State Your Case: Clay Matthews


(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.



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  1. bachslunch
    December 6, 2016

    Agreed that there’s always a point to discussing a player like Clay Matthews. For me, his 1/4/none profile makes him a no, especially given that 80s-90s OLB is already heavily represented in the HoF and there are other OLBs not in with better such numbers like Cornelius Bennett (3/5/90s) and Pat Swilling (2/5/none). No question he was a solid, durable player, though. Arguably the biggest Browns snub from this era is DT Michael Dean Perry (5/6/none).

  2. Rich Quodomine
    December 6, 2016

    bachslunch brings up two points: The relative value of Pro Bowls (some of which are popularity contests or House of Lords style lifetime appointments) and the relative strength of the position in the era. Sometimes, a Pro Bowl nod may be given because a Player is popular or is on a team that is doing very well and he has made a difference in that team being better. An All-Pro selection is less influenced by popularity, so that may have more bearing. The other point is what value durability?

    Cleveland’s teams were winners throughout most of Matthews’ career – Sam Rutigliano, Marty Schottenheimer and even Bud Carson won division titles during his time with the Browns. This would have normally increased his Pro Bowl count, but it doesn’t appear to have done so significantly. This is likely due to the high quality of Outside backers at the time, as bachslunch notes. However, this also may be an argument for Matthews: The better your teams are, the less often your team is on defense generally – the best teams usually have good Time of Possession stats. To have a significant amount of tackles when your team is very good is harder. It’s one of the things that amazed me about Ray Lewis, the Ravens were awesome, he had a plethora of talent around him, and he still had all those tackles.

    The second phase of the argument is durability. This is what I call the Don Sutton argument: Does being very very good forever make one great? I am skeptical of the notion. Then again, is there an intrinsic value to being durable? For example, might that burnish the credentials of a London Fletcher? If we deduct HoF “points” from Terrell Davis for having a short career, should we not then add points for a lengthy one with few injuries?

    I don’t know if Clay Matthews, Jr. is a Hall of Famer, linebackers who “clean up the mess” are harder to quantify than those dedicated to things like passrushing stats. Thankfully, Matthews has stats in passrushing to bolster the tackles, but I think he still falls a bit short because of the era in which he played and therefore the players he is compared with.

    • December 6, 2016

      Well on the question of durability I would tell you what tony Dungy once told me, “A big part of ability is durability.”

  3. bachslunch
    December 10, 2016

    For me, I see 1st team all pro selections as elite and pro bowls as a secondary level of honor but one worth listing. All decade teams are of course useful too. Their pro bowl numbers help explain why players like Mike McCormack (0/6/none) and Elvin Bethea (0/8/none) got in. I see both as acceptable but marginal HoF choices. No idea how either player looks via good quality film study, which counts for plenty also in my book — that might help explain things too.

  4. bachslunch
    December 10, 2016

    Re undeserved pro bowl selections, the comment I’ve heard most often (from John Madden for example) is that it’s not unusual for a deserving player to miss out their first deserving year and make one at the tail end of their career on reputation. If that’s indeed true, they cancel each other out.

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