Even a week later, Packer Nation continues to simmer over the loss in the NFC Championship game. That’s what happens when you suffer arguably the most painful loss in an over 90 year franchise history. What also happens is that guys who were nearly untouchable before the disaster are now open to criticism and doubt in a way they perhaps have never been before.
It also hurts that the tragic death of Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s brother, Joe McCarthy, has postponed any attempt for closure that many still desire. There are questions that people want answers to, but while the organization goes through the proper mourning period, those questions remain unanswered. The anger and frustration, the need for accountability or to place blame — let’s call it for what it is — remains and so, unfortunately, a likely ambivalent Mike McCarthy will find it all waiting for him when he returns to his post, whenever that is.
I would not blame him at all for wanting to say — “Screw you people.”
But as difficult as it may be, McCarthy can not insulate himself and dismiss the need for answers and remain head coach of the Green Bay Packers. The realization that life and death and family are far more important than winning a football game probably allayed the anger of Packer Nation for around 20 seconds. After that, McCarthy’s misfortune, as tragic as it is for him and his family, makes no difference to the wave of emotion waiting to crash on his head and everyone at 1265 Lombardi Avenue.
Naturally, after McCarthy himself, the highest need for accountability comes from Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, the highest paid players on both offense and defense, and the leaders of both units in the eyes of the fans.
Even though Rodgers himself did not play a good game, he remains somewhat untouchable for three reasons: 1) he played sub-standard ball, but it wasn’t Favre-against-the-Rams bad, 2) he was injured, and 3) he’s Aaron Effin Rodgers. He’s the best player on the team and the Packers have no shot at getting past an NFC Championship game in the near future without him. Therefore, what’s the point of blaming him?
On the other hand, about the only thing protecting Clay Matthews besides the financial commitment the Packers have made to him is the fact that he’s the best player on the defense. Take away that notion or worse yet, consider him an actual liability and Matthews becomes a prime target, especially vulnerable thanks to his SoCal image, injury history and hefty price tag.
To paraphrase a fool — “Clay has $66 million reasons to face criticism.”
The elephant in the room is the fact that Clay was not on the field for the most important part of the NFC Championship game — the final four minutes. In fact, Clay was not on the field from Morgan Burnett’s fateful interception onward, until OT. On that play, the Packers were in their nickel defense with Nick Perry and, unfortunately, Julius Peppers at the ends, and A.J. Hawk and Sam Barrington were the inside linebackers. Comically, Marshawn Lynch released into the left flat and Hawk got screened by the slot receiver, leaving Lynch wide open. If Wilson would have just dumped to him, he gains at least 15 yards.
Anyway, from that point forward in regulation, Clay Matthews could be seen on the sideline, wearing a stocking cap.
During the series before, Matthews chased down a scrambling Russell Wilson, tackling him after a 5-yard gain. It is possible that Matthews aggravated something, perhaps the mysterious “leg issue” on that play. However, not only did Matthews reenter the game in OT, but he appeared no worse for wear and fully mobile at that time. Plus, when asked about Clay’s status after the game, Mike McCarthy said he was unaware of any injury. Wouldn’t McCarthy know about it if Clay had been injured? And if so, why wouldn’t he just say so?
Lastly, Clay Matthews left Green Bay immediately to attend the Pro Bowl, in which he plans on playing. This all suggests that an injury had little to do with Matthews’ absence. Even if Matthews had just been “dinged up” a little bit, would he be playing in the Pro Bowl?
Besides the injury excuse, all that any of us have heard from Matthews is that he was essentially, “tired.” Okay. One can see how rushing the passer as an end and playing inside linebacker can tire a guy out, especially considering how the Packers defense spent the majority of the second half on the football field. However, how much rest does a guy need?
When the Seahawks took the field with 3:52 left in the game, the Packers responded with their dime package. It is conceivable that with the way Nick Perry was rushing the passer from the edge and how Barrington had played in coverage up until this point, that the Packers were fine with Clay resting during this drive. With the dime defense on the field, only one inside linebacker was needed. Plus, the Packers defense — coaching staff and players alike — appeared to feel that the game was over at this point anyway. After all, it didn’t even matter if the Seahawks scored on that drive, just as long as it took them past the two-minute warning to do it. As long as that occurred, then the Packers special teams would win the game by simply recovering the onside kick.
All that being said, after four plays, the Seahawks had 1st and 10 at the Packers’ 9. A lengthy review of Lynch’s catch to get down there, provided an extra couple minutes of rest for Clay. The timeout also gave the Packers plenty of time to change their defense and put their best unit out there. Wasn’t the defensive theme all year, “It’s not the package, but the players?” The idea being that the Packers would get their best defensive players on the field as much as they could.
Well, with the Seahawks at the Packers’ 9 and the Packers four downs from the Super Bowl, wouldn’t either having Matthews on the edge or in the middle with Barrington have made the most sense? Wouldn’t that have given the defense their best chance at getting a stop and winning the game?
Wasn’t the time from the seven-minute mark where the Packers had the ball at their own 13 to Seattle’s 1st and goal after the Lynch review enough rest for a pro athlete to fully recuperate? I have not checked the game film to see exactly how much real time that covers, but I would estimate it was somewhere between 20 to 30 minutes of real-time rest. Clay Matthews, apparently not restricted by injury, was not rested enough after at least a 20-minute break on the sideline??
Remember that on the all important 3rd and goal from the 1, it was Mike Neal that the Seahawks ran the read option against. If you are the Packers, wouldn’t you prefer that had been the man you are paying $13 million a year? We will never know if Matthews, unlike Neal, could have responded to the fake quick enough to tackle Wilson in the backfield. If he had, the Seahawks would have faced 4th and ballgame from the 4- or 5-yard line. Yeah, we would have loved to see that scenario. Unfortunately, it remains only a fantasy in my head.
So Seattle scored. Big deal. They still needed another touchdown to take the lead.
But then the onside kick happened and the Seahawks took the field with an opportunity to do just that. Even if you took the last drive lightly, it was IMPOSSIBLE to do the same here. After all, the Seahawks take the lead if they score. The Packers put their nickel on the field. Amazingly, that defense included Nick Perry at end and A.J. Hawk with Barrington in the middle. The Packers know the drop-off between Hawk and Matthews and yet, it was apparently acceptable to all involved that Matthews remain on the sideline.
Injured? Matthews would take the field on the following possession and look fine. Tired? After not being on the field for around 30 minutes? I don’t think so.
Let’s just get this out of the way. If the real excuse IS that he was tired, then that is the same as quitting. There is no way that a pro athlete is still too exhausted to play after nearly 30 minutes of rest. Wasn’t Sam Barrington tired? That poor guy NEVER got a rest! And we’ll leave the contrast with the Seahawks for another story. Earl Thomas had a dislocated shoulder and was playing. Richard Sherman had a sprained elbow and never missed a down.
And let’s just put this possibility out there too. Is it possible Matthews was benched at some point? Seems unlikely, but how can we eliminate it? Maybe Matthews was unhappy with being asked to cover in the dime instead of rushing the passer on 3rd and 19, a down that happened because Matthews got a sack rushing off the edge. Maybe that’s why he immediately hit a receiver in the head and collected a penalty. Maybe he was unhappy with the offense giving the ball right back to the Seahawks twice in the last seven minutes. Maybe he let someone know about it. Maybe he didn’t agree with Morgan Burnett and Julius Peppers, the two guys elected defensive captains instead of him and their decision to concede on the interception return with five minutes left. Maybe he had something to say about it. Maybe he thought that if everyone else on the defense had quit, then no sense in him being out there.
That’s a lot of conjecture, but conjecture is what we have when there is nothing to replace it with. And we have nothing else because the only answers we’ve been given don’t make any sense. One thing I do know for sure is that if Clay had been benched for any portion of the game, NO ONE would tell us, which would explain the lack of straight answers for his absence.
WHATEVER happened during the fateful final minutes of that game, it has seriously dented Matthews’ reputation with Packer Nation, and no answers will only continue to make it worse.
The fact that Matthews missed the entire playoff game against San Francisco last season with an injury plays a big role and the fact that Matthews was not selected as a defensive captain also adds fuel to the fire. Is this the reason? Is Matthews a ME guy and his teammates know that?
I am not an anti-CM3 guy and I am a long way from ever giving up on the guy. The Packers would be looking at $12.3 million in dead money next season if he is not on the roster. That is FAR too much money to willingly part with. Secondly, if we can get the guy to be willing to play middle linebacker, then Clay would be immensely valuable to this team. The turnaround after the bye and this game proved that. What happened to the defense after Matthews left the field in this game proved that.
Matthews is still capable of being one of the best OLBs in the game if he would just make some small, mostly mental, improvements on run defense. Julius Peppers is unlikely to be around longer than one more season. Either way, the Packers can use Clay Matthews, but need this guy to have his head on straight. Does he want to win another Super Bowl or doesn’t he? That is pretty much the crux of the issue.
As a franchise quarterback, Aaron Rodgers is judged not on the regular season, but on the postseason, the big games. Maybe Rodgers hasn’t been as good as 2010 in the big games. Maybe that will be part of his legacy and we’ll have to live with that.
Well, Clay Matthews has barely shown up in the big games and only the one who necessarily has to live with that is Matthews. He said it himself — “You don’t have to wear a C on your chest to be a leader of this team.”
But you do have to be on the football field.