In just a matter of weeks since the end of the 2012 season, the Green Bay Packers began to overhaul their roster. Gone are Charles Woodson, Donald Driver and Jeff Saturday.
These were moves that parted ways once-elite players past their prime. Transactions such as these also ensured the Packers will be one of the NFL’s youngest teams in 2013, one that’s potentially quicker, faster and stronger than the 2012 edition that was eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
To gain youth, however, came with a cost. The Packers already lost a trio of players that were among the most-respected and highly-regarded athletes in professional football, and Greg Jennings may be the next to leave town.
General manager Ted Thompson, the architect of the roster, acknowledged at the NFL Combine there’s a void on the team that’s more reality than perception: ”That is a lot of veteran leadership that won’t be with us, so you’re always a little bit concerned about that.”
Thompson would also add that he’s confident in the leadership in the Packers locker room, and he probably has every right to hold such a conviction with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. Rodgers has taken on that responsibility ever since becoming a starter back in 2008. Of course, that’s only logical at the omni-important quarterback position.
But that’s on the offensive side of the football. There’s still apprehension about who’s going to fill the leadership vacuum on the defense.
Minus Woodson, there’s something missing from the Packers D: a confidence, an attitude, a professionalism. This is the guy whose “one mind, one goal, one purpose, one heart” speech is indelibly etched on the inside of the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl rings.
The logical replacement for Woodson as a leader is linebacker Clay Matthews, a four-time Pro Bowler in his first four seasons in the NFL. At 26 years old, he’s poised to become one of the highest-paid defenders in the entire league when he receives his inevitable contract extension in the very near future.
But for as good of football player Matthews is, there’s still uncertainty about his ability to lead.
Despite being a first round draft choice, the role of leader was one foreign to Matthews during his college days at USC where he exited as a senior back in 2008.
“I would not say Clay was one of the outspoken leaders of that team, even as a senior, because he was always kind of in that underdog role,” said Michael Lev of the Orange County Register in an interview with Cheesehead TV. “Even as a senior, he wasn’t a full-time starter right off the bat. That team, if you remember, had Rey Maualuga on it, had Brian Cushing on it. Those were kind of the big, elder statesmen of the defense, and Clay was just kind of finding his way.”
Lev was a USC beat reporter from 2008 to 2012 that saw and covered Matthews up close. He observed a player that blossomed during his final year in college to help the Trojans become Pac-10 and Rose Bowl champions, but not one that was viewed as field general.
“I don’t think he was perceived then the way he is now,” said Lev, “which isn’t to say he can’t become that sort of guy.”
On the surface, Matthews would appear to have the characteristics necessary to guide and steer others.
He has the high profile elevated by national advertising campaigns like Suave, Gillette and Fathead, a quality that means little in the physical part of the game but one that might not hurt in the mind of his teammates, particularly those just coming into the league that will look up to him.
The level of effort is also present with a motor that runs nonstop, the type that never gives up, never quits. And he has the production to match.
There’s little doubt Matthews is a leader by example, but the question remains, can he be a vocal leader?
“I definitely think so,” said Lev. “Just look at his family. You can’t have better stock than his dad and his uncle, and what they did in the NFL. They played for a combined almost 40 years, one Hall of Famer and another one who probably should be a Hall of Famer. ”
“Clay’s been around the game for a long time. He’s just kind of a late bloomer, but now that he’s getting into his mid to late 20s, I think he could definitely could slide into that role.”
It’s perhaps notable that when asked last weekend about players who need to step into leadership roles, Mike McCarthy failed to mention Matthews among seven players he rattled off in addition to Rodgers.
“Whether it’s a young guy like Morgan Burnett to continue to grow,” said McCarthy, “B.J. Raji is definitely a guy, T.J. Lang, Josh Sitton, Bryan Bulaga when he’s healthy, we have a bunch of guys.
“Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb really took a big step in a leadership role as a young player last year, so he’s definitely an example I’d use as a young man in his second year. You don’t have to wait until your fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth year, to be classified as a leader. Leadership is from the top to bottom, and we need to do a better job of that as a football team.”
It’s possible McCarthy just made an honest mistake in omitting Matthews’ name. Maybe it’s just assumed he’s among the leaders of the Packers. After all, Matthews was named a postseason captain for the first time of his career in 2012, an honor bestowed by his teammates.
What can’t be assumed is improvement from the Packers defense in 2013. They need to make significant progress if Green Bay is to return to Super Bowl level.
A dynamic mentor would help in that regard. Whether Matthews is that person has yet to be revealed.