word of his status spread around the league. He didn’t have much time to process the change, as the Los Angeles Rams quickly made a strong pursuit for his services.
Los Angeles Rams linebacker Clay Matthews (52) during training camp at UC Irvine. (Photo: Kirby Lee, Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Head coach Sean McVay, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and linebackers and assistant head coach Joe Barry all pitched that Matthews bring his talents to another familiar place: Southern California, where he had grown up, played his high school and college ball.
“Everybody wants to finish their career – well, for the most part, everybody – with the same team if they have a long, prosperous career in one city,” Matthews said. “But for the Rams – Sean, Wade and Joe B. – to be so gung-ho as soon as I was a free agent and to really want me to come and be a part of the Rams, I think that’s what really sold me. … It wasn’t just me ‘Hey, I want to play for you guys.’ It was ‘We want you,’ on top of the free agent move of re-signing Dante (Fowler) and with a line of (Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers), it’s a pretty mean defensive front.”
Matthews signed a two-year, $9.25 million contract with the Rams and now feels like things couldn’t have worked out more perfectly. He loves being back in California. He loves the way he fits in Phillips’ system. And he envisions a career resurgence while helping the Rams contend once again for the Super Bowl.
Fit is everything in the NFL, and Matthews acknowledges his skill set didn’t mesh with that of Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who last season succeeded Dom Capers, Matthews’ coach for the previous nine years. But the Rams did offer that fit. Phillips’ scheme and philosophies on how to use his players perfectly aligned with Matthews’ ideals.
“Wade takes the talent he’s given and he puts them in the best position to succeed,” Matthews said.
Matthews then went on to explain how Phillips and Barry plan to utilize him.
“Just be myself, really,” he explained “That’s what’s so great, because my first nine years of playing with Dom Capers: true 3-4, Sam and Will ‘backer, dropping into coverage, rushing off the edge, stunting inside, lining up wherever. I’m doing the same thing. That’s where I think it got a little challenging last year. We had a new defensive coordinator and the defense overall played better, but at the same time, my role was greatly reduced, and it just didn’t allow for me to make those plays.”
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The Rams see Matthews as an extremely savvy and versatile player who can be used as a wild card to throw offenses off.
Given his fit with the coaching staff, Matthews predicts a big year. He looks at Phillips’ work in Denver with a pass-rushing tandem that featured a young, explosive player (Von Miller) and an aging – but still effective – running mate (DeMarcus Ware) and believes he and Fowler can have similar success.
“DeMarcus is a Hall of Famer, but was in a similar situation where I don’t think much was expected, but he was ripping off double-digit sacks with Von on the opposite side, so I envision myself being same position and having same amount of success,” Matthews said.
The Coliseum didn’t house an NFL team during Matthews’ time at USC, but once the Rams moved back there in 2016, Matthews did think a homecoming would offer a special appeal toward the end of his career.
“I did say, ‘Hey, L.A. would be a neat location to fall into,” he said. “But to see it come true a few short years later, I definitely didn’t envision that.”
Matthews acknowledges that “in time, everyone will remember me as a Packer.” But for now, he believes there’s no place like home as he embarks on a quest for another Lombardi Trophy while proving he remains a force in this league.
Things don’t always work out as originally planned in the NFL, but it looks like Matthews couldn’t have asked for a better Plan B.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.