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BIGPLAY’s NFL 100: 100 Personalities From the NFL’s First 100 Years: #21 Clay Matthews Jr.

Clay Matthews Jr. belongs in the Hall of Fame

Photo Courtesy of Codey Dauch, BIGPLAY

The juxtaposition of this article on Clay Matthews Jr. coming out a short time after the Pro Football Hall of Fame narrowed down their list of candidates for 2020 which included Matthews is the definition of perfect timing. Matthews has had a lot of online support for his Hall of Fame candidacy and hopefully, he will be enshrined this upcoming year.

Matthews was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the 12th overall pick in the 1978 Draft. He had great longevity in his career playing for 19 seasons, 16 for the Browns and the final three for the Atlanta Falcons. His career total of 278 games is something to marvel at, but what is more impressive is the fact that he played at a high level throughout his career. His 248 starts at linebacker remain an NFL record.

Photo Courtesy of ClevelandBrowns.com

Besides for his longevity, Matthews was also extremely versatile. At points in his career, he played as an outside linebacker in a 3 – 4 defense as well as in a 4 – 3 defense. The responsibilities for the position in the different schemes are quite different, even though it may seem like similar spots.

His 1,561 career solo tackles rank 3rd All-Time behind Jessie Tuggle and Ray Lewis and he had eight seasons where he compiled 100 tackles or more. Additionally, between 1979 (his second season) and 1994 (his third to last season), the only season he recorded less than 70 tackles was 1982, where due to injury and the strike-shortened season he only played in two regular-season games. There is some debate as to how many sacks he recorded in his career as the NFL did not officially count sacks until the middle of his career. The official numbers have it as 69.5 but looking back there are some who have calculated that he was actually closer to 83.5 sacks.

Photo Courtesy of Larry White, AP

The 1984 season was a difficult one for the Browns as the team went 5 – 11 and had a mid-season coaching change from Sam Rutigliano to Defensive Coordinator Marty Schottenheimer but for Clay Matthews, it was the best season of his career as he recorded 126 tackles, 12 sacks and forced three fumbles. Schottenheimer, as Defensive Coordinator and later as Head Coach, identified the versatility and playmaking ability of Matthews. Schottenheimer took advantage of this and put Matthews in a position to maximize his impact in disrupting opponents throughout their career together.

When fans think of Matthews’ illustrious career, certain plays stick out. An example of this is the January 1990 playoff game against the Buffalo Bills. With the Browns leading 34 – 30 the Bills were driving and made it to just outside the 10-yard line with nine seconds left in the game. The Bills lined up in a spread formation with Jim Kelly in the shotgun and Kelly attempted to throw the ball to Thurman Thomas but Clay Matthews stepped in front of the pass and made the interception on the goal line which sealed the win for the Browns.

One knock that people have against Matthews’ Hall of Fame resume is his lack of Pro Bowls as he only played in four. What needs to be understood is that the Pro Bowl statistic is extremely overrated. In 1984, Matthews’ best season he did not make the Pro Bowl, not because his numbers were bad but because the Browns were bad. It is difficult to make the Pro Bowl while on a team that doesn’t win much. If you look at the seasons in which he made the Pro Bowl, you’ll notice those are the same seasons that the Browns made the playoffs.

Photo Courtesy of David Dermer, AP

Earlier this season the Cleveland Browns enshrined Matthews into their Ring of Honor. Hearing him speak at the game as well as in interviews it is easy to see how humble of a man he is. He talked more about his teammates than about himself and that just exemplifies why so many people are supporting his Hall of Fame candidacy. If voters knock the guys with attitude and make them wait when they are deserving, why not give a self-less player like Matthews a little extra credit?

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