Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Browns fans remember Clay Matthews Jr. as the sandy-haired linebacker with the beach bum looks who drove a 1973 Mercury Capri 3,000 miles from southern California to Cleveland to report to training camp every summer.
That ritual of frugality became a symbol of the blue-collar work ethic and the modest understatedness that characterized his 16-year career in Cleveland.
But Hall of Famers who played against Matthews – the father of the Green Bay linebacker, who is the third generation Clay -- regard him as football royalty and speak of him in superlatives.
They also wonder how Matthews, who excelled for a total of 19 NFL seasons including three with the Atlanta Falcons, ultimately playing 278 games – more than any NFL linebacker – has been overlooked for football’s highest honor.
Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Anthony Munoz, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 1998:
“Clay is one of the best I’ve ever played against. He could cover with speed, he rushed the passer as well as any guy, was as smart as any guy. It wasn’t just that he could do one of those things. He was so versatile. He wasn’t one-dimensional or two-dimensional. He could do everything that they called a linebacker to do, or a linebacker should do. It wasn’t like he was playing first and second down and got third downs off. He was there every down.”
Houston Oilers guard Mike Munchak, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2001:
“I thought he was as good as anyone I ever played against. Because he was such a smart player, so instinctive, able to take advantage of what your weaknesses were. If he found a guy that couldn’t handle strength, that’s what he gave you. If he found a guy that struggled with change of direction, that’s what he gave you. I thought he did a nice job of having a game plan for whoever he played against. He could play inside, outside. He could play with a guard, with a tackle. He could cover. That’s why he never left the field. Such a smart player and he had the build. I didn’t think he’d be as strong as he was. What surprised me was how strong he was with his hands.”
Matthews is one of 25 semifinalists on the ballot for 2019 for only the third time in his 18th year of eligibility. The next vote of the Hall’s selection committee this month pares the list to 15 finalists. Matthews has never advanced to the round of 15, which would allow his case to be debated at the annual selection meeting on the day before the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
His younger brother, Houston Oilers offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, unofficially launched a campaign for Clay during his own induction in the Class of 2007.
“The thing about my brother, which is the thing I think is keeping him out, is his versatility,” Bruce said. “He could play over the tight end, be stout against the run, be stout taking on blocks. He did all the dirty work. He could cover. He was a nickel linebacker, great in coverage. Then I think it was like my second or third year, they finally cut him loose rushing the passer, and he got 12 sacks. So I think his greatest strength is what’s keeping him out, his versatility. He did everything and he did it very well.
“What’s really amazed me has been the conversations I’ve had with other Hall of Famers. When I hear guys like Howie Long, James Lofton, Joe DeLamielleure -- highly respected players -- making comments about why my brother should be in, I realize it’s not me being biased.”
A family affair: While Bruce’s opinion should carry enough weight – he played 22 times against Clay with the Browns and once with the Falcons – it is Clay’s only daughter, Jennifer, who has taken on the campaign with vigor.
Jennifer, who has done free-lance sports media work with FOXSports and CBS and currently hosts a fantasy football show on Sirius XM, has pounded social media with customized graphics touting her father’s statistics versus other Hall of Fame linebackers, and oversaw the production of a two-minute highlight video.
With the help of the Browns, who tabulated Clay’s sack totals in the four seasons prior to the NFL recognizing the statistic in 1982, Jennifer’s research showed Clay’s 83.5 career sacks bettered the totals of Hall of Famers Junior Seau (56.5) and Ray Lewis (41.5), and Clay’s 140.5 total “impact plays” – combining sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries – surpasses those of Andre Tippett (137), Lewis (111.5), Seau (103.5) and Karl Mecklenburg (114), another linebacker on the 2019 ballot.
Jennifer took on the project at the prodding of her uncle Bruce because she felt her father has been too modest to speak his own case. Her social media campaign has resulted in an outpouring of support from Browns fans all over the country.
“It’s been incredible to see people step up and say how they’ve wanted this for years,” Jennifer said. “My dad is just not one to talk about himself. He just always reiterates that he played the game because he loved competing and Ioved playing for the city Cleveland and loved being out there with his teammates. It’s been a real special time for us, real unique. He’s very humbled to feel so much love from Cleveland. He said, ‘I’m surprised they still remember me.’”
Unbelievable and remarkable: Matthews was the 12th overall pick of the 1978 draft. Tight end Ozzie Newsome, who was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1999, was the Browns’ second pick in that draft, taken 23rd overall.
In 17 of his 19 seasons, Matthews played at least 14 games. The only two years he didn't was in 1987, when he played all 12 games in a strike-interrupted season, and in 1982, when an injury ended his season in his second game. Former left tackle Doug Dieken remembers Matthews slamming his helmet against the bench after walking off the field with a broken leg.
“He had unbelievable athleticism,” said Sam Rutigliano, Clay’s first coach with the Browns. “He could cover like a cornerback and he could tackle like the best tackler in the NFL. He was unique in that sense and was never hurt [other than the broken leg]. In seven years I coached him, I don’t remember one time him being out for a down.”
The incredible Matthews genes come from their father, Clay Sr., a defensive end with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s. Clay’s 278 games are the most by a linebacker. Bruce’s 296 are the most for an offensive lineman.
“My body starts to hurt when I think about the Matthews brothers and how many games they played. That’s unbelievable,” Munoz said.
“His career is remarkable,” said Munchak. “The fact he was an every-down player. He didn’t leave the field. That’s rare these days. I just thought when you do what he did for so long and do it so well, which was amazing to me … to be that good for that long.”
Detractors might point to Matthews’ earning only four Pro Bowl selections in 19 years. But it was a position crowded with pass rush linebackers in the 1980s who did mostly one thing well – sack the quarterback. And of the seven linebackers selected to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1980s, none played longer than 15 years.
“He’s the most underrated player ever that’s had a career that long,” said June Jones, former offensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers.
When Jones became head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 1994, Matthews’ contract with the Browns had run out and he intended to retire. Jones coaxed him to Atlanta. Over the next two years, Matthews started every game at the age of 38 and 39. Jones persuaded Matthews to come back for a third season at the age of 40 by promising Matthews he could practice when he wanted and be used as a situational pass rusher. Matthews proceeded to lead the Falcons in sacks with 6.5.
Jones recalled Matthews’ last game of his career in the 1996 finale. The Falcons were 3-12 and played the Jacksonville Jaguars, who needed a win to earn an AFC playoff berth. The Jaguars led, 19-17, and were running out the clock.
With about four minutes left, Matthews sacked quarterback Mark Brunell to force a Jacksonville punt. The Falcons drove the length of the field, but kicker Morten Andersen missed a 30-yard field goal for the win.
“I can remember Clay being so upset that we didn’t win that game,” Jones said.
“That’s exactly how he was,” said Munchak. “He didn’t want to lose one rep, much less one game.”