GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews was joking. He had to be. This wasn’t in the fine print when the Green Bay Packers pass rusher started his career. No rookie is presumptuous enough to believe he’ll set a franchise’s all-time sacks record.
Especially this franchise’s all-time sacks record.
Yet here he is, nine years into his career, on the cusp of surpassing Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila’s 74½ sacks. At 74 sacks, Matthews’ next quarterback takedown will be historic.
Nobody sneaks up on a career record. When did Matthews realize KGB was in his sights?
“Two thousand nine,” Matthews said. “Week 1.”
He was joking, had to be joking, but Matthews’ quip wasn’t far off. Not long after the Packers traded back into the first round to draft Matthews in 2009, this seemed at least plausible.
Matthews remembers his first time meeting KGB. They shared a flight when the Packers flew their rookie into Green Bay after the 2009 draft. It was a chance encounter, coincidence. After nine NFL seasons, KGB retired after the 2008 season.
In hindsight, a torch was passed on that flight.
“He was the loudest guy on the plane,” Matthews remembered, “and introduced himself to me. But I think I’ve seen him maybe once since. Obviously, a special talent, if you look at his stats. He was just coming off that edge. He was a nightmare for quarterbacks.”
Matthews’ sacks piled up quickly. He had 10 as a rookie, including six in four weeks during a torrid late-November stretch when Matthews introduced himself to the league. He had 13½ the next season, an All-Pro year.
With that, Matthews was out of the blocks chasing KGB’s record.
Mike McCarthy remembers that first season coaching Matthews. The youngster sat in the first row during meetings, eager to accelerate his NFL transition. Matthews missed almost his entire first camp with a hamstring injury — an unfortunate precursor, of course — but didn’t let that hold him back.
“Clay’s very diligent,” McCarthy said. “He’s very detailed as far as his approach in everything he does, and he’s always been that way. Growing up in a football family, you can see the discipline that he has.”
Matthews passed his father Clay Matthews Jr.’s career sack total of 69½ midway through last season. He passed Reggie White for second in Packers history one year ago, the third week of the 2016 season.
Before having the record to himself, Matthews stopped to recognize the significance of passing White.
“Just fortunate,” he said, “Reggie didn’t play longer than he did.”
It took Matthews longer than White’s six seasons to reach this point. If he gets another sack in the next eight weeks, he’ll pass KGB in fewer games.
Matthews said he first noticed the franchise record was within his grasp early in the 2014 season. Only 28 years old, he entered that fall with 50 career sacks.
“I’d be lying,” Matthews said, “if I said it didn’t matter. I think you have a goal you set out for kind of each and every year, but at the end of the game, really, sometimes you don’t hit those, but you’ll make your mark in a different way. I think when you first get in the league you’re always striving for some type of number. The wiser you get, the more you realize it’s about your impact on the game, and not so much based on numbers.”
Matthews is wiser now, he said. He’s also sacrificed numbers for impact. Matthews likely already would have the record if he hadn't spent all of 2015 as an inside linebacker, playing off the line of scrimmage. He had 6½ sacks that season, and although he was selected to his sixth Pro Bowl, it was far from the double-digit sack totals of his early career.
Injuries derailed last season. He missed four games with a hamstring injury, then played through a severely bruised shoulder in December. His five sacks were a single-season low in his career.
It wasn’t the only time injuries have limited Matthews. He's played 16 games in a season only three times in his first eight years.
Through it all, he has impressed some of his longest teammates.
“It’s really impressive,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “considering he spent a decent amount of time at inside linebacker when we needed him to. He has been an elite player for us for a long time and brings a lot to our defense. It’s been great playing with him over the years. He’s a fantastic player, great teammate.
“It means a lot when you think about the history of this franchise. Being able to be the all-time sack leader would be pretty sweet for him.”
Matthews remembers his first sack. It came in his second career game, a spin move to reach Carson Palmer. The play was actually a mistake, Matthews said. He was supposed to contain, but when he saw a chance to sack Palmer, he didn’t hesitate.
The Cincinnati Bengals were his opponent that day in 2009. No, the significance of the Bengals’ return Sunday for their first game at Lambeau Field since 2009, is not lost on him. Against the same opponent his record chase got started, Matthews’ sack total could reach heights never officially achieved in team history.
Matthews believes it’s just the beginning. He mentioned reaching 100 sacks next. At age 31, Matthews should have more productive years ahead of him.
It’s been a long time since that rookie met KGB on a flight to Green Bay, but Matthews said he doesn’t feel much different.
“I tell everyone,” Matthews said, “I feel just as good today as I felt back in 2009. Obviously, a lot smarter, wiser and a lot crustier from just being around. Everything outside the locker room hasn’t really affected me on the field. Obviously, it puts things in perspective more. That’s just a different deal. You’re growing up. I still feel the same way. I think I approach the game probably a lot smarter, where my time is allocated. I’m getting real deep as far as film study, how to take care of my body, how to train in the offseason, how to eat.
“But for the most part, I like to think — I really do — I feel like I haven’t lost a step since my rookie year.”
The guys give their predictions for Sunday's showdown between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Green Bay Packers. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin