As he stood at the center of the enormous G in the carpeting Wednesday afternoon, Clay Matthews said it wasn’t his idea to hold his post-contract extension news conference inside the Green Bay Packers’ locker room. So if there was any intentional symbolism, it wasn’t the work of the Packers’ new $66 million man.
“I just go where they tell me to go,” the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker said with a smirk, not long after signing a five-year, $66 million extension that includes a reported $31 million in guaranteed money (per ESPN’s Adam Schefter) and will keep Matthews with the Packers through the 2018 season. “We can go to the podium if you want.”
No, no – having Matthews in the locker room was the perfect place.
Across the room, next to the recently sealed-off entrance to what used to be the auxiliary locker room, sat the empty locker that had belonged to Charles Woodson for the past seven years. On Wednesday, the name plate simply read PACKERS. With Woodson having been released on Feb. 15 – and a new construction project having moved what is affectionately known as the “Green Mile” to the area where the players’ lounge had been – the Packers locker room isn’t the same place it was when the players packed up their belongings following the team’s Jan. 12 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
That game was a flat-out embarrassment for the Packers defense, which gave up an astronomical 579 yards of offense (fourth most in a playoff game in NFL history), watched quarterback Colin Kaepernick run for an astonishing 181 yards (most in a single game by a quarterback – ever) and essentially undid all it accomplished as a unit during the regular season, when the defense bounced back from a horrendous 2011 season to regain respectability.
And so, with a new megabucks contract and the expectations of being the defense’s undisputed No. 1 playmaker, the 26-year-old Matthews knows he must step up his leadership in the locker room on a team that is constantly undergoing a youth movement.
“With the loss to some of those key defensive players, especially with Charles on the defensive side and with them putting a new contract in place for me, it definitely shows their belief in me in being a leader and kind of a stalwart in this defense,” Matthews said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity. I’ve continued to lead through my short time here and I look to continue that leadership position. Who knows what that entails, but I’m looking forward to it.
“It’s funny, because not a whole lot has changed. I’m happy about it but for me, it’s nice, it’s very humbling and it’s a blessing, but it’s business as usual for me. I’m glad that they have put their trust in me and belief in me in awarding me this, but at the same time you’re going to get the same type of unwavering perseverance on the field and dedication that I’m going to bring day in and day out. I feel good, but not much has changed.”
Matthews was entering the final year of his rookie deal, which he signed as the 26th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft out of Southern California. He has registered 42.5 sacks in his first four NFL seasons, and he was set to earn $3.73 million in base salary this year. Matthews was originally scheduled for a $1.492 million base salary in 2013 but hit various escalators that raised his pay. The new deal adds five years onto the existing year.
Even with the four games he missed with a hamstring injury, Matthews finished fourth in the NFL in sacks (13.0) in regular-season play and added three more in the playoffs. The Packers managed to go 3-1 in the four games he missed, but it was clear that they were a different defense with him on the field.
Still, Matthews admitted that he has plenty of room for improvement. In the playoff loss to the 49ers, for example, he was essentially a non-factor, although he was credited with one sack and seven tackles in the Packers’ 45-31 loss.
“I’m starting to get to the prime of my career,” Matthews said. “You know, I wasn’t a pass-rusher at SC, so I’m still developing. … The numbers, I’m going to continue to put them up, I’m going to continue to lead this defense, and you’re going to continue to get the same type of player that you have seen, if not better each year.”
And how good could Matthews be? While his position coach, Kevin Greene, was not available to reporters Wednesday, he once said that Matthews was a better player than he was – a strong statement considering Greene holds the NFL record for sacks by a linebacker (160) and has been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame twice.
“Clay has a set of skills that I didn’t have,” Greene said. “He has another gear that I didn’t have. He has an explosive power. I could cover efficiently. He can cover great. He’s very athletic. Not only does he bring the power rush to the table that I used to have, I used to have some nice speed around the corner, but he has that and another gear. And he covers with the best of ‘em. I could cover efficiently, but I wasn’t glorious at it. I don’t think I ever wounded us in coverage, whereas he’s a star at it.
“He’s better than Kevin Greene was. He’s going to be a great one. He’s got a skill set that I have not yet seen in an outside linebacker in a 3-4, and there were a lot of good ones when I played in the league. He’s got something that I haven’t seen yet.”
For his part, Matthews said he never was interested in playing out the final year of his contract and testing the free-agent waters. He also shrugged off the suggestion that the deal – with a per-year average that surpasses Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware for the title of highest-paid linebacker in the NFL – means all that much beyond financial security and not having to worry about negotiations any more.
“The contract aside, I play this game for a lot more than just money,” Matthews said. “As far as everything I want to accomplish, it has to do with winning ball games and setting records and making an impact. So you’re going to get the same Clay that you’ve seen for these past four years.”
Matthews said he had participated in the first two days of the offseason program, which kicked off Monday. He suggested that there was never a discussion about holding out in hopes of getting a new deal sooner rather than later.
“Selfishly, I wanted to get this deal done probably earlier than we were able to. But I like this organization, the fans, the city, everything,” Matthews said. “They’ve given me all the resources and opportunities, from the medical staff to the people upstairs to the janitors to the cooks. It’s been fantastic. So this is all I know, and it’s success, and I’d like to stay here for the foreseeable future.”
Matthews sounded genuine when he spoke Wednesday about how much the Packers have come to mean to him, considering what was at the time a somewhat risky move by general manager Ted Thompson to draft him. The Packers traded their second-round pick (No. 41) and a pair of third-round picks (No. 73 and No. 83, which they’d gotten from the New York Jets for Brett Favre) to the New England Patriots in order to take Matthews, whose lone productive college season had been as a senior.
“Obviously with the belief they have in me, giving up so many draft picks right around the Brett Favre trade, and then drafting an (unproven) guy in college … I’m fortunate,” Matthews said. “And that’s a big reason why you guys are here right now and I’m here right now. I love what this team is doing, I love the direction we’re going and what we’ve been able to accomplish – the numerous team accolades, including a Super Bowl, that we’ve been able to achieve. I’m looking forward for the next six years.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.