The Case for Clay Matthews

On Thursday, September 13th, 102 nominees were announced for the Hall of Fame Class of 2019. These 102 will be reduced to 25 semifinalists in November and then down to 15 finalists in January. Then, the night before the Super Bowl the list of inductees will be announced.

One of the players hoping to be announced as an inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is former Browns and Atlanta Falcons linebacker, Clay Matthews, Jr. This article will present the case in favor of Matthews. Please note that at points in the article there will be statistical comparisons between Clay Matthews and other linebackers who are currently in the Hall of Fame. These comparisons are not meant to discredit any current Hall of Famer, rather they are meant to show how Matthews’ accomplishments are Hall of Fame worthy.

Clay 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 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. Of the 278 games he played, 248 of them were games he started, which remains an NFL record for a linebacker.

Besides his longevity, Matthews also displayed extremely versatility. At points in his career, he played both inside and outside linebacker in a 3 – 4 defense as well as in a 4 – 3 defense. The responsibilities for the positions in different schemes vary greatly, even though it may not seem like it.

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 he only played in two regular season games.

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. Yet, 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.

Two teams that the Browns often faced were the Houston Oilers and Denver Broncos. Matchups against these teams would regularly come down to late game heroics and the best players were needed to make a play. Matthews stepped up when playing these teams as he recorded 7.5 sacks of Warren Moon from the Oilers and five sacks of John Elway from the Broncos, both Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

When looking superficially at his career, one jarring thing that is noticed is that Matthews was only selected to four Pro Bowls. However, when taking time to delve into this fact, there are other things that need to be noted. First of all, typically only three outside linebackers make the Pro Bowl. In the early part of his career, Jack Ham and Robert Brazile were often two of the three. Other notable linebackers who made it to multiple Pro Bowls back then included Ted Hendricks and Andre Tippett.

Second of all, it is very rare for players on bad teams to make the Pro Bowl. When looking at Pro Bowl rosters, they are usually full of players from teams who made the playoffs, with the occasional exception.

Take the 1984 season as an example.

Clay Matthews had a great season, but the Browns were 5 – 11. If you look at the four teams that made it to the Conference Championship games; Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, they combined for 28 Pro Bowlers that season. If you look at the seasons that Matthews did make the Pro Bowl you’ll notice, each time was a season the Browns made the playoffs.

The final thought about the Pro Bowls is that it is an overrated way of saying someone is good. There are numerous players currently in the Hall of Fame who played in the same era as Matthews who only had three of four Pro Bowl appearances, but nobody thinks they aren’t deserving of the Hall of Fame honor. Art Monk, Charlie Joiner and Ozzie Newsome all only have three Pro Bowls, while Richard Dent, Tony Dorsett and Russ Grimm are amongst the half-dozen Hall of Famers with four Pro Bowls.

Comparing Matthews with other Hall of Famers furthers the point that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Take this first graphic comparing Matthews to Junior Seau. The 10 game difference in their careers shows how comparable their career statistics are. Seau’s big advantages come in tackles, where he had 285 more for his career. There is no arguing that Seau was a tackling machine, but he made a lot less impactful plays, as Matthews has a large advantage in sacks and forced fumbles and Seau has smaller leads in interceptions and fumble recoveries.

In this next graphic, take a look at how Matthews matches up with Brian Urlacher. One aspect of this comparison that needs to be pointed out is that Urlacher played most of his career in a “Tampa 2” defense which would account for his lower number of sacks and a higher number of interceptions. Like in the case of the Seau comparison, some numbers favor Matthews and some favor Urlacher. Once again, Matthews compares favorably with a player who is already in the Hall of Fame.

While the previous graphics compared Matthews with another linebacker on a plethora of statistics, this next graphic shows how Matthews compares in a specific statistic and helps show his great versatility. The 83.5 sacks in his career is third most amongst linebackers with at least 1,000 tackles. As you see from the graphic, Matthews is the only one not in the Hall of Fame, but clearly, his numbers are comparable with these other players who are no-doubt Hall of Famers.

The final graphic shows how impactful Matthews was in his career. Adding together sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, Matthews ranks fourth amongst recent linebackers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. When you combine the information on this and the previous graphic it is important to notice that many of the names are on both lists. Matthews belongs in the Hall of Fame because he compares so nicely to players already in.

Clay Matthews was a key member of the Kardiac Kids and later shined as a founding member of the Dawg Pound teams in the ‘80s, which energized the city. Matthews was the quintessential “Blue Collar Guy” who came to the stadium and did his best on every play he was on the field. He was never a flashy player or the type of guy to discuss his greatness when he was a player like so many other athletes do. He was versatile, durable and impactful throughout his accomplished career. Although his numbers prove he belongs in the Hall of Fame, greater than that was the fact that he represented what was Cleveland football for a whole generation.

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