Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) takes part in training camp practice Monday inside the Don Hutson Center. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
If Clay Matthews can rack up 13½ regular-season sacks, add 3½ more in the postseason and finish runner-up for the NFL’s defensive player of the year award without taking a preseason snap and while playing the second half of the season on a broken leg, what can he do with a full preseason and a healthy limb?
Wait, a broken what?
Everyone knows Matthews missed all four preseason games last season with his second hamstring injury in as many training camps, but few knew the Green Bay Packers’ star outside linebacker played the second half of the season with a stress fracture in his lower leg. That would explain why Matthews was listed on every injury report from Week 9 through the NFC championship game as probable with a shin injury. He wasn’t listed on the injury report prior to Super Bowl XLV.
“I don’t make a big deal of it,” Matthews said in a wide-ranging interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette on Tuesday. “(It happened) some time in the middle of the season. You can’t do anything about it. I was just taking practices off and showing up on game day and giving it my all.”
Matthews brought up the injury only because he was asked about how the loss of defensive end Cullen Jenkins, the Packers’ best pass rusher on the defensive line who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, would impact him. In the 15 games, including postseason, that Jenkins played last season, Matthews had 14 sacks. In the five games Jenkins missed because of injury, Matthews totaled just three sacks.
“I also had a stress fracture in four of those games,” Matthews said. “But nobody knows that. I had a stress fracture in my leg. A sore shin as you guys call it, but that’s all right. Obviously, I’m not making excuses. Cullen is a terrific athlete, and we’re definitely going to take a hit in our defensive line, but at the same time I think they have confidence in the guys coming up.”
Preseason injuries have been a part of Matthews’ first two NFL seasons. He missed all but the preseason finale of his rookie season because of a hamstring injury and all four preseason games last year because of the same injury. As a rookie, the Packers eased him back, starting him only in the nickel package the first month of the season before turning him loose in a full-time role. He still managed 10 sacks, the most ever by a Packers rookie. It hardly slowed him last year, when he opened the season with consecutive three-sack games.
Seemingly, Matthews would be the poster child for those who believe training camp and the preseason are unnecessary, but he doesn’t view it that way. In fact, he trained this offseason so that he could hit the ground running in training camp. When he reported on July 29, he weighed in at 252 pounds, which was six pounds lighter than last season. He spent his offseason working out in Westlake, Calif., with his personal trainer, Ryan Capretta, a former NFL strength coach with the Cardinals and Ravens.
Capretta analyzed the workouts Matthews had done in the past and concluded more cardiovascular conditioning would help in the injury-prevention area.
“Clay’s naturally very explosive and quick, so in the past he hadn’t spent a lot of time on the field working on conditioning,” Capretta said. “It was a lot more time in the weight room. So this offseason, we still did the weight room, but we incorporated a lot more movement, especially leading into camp. It was a little more endurance-based, and then as it got closer to camp it turned into more football-specific explosive movements.”
Capretta, who counts Dwight Freeney of the Indianapolis Colts and Antonio Cromartie of the New York Jets as clients, also started something new this offseason called “Friday field trips,” in which he took advantage of the different Southern California terrain. One Friday, they would run the sand dunes. Another Friday, they would run in the mountains.
“This offseason, I put an emphasis on really coming in here in great cardio shape and make sure I had done everything that I possibly could to say, ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to prevent injuries,’” Matthews said. “That’s the nature of the beast. You’re going to get injured in this game, but I feel good. I feel good about where I’m at headed into my third year and feel like I can definitely outdo what I’ve put on paper and on film the last two years.”
That’s a bold statement for a guy who in two years has become one of the league’s premier pass rushers and was the first Packers player to earn Pro Bowl status in each of his first two NFL seasons since running back John Brockington (1971-72).
“He has gone from zero to ballistic in two years,” said Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.
Two years — even two years like Matthews has put together — don’t make a career, especially in his family. His dad played in the league for 19 years with the Browns and his uncle, Bruce, played 19 years for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans.
“I’ve got a couple more years to go,” Matthews said.
He also reminds himself that many wondered whether he could achieve stardom in the NFL after playing only sparingly until his senior season at Southern Cal.
“There’s always going to be critics, like my rookie year when people said the Packers gave up too many (draft) picks for me, or he’s going to hit the rookie wall,” Matthews said. “Then there’s the sophomore slump. What’s it going to be this year? Am I too Hollywood? Do I have a big head? Am I too complacent after winning the Super Bowl?”
The evidence would suggest otherwise. Take for example that Capretta said even though Matthews had more offseason media obligations and endorsement appearances this year, he attended more workout sessions than any of the 20 NFL players he trained.
Perhaps that’s why Matthews looks like he’s in midseason form less than two weeks into training camp. He said he doesn’t know how much he will play in the preseason games, which begin Saturday at Cleveland, but it’s likely he’ll play more snaps than he did in the last two summers combined. Matthews has taken part in every practice so far except for Family Night, when he was held out because of a glute injury, which Matthews said was nothing serious.
“Now it’s about physically keeping me where I’m at,” Matthews said. “I feel like I’m at a place right now where if the season started today, I’d be good to go and making plays. So we’re going to temper that until the season starts. They’re doing a great job, the communication I have with the coaching staff and the organization is really going to help, unlike in years past where it’s been all go because that’s kind of how I play. Sometimes, it’s not the smartest way to go about it. But at the same time, it’s my nature.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.