BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Casey Matthews is in the family business, but he is also trying to make a name for himself.
The Eagles' rookie was installed as the first-string middle linebacker on the first day of training camp -- catching everyone by surprise (including him) -- even though he did not have the benefit of any minicamps because of the NFL lockout. And Matthews, an Oregon product taken in the fourth round of Aprils draft, has only solidified his hold on that spot since then.
Hes come in here and taken charge, head coach Andy Reid said Sunday.
Hes athletic, hes tough, hes smart, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo said. He can handle all our schemes. Hes done a great job. Its unbelievable.
If Matthews is still the starter when the season begins on Sept. 11 in St. Louis, he would be the third player in as many years to open in the middle for the Eagles. Stewart Bradley was the regular last year, and Omar Gaither began the 09 season in that position, after Bradley suffered a preseason knee injury. (Gaither himself was injured early that season, opening a revolving door. The venerable Jeremiah Trotter wound up getting the most starts -- seven -- at that spot.)
Trotter began six other seasons as the regular in the middle under Reid, who became the coach in 1999.
That has given the Birds -- who traditionally dont value linebackers as much as they do other positions -- more stability at that spot than on the flanks. Levon Kirkland (2002) and Mark Simoneau (2003) have also been full-time starters there, albeit forgettable ones.
Now Matthews gets his shot, and know this -- his family tends to have staying power. His dad, Clay Jr., and his Uncle Bruce each played 19 seasons in the NFL, Clay Jr. as an outside linebacker (primarily with the Browns) and Bruce as a Hall of Fame offensive tackle for the Titans.
Caseys grandfather, Clay Sr., also played in the league. So too does his cousin, Kevin, who is a center for Tennessee. But the relative to whom Casey is most often compared is his brother, Clay III, a two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker last seen helping the Packers win a world championship (and terrorizing the Eagles while en route).
It is a comparison Casey finds pretty frustrating, since he and Clay play different positions. But it is one that remains foremost in peoples minds.
Hes a playmaker, Castillo said of Casey. The bloodlines, you know?
Matthews started the better part of three years at Oregon, making 79 tackles and earning All-Pac-10 first-team honors last season for a team that lost to Auburn in the BCS Championship Game. The Eagles were among those pro teams that wanted to take a closer look at him.
While doing so, Reid said, Youve got to put aside, a little bit, the pedigree and make sure you evaluate the player. His dad, his grandfather and uncle, everybodys done well. But that doesnt necessarily mean that that players going to do well.
The Eagles appear to believe that he will. Matthews, delayed in reporting to camp while his contract was being hammered out, missed his introductory positional meeting the night of July 27. But when he finally settled into his dorm room, he received a text message from linebackers coach Mike Caldwell, asking if he could stop by to go over some things with him.
It was at that point that Caldwell informed him he would be running with the first string.
I was shocked, Matthews said. I didnt even have the playbook til the next day. It was a little different, but I feel confident and comfortable.
The starting strong- and weak-side backers at present are Jamar Chaney and Moise Fokou. And Chaney, who wound up playing the middle as a rookie late last year because of an injury to Bradley, believes the presence of two semi-experienced guys has aided the rookies transition. So too does the fact that Castillo has simplified the defense since replacing Sean McDermott in the off-season.
We were running the same defense Jim Johnson ran, with like 60 blitzes, 80 blitzes, Chaney said. We dont have that many blitzes anymore.
In the meantime Matthews has picked up some pointers here and there from his dad and brother. Nothing big, he said. They just tell him to stay in his playbook, to try to stay ahead of the curve -- something thats not always easy to do.
They install, like, four new things a night, he said of the coaches. Once you get the hang of that, they throw more new stuff at you, so youve really got to keep up with it. Thats one thing -- youve got to take good notes and study that, go from there. Some people get lost.
Not him. Reid said Matthews has kept his mistakes to a minimum, and that he learns from those he does make. Castillo said the rookie has managed to keep his poise, even as the new defensive coordinator whips himself into a frenzy every day in practice.
Nothing fazes him, Castillo said.
Like so many of his teammates, Matthews looks forward to Thursday nights preseason opener against Baltimore in Lincoln Financial Field, believing it will be a good measuring point for him.
It will also be another milepost on his journey to who-knows-where. And like so many in his family, he is hoping to be around for the long haul.
For more from Gordie, check out his blog