Even as an ardent supporter of Clay Matthews since he was drafted in 2009, I found myself saying, “what the hell, man?” over and over when watching him play this past year. His advertising game has never been stronger (seriously, Clay, how much can YOU bench?), but his play in games was at an all-time low. In his first seven seasons, he made the Pro-Bowl six times and forced offensives to adjust to account for him on each and every play. In season eight, he was just another man on the field, often playing worse than the players backing him up. So, in all seriousness, what happened to you, Clay?
Through 12 regular season games in 2016, Clay registered 24 tackles (20 solo, 4 assisted), 5.0 sacks, one forced fumble, and three passes defensed. On the season, he played in 46.4 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps (479 total defensive snaps). His tackles (both solo and assisted), sacks, snaps, and snap percentage were the lowest of his career. Rather than compare this season’s 30 year old version of Matthews to his much younger self, we’ll look at just his past two seasons. In those last two seasons, Clay averaged 63.5 tackles (the two highest tackle outputs of his career), 8.25 sacks, six passes defensed, and one interception per season, while playing in roughly 90 percent of the team’s defensive snaps (959 snaps per year). Essentially, Matthews played less in 2016 than he did in 2014 and 2015, and he was less effective when he did play.
What’s going on, you say? Let’s look at a few possibilities.
He was injured
This reason is perhaps the most obvious, as Clay missed four games due to a hamstring strain and, in his second game back from injury, separated his AC joint in his left shoulder. Both of those injuries could account for some of the burst and strength that seemingly vanished from Matthews’ game. Prior to his hamstring injury, he was on pace for 41.5 tackles and 9.5 sacks, both near his career averages and more than respectable numbers from an outside linebacker.
He’s on the downswing of his career
While it’s likely that Clay is past his prime (most defenders peak around 27 years of age), it would be surprising to see his play drop off at the level it did this year for the remainder of his career. Several defenders, especially pass rush specialists such as Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, James Harrison, and Reggie White, among others, have maintained high levels of play well into their 30’s, and Matthews will only be 31 in 2017. Don’t expect Clay to drift softly into the night at his age. He knows he played poorly this season, and he’ll expect himself to come back as strong as ever.
He was on HGH
Some rumors floated around in the summer of 2015 that Matthews, who was investigated for human growth hormone use (along with Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, and James Harrison), was forced to stop using the performance enhancing drugs and his play has dropped off as a result. While I give this idea enough credence to include it here, I would be surprised, nay, shocked if it were true. Peppers and Harrison are each at least six years older than Matthews and neither of them showed any form of decline, despite their ages, after the investigation.
He changed positions… again
He may not have totally changed positions, but Clay went from playing primarily middle linebacker in 2015 to his old role as an outside linebacker in 2016. That doesn’t account for his drop in performance, but, rather, for his drop in numbers, since tackles are far easier to come by as a middle linebacker than as an outside linebacker. Some form of a drop in numbers should have been expected (though not as large a drop as he experienced).
In the end, the decline can likely be attributed to injury, age, and position change, though which played the biggest role is up for debate. While we may have sat on our couches saying (screaming?) “what the hell, man?” we shouldn’t be too quick to forget that for the first seven years of his career, Clay Matthews was an every down defensive threat and a consistent Pro-Bowl level player. You may remember another Packer who seemed to struggle for 16 games before righting the ship, so let’s give Matthews a chance and see what he can do in 2017.