Q&A: Packers' Clay Matthews talks role, future, Bears and more
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Is Clay Matthews entering a new era with the Green Bay Packers defense? Or was the four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker's move inside for much of last week's blowout of the Chicago Bears a one-time engagement?
Matthews sat down with USA TODAY Sports on Thursday for a wide-ranging discussion on his role, why he doesn't feel sorry for the Bears, the Packers' cold-weather advantage, Super Bowl hopes, college teammate Mark Sanchez, how he has stayed healthy in his sixth season and why he'd be satisfied with playing four more.
Q: Forget inside linebacker for a second. Let's say you had time to learn and get to the right weight. Is there any position that you think you couldn't play?
A: I don't think there's a position I couldn't play on this field. If I had the proper training and time to get ready, I think (anything's possible). I might be better at certain positions, but I think I'd have a good (shot) at starting at least one game at certain positions before getting yanked.
Q: Quarterback might take some time.
A: I guess you're right. Not every position. I can't even throw a football.
Q: Dom Capers' defense is diverse. You've played inside before, just not this much.
A: When Coach Mike (McCarthy) presented the proposition of playing in the middle, I said, 'Sure,' because I had done it before and I didn't think much of it. Now, to the extent that I've played it, as far as the learning curve, I've really had to be a student of the game and had a crash course in being an inside linebacker for this past week and a half. That being said, it's not just downhill, blitzing every play. When I'm lined up in the middle, it's a lot of freelancing and blitzing. Now, it's more of a role in which you're playing a true inside linebacker in certain personnel.
Q: I imagine you're wired to want to be as close to the football as possible.
A: I think that's one of the things you take away from this game (against Chicago). You go into the game with all these 'what ifs', but at the end of the day, it puts you closer to the football. These coaches and the personnel and people around me understand that when I'm close to the football, good things are usually going to happen or plays are going to be made. I think when you have more of those opportunities, you see what can happen. Obviously, when you're an outside linebacker, pass rusher, you're controlling half the field. Run towards you, set the edge. Run away, you're not supposed to make the play. Obviously, it presents some of those opportunities and you want to put your best players in the best position possible.
Q: You blew out the Vikings and Panthers, too, but Sunday was worse than both those games. When it's 42-0 at halftime, does any small part of you feel bad for the Bears?
A: No. Not at all. Someone said they were watching and said they actually felt bad for the opposition. But you give so much to this game – that's what you go out and try to accomplish, is blowout victories where you can hold the opposition to zero points scored and you can score 50-plus points in the game. You're judged based on your wins and losses here, whether it's by one point or 50 points. You're trying to put a little buffer in there so you don't have to worry as much. But those games are the best games. Fans hate them, but those are by and large my favorites: blowouts.
Q: That one almost felt like a pickup game when you're a kid and one team might just take its ball and go home.
A: The parents are complaining, but the athletes are just having fun. They're throwing up alley-oops, lobs, trying new things. Yeah, we've had some success, especially at home with a few victories in which I've been able to come out in either the third or fourth quarter, which is very rare to do that even once in a season. That's pretty rare with the parity in the league. That's what you go out to do, though.
Q: You're right on parity, but five years in the NFL and you've never missed the playoffs. That's hard to do.
A: I look at it as the playoffs are one thing (but) it's difficult to win a Super Bowl. I don't look at it as difficult to make the playoffs, which it is. It's just, you take care of business, which for the most part we do.
Q: What stops this team from being a Super Bowl contender?
A: If you look at it in years prior, it's costly mistakes when it counts, whether that's turnovers on the offensive side – which we're not accustomed to making – or whether it's a big game rushing against us or throwing the ball, which isn't the norm. Now, it's happened here and there, and that's why we're always trying to improve our defense, improve our game. But that's been the X-factor when the Packers lose, because on paper and on film, we've got a very good team with a lot of talent who should be in the running each and every year.
Q: You started 1-2 and have been a lot better since. The only loss was in New Orleans, where the Saints almost never lose.
A: They've got some voodoo down there or something going on. You obviously want to start the season out with a big game and to follow it up by continuing to get better. But the reality is a lot of these Super Bowl winners, especially as of late, they hit their peak right in the November, December months and they carry that into the playoffs, and that's ultimately what matters. Obviously, you don't want to put yourself into a hole early on that you can't climb out of. But at 5-3 at the halfway point and as of last week the next four out of five home games, six out of seven cold-weather games, you'd like to think we're ready for the challenge and the opportunity and we'll make the most of it.
Q: You're a California guy. Have you ever truly gotten used to the cold?
A: Today was cold, especially with the wind factor. But the thing is, when they talk about 'cold weather advantage,' it's more so mentally than physically. Physically, you never get used to the cold. It's cold! If it's cold, it's cold! And you go out there and your body feels it, but I think mentally, living in it, it's not such a shock to you. I took the dog out last night, it was 20-something degrees and I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm in my shorts, but I did this the day before, and the day before …'
Q: On Sunday, you've got the Eagles and Mark Sanchez, who you know well from USC. Got any tricks up your sleeve against him?
A: He's in a different offense than he was in New York (with the Jets), so I think they've got some tricks up their sleeve for us. We'll just try and combat that, though. It's good to see him back out there, especially with all the negativity that surrounded him the final years in New York. I wish him all the best – but at the same time, if he were to have a dud, why not this week?
Q: Do you remember the other time you played him?
A: Yeah, I think it was in 2010. We won like 9-nothing. That was a defensive battle. We had three takeaways. Everyone on the defense got a game ball. It was that good of a performance.
Q: Last time we talked was back in April in Los Angeles and you were working your way back from the second thumb surgery. How has that held up and how's your body overall?
A: The thumb's been great. I don't have any issues with it. It's funny, because I showed up to training camp and had done everything I could for seven, eight months leading into it, which is a normal recovery for that type of injury. Coming into camp, they'd hand me a water bottle. I'd go (to take a drink) and I couldn't even squeeze the water bottle. I'd switch it to my left (hand). I'd go, 'Nah, I've got to do this!' Obviously, you can't simulate fighting with 300-plus-pound tackles every day, matching up against athletic tight ends and tackling running backs. I think that's ultimately gotten a lot stronger. Then the hits that I've taken on it, as well as the positions I've put it in, it's held up. There have been some scares along the way, but it's getting back on the horse and seeing how it holds up and it's been great. It'll always be a little 'surgically repaired,' for lack of a better term, but not enough to really limit the way in which I played.
Q: Your trainer out there, Ryan Capretta, also told me you were doing preventative stuff to stop all those hamstring issues.
A: Aside from the hand injury, I don't think I've missed any games from an injury outside of a soft tissue, a muscle pull. Those are all (preventable). So, we figured out how do we eliminate this? We always were trying to refine our program. What do we need to do? Eat, sleep, drink, do this, this and that. Finally, we really got after it. We went to this place affiliated with USC – it's like a movement (center) to see everything from hip rotation to hip extension to glute strength to adduction. Little stuff that just kind of sounds nerdy, but really, when you put it together and when you work on that, you switch your mind to using different muscles. That's what I've really focused on this year. I've had a personal trainer out here who works with me seven days a week, outside of football – a lot of corrective and making sure I feel good each and every day. I've felt great this year. Obviously, I've had nicks and bruises. But for the most part, my biggest thing is, you put me on the field, I'm going to make my plays. So, suit me up for 16 games, the rest is going to fall in line.
Q: What more can you do physically with a personal trainer after putting in a full day here?
A: Well, it's not so much a workout. It's more so keeping everything loose, making sure everything's moving the right way, everything's feeling good, everything's flexible. It's constantly keeping your body in top form, which is tough in this game.
Q: You're signed through 2018. You'll be 32 then. How long do you want to do this?
A: I always have to have an end game in mind. I see myself finishing out those four years here. As to what goes on past that, I think it's just determined (by) how well I'm playing or where I'm at in my career. My father (Clay Jr.) and uncle (Bruce) both played 19 years, so if I can have half that career, I'm OK with that. But as long as I'm operating at a high level – and I think most importantly, a lot of what people say is their health, and especially with all the emphasis put on health and brain disease and everything nowadays, it's something I'll really take into consideration. We'll see. God willing, I'll be here the next couple years. I've got to keep making plays.
Q: Your parents are staying with you this week. Your brother, Casey, is in town to play with the Eagles. There's this innate pressure on you guys to play two decades or look like wimps.
A: Growing up with (Clay Jr.), it was always, 'Eh, you just played 19 years.' Until you actually walk a mile in his shoes, (you don't) realize how difficult it is to not only put in – well, just to put in one year of work. Then you try to not only put in the year, but keep those expectations and live up to that pressure. Obviously, to last now for 19 years you're a pretty good player. But nowadays there's team changes all the time and you see the careers of people are drastically getting shortened, just because it seems like the stock of current players that continue to come through the works as well as salary cap reasons and the game's getting faster now. It just makes it that much harder. When you're up there, you appreciate where you're at and what you've been able to accomplish thus far.
Q: How important of a measuring stick is Sunday's game against the Eagles?
A: More so than a measuring stick, these are the type of victories you need late in the season. If you look at a horse race, there's four legs. At the quarter turn, everyone's together. Halfway point, everyone's pretty close but there's a few falling off that don't have a chance. They get around three quarters, and then that's when it really starts to get a little separation. That fourth quarter, which we're not in quite yet, is when everyone's nose to nose. This is that third quarter, where if you want to stay on par with winning this thing and making the playoffs and having a real shot of putting yourself in playoff contention, these are the type of victories you need to get.
Q: It's tight in the NFC, too. If the season ended today …
A: I don't think we'd be in it. We obviously had a lot of time on our hands (during the bye). You look at Detroit in our division. You think of worst- and best-case scenarios of how you need to finish the season. That's why you have to go out and get every victory. (The Eagles are) a great team at 7-2. As a – I'm not going to say a fan, but as a watcher of their games … they could be very close to being undefeated. All that said, they're a very good team, but especially with Dallas in their (division), they need to make sure they come out on top.
Q: So … are you playing inside or outside this week?
A: (smiling) I'm playing all over this week. I'm playing left side, right side, middle left, back left, everywhere on this field. We'll see how it's dictated this week, because you've got to think that we've had some success last week with (playing inside). But at the same time, it's not an unscouted look anymore.
Q: If nothing else, the Eagles have to worry about you being one more place now.
A: I think we've always strived for that. We've talked about it for years, and it's easy to go from left to right linebacker. Offenses just know, 'Where do you slide the line to? Who's the mike?' It's not that difficult. It obviously does present problems maybe for just individual players, such as tackles or tight ends. Now, when you go to a different position, you're dealing with guys in a different level of space and such. It does create some matchup problems. After one game, I know everyone wants to say we've found the answer and this and that. But let's see how this thing plays out. I'm always just (thinking) pump the brakes a little. From what we saw and where we're headed, it's hopefully in the right direction.