The National Football League Hall of Fame; A fraternity reserved for the most idolized, respected, and legendary athletes to play in the National Football League. Names include Johnny Unitas, Jim Otto, Lou Groza, Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Dick Butkus, and Reggie White.
The best of the best, all of the inducted players showed exemplary intelligence, skill, and discipline both on and off the field (mostly…<cough>… Michael Irvin…<sniff>).
The 2008 Hall of Fame inductees are DE Fred Dean, CB Darrell Green, WR Art Monk, CB Emmitt Thomas, LB Andre Tippett, and T Gary Zimmerman. As expected, the election committee once again filled the Hall with some of the greatest names to pass through the league.
However, I feel, and not to take away from the illustrious careers of the aforementioned, that one stand out player is being continuously over looked. He is LB Clay Matthews.
Matthews played 19 seasons with the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons organizations, 16 of which with the prior. Being amongst the leaders of the seasons played category of Cleveland’s history books, he was second to Lou “The Toe” Groza’s 17 seasons with the franchise. Astoundingly, he played two hundred seventy eight games in the NFL ranking him twelfth all-time.
The All-American USC prospect was the first linebacker drafted in 1978 as the No. 12 overall pick. A versatile young OLB, though listed as a ROLB, could play both sides of the field, and he immediately found himself within the defensive rotation. Clay proved that he was prepared for the pro game and was willing to contribute.
In his first four seasons (1978 – 1981) he played in 61 games, starting in over three quarters of them, and in the process put up impressive stats. Over that span, he had 348 tackles, five fumble recoveries, and five interceptions. He also solidified himself as a leader and cornerstone of Cleveland’s defense for seasons to come.
In week one of the 1982 season, Clay went down with a fractured ankle in a 21-7 win in Seattle against the Seahawks, with mere seconds left in the game. He would not play the rest of the season and would be replaced by future Browns' assistant coach and eventual nemesis, Bill Cowher. I believe, with his break-out season coming in 1981, missing this season to injury has negatively affected his HOF status, statistically speaking.
As the seasons progressed, Matthews established himself as a premier linebacker in the NFL. Opposing teams respected his ability to rally teammates, consistent tackling, and his stellar pass rushing. His play would earn him four Pro Bowl appearances in 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1989.
Although statistically these were great seasons, they certainly were not his best. Cleveland’s play overall had improved under coach Marty Schottenheimer and they had made the playoffs in all of those years, thus receiving more attention.
In 1984, arguably his best season, Matthews’s recorded 126 tackles, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles, and would start all 16 games. Browns fans will tell you that for the most part, as is with most his career, he was playing under the radar on a mediocre at best defense. The defense's highlight of the season came when the Browns managed 11 sacks on Atlanta quarterback Steve Bartkowski.
One of Clay’s performances that I’m old enough to remember came on January 8, 1990, in the divisional playoff game against the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo was supposed to be the better team, and quarterback Jim Kelly wanted to prove why, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns. The Browns had the lead in the middle of the fourth quarter, 34 to 24.
Kelly’s last touchdown pass came on a short three yard pass to Thurman Thomas, but Buffalo would miss the ensuing extra point, forcing the Bills to get in the end zone on their last drive attempt.
We Browns fans held our breath as Kelly nearly had a fifth touchdown pass, but it was dropped by the receiver. With three seconds left in the game, Kelly fired another shot towards pay dirt, but Matthews made an excellent read and break to the ball, intercepting it and sending the Browns to the AFC Championship Game.
At the end of his career, Clay had recorded 1,561 tackles, 16 interceptions, 27 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns as regular season stats. He currently holds Browns' records for most consecutive seasons, most games, and is in the top ten with 76 and a half regular and post season sacks.
In closing, we all know that Clay will eventually join his brother Bruce, a 2007 inductee at OL, at the Hall. Eventually the committee will realize that he was too great of a player who spent his career playing for lower echelon teams.
I would just hate to see him inducted 30 years after he retired, or worse yet, when he's incapable of enjoying the award. I would enjoy some discussion on this article on whether or not you agree or disagree with me, or maybe bring up some other players who deserve to be in the HOF that haven’t yet been inducted.