(Clay Matthews photos courtesy Cleveland Browns)
By Ron Borges
Only two linebackers in NFL history have thrown more men to the ground than Clay Matthews Jr., who did it 1,561 times. When you think about it, isn’t that a linebacker’s most important job?
Only eight non-kickers played in more NFL games than Clay Matthews Jr.’s 278. When you think about it, isn’t consistent availability and sure-fire reliability two of the most significant traits in an NFL player?
No player was older than Clay Matthews Jr. when, at the age of 40 years and 282 days, he registered his final sack. Doesn’t the fact that he was still around to do that 19 years after his NFL career began with the Cleveland Browns in 1978 speak to his unique abilities?
The question is: Do such things make you a Hall of Famer?
Clay Matthews Jr. is about to find out after having been named a Hall-of-Fame semi-finalist for the second time. Brother of Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and father of six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, III, the middle Matthews amassed a pile of statistics that speak to the game-changing nature of his career.
A four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Matthews’ 1,561 tackles are topped only by Jessie Tuggle and Ray Lewis (Junior Seau trails Matthews with 1,522 tackles in 20 NFL seasons), and his 248 starts at linebacker remain an NFL record, ahead of Seau’s 243. To start that many games speaks not only to longevity and stoutness of your body but also to your ability to affect games.
No one stays around that long in the NFL without being unusually productive because the NFL is not a charitable place. It is a cruel meritocracy and a work environment that never had much respect for its elders once their production begins to slip. Youth rules in professional sports, so to start at linebacker in 248 games and last for 19 years makes its own Hall-of-Fame case for Clay Matthews, Jr.
This point is driven home by his final NFL season, when Matthews registered 6 ½ sacks for the Atlanta Falcons in the only season since his rookie year he was not a starter. Add to that his average of 5.62 tackles per game for his career and only 26 missed games, and you begin to see numbers that supply a Hall-of-Fame argument.
So, too, do his 69 ½ sacks, 27 forced fumbles, 16 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. Those sack numbers actually understate Matthews’ production because for the first five years of his career (1978-1982), sacks were not an NFL statistic.
Official records were not kept prior to 1983, but allowing a conservative five sacks per season for the first five years would add 25 to his career total, giving him 94.5. Add his post-season stats -- or allow for even one season like 1984, when he had a career-high 12 sacks -- and Matthews ends up over the “magic’’ 100-sack total that seems to be one of the Hall’s lines of demarcation for defensive players.
Whether Clay Matthews, Jr. deserves a place in Canton is a subject worthy of debate because he was much more than someone who showed up for work for a long time. He was someone who made a lasting impact while he was there.