It’s not wise to underestimate Clay Matthews.
He walked on at USC in 2004 and, five years later, walked out as first-round NFL draft pick.
That was 10 years ago, a veritable eon for a modern-day outside linebacker. Along the way, Matthews won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, earned six Pro Bowl selections and amassed 831/2 sacks.
The Rams signed Matthews and veteran safety Eric Weddle during the offseason to improve their defense and help them earn another shot at the Super Bowl.
At 33, Matthews looks much like he did when he left USC, his trademark long blond hair still flowing.
But after recording a career-low 31/2 sacks last season, and having the Packers move on without him, Matthews knows there are questions about his capabilities.
Go ahead, he says, underestimate him.
“Hopefully, guys do think that I’m over the hill and one foot in the grave,” he said. “I’ll show you what I’ve been able to do for a decade and running.”
A decade is an eternity to play at an elite level in the NFL, especially for players other than quarterbacks or specialists. It is not the norm.
“Well,” Matthews said, “it’s the norm in our family.”
Matthews’ father, Clay Matthews Jr., played linebacker for 19 NFL seasons, 16 with the Cleveland Browns and three with the Atlanta Falcons.
Matthews’ uncle, Bruce Matthews, played offensive line for 19 NFL seasons, 14 with the Houston Oilers and five more when the franchise moved and eventually became the Tennessee Titans.
The Rams are confident Matthews can still produce. They signed him to a two-year, $9.25-million contract, with $5.5 million in guarantees. They want Matthews to make plays and help lead younger players.
“Anybody that’s played as much as he has and had the amount of success, been in a big-time organization, where he’s been a world champion,” Rams coach Sean McVay said, “that’s always something you can learn from.”
The Rams saw what they were getting last season, when Matthews played at the Coliseum for the first time since he left USC. The Rams defeated the Packers, but Matthews left an impression with seven tackles, a sack and two hits on quarterback Jared Goff.
“I said, ‘What’s up?’ to him during pregame,” said Rams receiver Robert Woods, who began his USC career two years after Matthews completed his eligibility. “And in the game it was like he didn’t even know me. He was just slapping me around.
“That’s the kind of guy you want on your team: Come out there and just cause havoc.”
In defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, outside linebackers enjoy ample opportunities to rush the quarterback and make plays.
Tackle Aaron Donald had 201/2 sacks last season and will command double teams. The Rams’ high-scoring offense is apt to force teams to play from behind. So Matthews can sense what awaits.
Donald can too.
“Adding Clay to the mix ain’t going to do nothing but help us up front, as far as getting after the quarterback and stopping the run,” Donald said.
Matthews will start ahead of third-year pro Samson Ebukam and opposite fourth-year pro Dante Fowler, both of whom recall watching Matthews on television in their early teens.
“I was like, ‘Who’s this dude with the long hair?’ ” Ebukam said. “He’s out there flying all over, the way football is to be played.”
When Matthews signed with the Rams he was essentially penciled in to take Ebukam’s starting job. Ebukam, coming off offseason knee surgery, says he wasn’t bitter.
“I was like, ‘This is an experience I’m going to have to just cherish, just having somebody who’s on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer right in front of me,’” Ebukam said. “Being able to pick his brain is something I’m going to take advantage of.”
Fowler lights up when he talks about watching Matthews’ performance on the field and in television commercials for an insurance company.
Now, Fowler says, Matthews has taken him under his wing.
“To have a guy like that who’s going to wrap his arms around me and sees good things in me, that just gives me motivation to better myself and not let him down,” Fowler said.
Matthews has played in 143 regular-season games and 15 playoff games. In Super Bowl XLV, he forced a fumble that helped the Packers defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers. That came in his second NFL season, so he remembers what it was like to be a young player like Ebukam and Fowler.
“I was there to work,” he said. “Guys would make fun of me for never going out and being a shut-in, a recluse and stuff.
“But I’m all about ball. I’m still like that. As long as I’m doing this, I want to be the best at it.”
Matthews is married and the father of three young children. He and his wife are building a home in Calabasas, just down the freeway from where he was raised in Agoura Hills.
In Week 3, the Rams play the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland on “Sunday Night Football.” The Browns will use the occasion to induct Clay Matthews Jr. into their Ring of Honor.
Matthews is thrilled for his father, and is looking forward to sharing the evening with his family. But he is incredulous when people ask if he’ll come out of the locker room for the halftime ceremony.
“I’m trying to win a ballgame,” he said.