GREEN BAY, Wis. – It was late December 2018, and change was in the air at Lambeau Field. The Green Bay Packers were playing out the schedule, Mike McCarthy had been fired and Clay Matthews was getting ready for his next-to-last game with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2009.
Who would be the Packers’ coach in 2019? Who would be the defensive coordinator? What scheme would the team run?
And what if that new coordinator liked Matthews, but not as a pass rusher but an off-the-ball linebacker?
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“I feel like I can do both,” Matthews said in a one-on-one interview on Dec. 21, 2018. “This scheme actually has asked us to do a multitude of stuff that I was doing back when I was playing inside linebacker – just from an outside linebacker perspective with the games we run, dropping into coverage and all that goes along with it. I’m not opposed to anything. I feel comfortable. It’s not like when I switched to inside linebacker that I wasn’t comfortable playing it. It was just different. If you’re heading into a season knowing that’s what’s expected and that’s what you’re going to excel at, then so be it. … It just depends on if the Packers or anyone else wants a multidimensional guy that, yeah, is 32 but still has a lot of ball in me. If genetics show anything, I have a few more – several more – years.”
Ultimately, the Packers hired Matt LaFleur as coach, LaFleur retained Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator and general manager Brian Gutekunst blew up his outside linebacker corps. A source at the time said Matthews would have been open to re-signing with the Packers and changing positions. It would have been a return to the position he moved to in 2014, a change that spearheaded the team’s run to the NFC Championship Game. That opportunity was never offered, though. So, he went home and signed with the Los Angeles Rams.
“I was kind of taken aback, because I thought I’d always be back there, whether it was at a cheaper price [or not],” Matthews told NFL.com in August. “So that was kind of a shock, because [my family] stayed out there and had our third child in the offseason, and I was hanging in town training there and everything. And, yeah, that was kind of a surprise to me because I just figured I would be out there a few more years. People say, ‘You chose to go to L.A.’ I didn’t choose. They told me there was no room for me.”
Matthews, who had eight sacks in 13 games for the Rams last season, was released on Thursday.
From Green Bay’s perspective, there’s still a hole at inside linebacker that Matthews could help fill. The Packers grabbed Christian Kirksey on Monday but were priced out of a free-agent market that included Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert and Jamie Collins, among others. With Blake Martinez signing with the Giants and B.J. Goodson with the Browns, Green Bay has only Kirksey, Oren Burks, Ty Summers and Curtis Bolton at inside linebacker. Kirksey has missed most of the last two seasons with injuries, Burks has been derailed by injuries in both of his training camps, Bolton missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury and Summers played only on special teams as a rookie.
Gutekunst will look to the draft, but there’s no guarantee that LSU’s Patrick Queen or Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray will be available with the 30th pick, and with the COVID-19 pandemic threatening to cancel NFL offseason programs, there’s no guarantee any rookie will be able to contribute immediately. Matthews will turn 34 on May 14 but maybe, if the price is right, there could be a reunion.
“I would love to stay here but it has to make sense,” Matthews said near the end of the 2018 season. “That’s the part of free agency, with a new coaching staff, you’ve got to see the fit. There’s a worth that you feel about yourself. Everything has to come together. If that’s the case, I’d love to be a Packer for several more years.”
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