Casey Matthews needed a fresh start. Things weren’t working for him under Andy Reid, which is really the same as saying he wasn’t working under Andy Reid. Either way, the linebacker needed a new beginning – which is what he and the rest of the Eagles got, except that the new beginning featured an old face for Matthews.
Matthews played for Chip Kelly at Oregon. When Kelly was hired to replace Reid, Matthews was intrigued. Then the phone rang.
“[Kelly] called me in mid-January and said how he was excited to change things around here,” Matthews said after the team’s final minicamp at the NovaCare Complex on Thursday. “Just basic stuff like that. Just looking forward to moving on.”
Matthews was probably thinking the same thing – that moving on sounded mighty good. There were high expectations for him coming out of Oregon. That’s what happens when you have a brother who left college before you, plays the same position, and developed into one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
It wasn’t quite so easy for Matthews. After being selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, Matthews went from an interesting pick to a starter to a backup to, last season, an afterthought. Now, like everyone else who’s lower in the pecking order than he’d like to be, Matthews is clinging to Kelly’s oft-cited statement that all jobs are open and no depth chart exists. (Yet.)
At some point in the not-too-distant future, Kelly will be forced to pick favorites and jettison everyone else. After practice on Thursday, the head coach acknowledged that it won’t be long before he thins the crowd.
“It’s a difficult time,” Kelly said. “They know that coming in. It’s just the sheer numbers. There’s 90 guys here and we start camp on July 25, and there’s going to be 53 [players] when the season starts on September 9. That’s just the reality of it. They know that going in, and they understand that.”
Matthews gets it. He knows things haven’t gone well for him in Philadelphia, and he’s aware that he’s fighting for a gig. Having his old college coach as his new pro coach won’t keep him off the unemployment line if he doesn’t perform well once training camp begins in late July.
“It’s nice having a familiar face, but you still have to compete,” Matthews said. “He’s not going to choose favorites just because I played for him in college.
“You still have to come out here and work hard, in the weight room, in the film room, and then show up on the field.”
Showing up on the field has been difficult for Matthews. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound linebacker started three games as a rookie, recording 37 tackles (28 solo) and one sack. But he quickly fell out of favor with Reid and his coaches and was dropped on the depth chart.
Last season, Matthews started just one game. He registered only six tackles all year (three solo).
A dip in playing time. A dip in quantifiable contributions. Those aren’t the trends you want to see if you’re hoping to keep the NFL paychecks coming.
“It was tough at first,” Matthews admitted. “When I look back, it was a good learning experience. You get thrown in there right away, then you get taken out ... stuff like that. It happens with every club. But they blew it up here.
“Obviously the Philadelphia media market is different than Eugene, Oregon. You get used to it. You learn how to deal with it. It’s more on a national level. Eugene, it’s a pretty small town. You get used to it. You learn what to say. Stuff like that.”
It probably didn’t help that, after getting off to a slow start his rookie season, Matthews made some remarks about how he didn’t think “anyone will ever understand these fans.” The next day, he tried to set “the record straight” on Twitter, only to make matters worse by stating “it’s tough to hear boos” at home.
Since then, Matthews has been largely invisible in the media or on the field, with the notable exception of his special teams play. He made 11 special teams tackles in his rookie year, and last season he was second on the team in that category with 14. If Matthews makes the team this year, it will have a lot to do with his ability on that front.
As Kelly noted, making the final roster has a lot to do with “sheer numbers.” During OTAs and minicamp, the sheer numbers had Matthews working with the third team almost exclusively. Including Matthews, the Eagles currently have nine linebackers on the roster.
“The depth chart doesn’t really matter right now,” Matthews insisted. “It’s [minicamp]. It’s hard to win a spot in [minicamp]. Once you get pads on, at this tempo, it’s going to be hard to keep up for a whole training camp. We’ll see how guys handle it. Really, the only thing that matters is once you get the pads on.”
He’s done that before – put the pads on. It didn’t go the way he expected. During that time - when he was demoted and then later marginalized – did he doubt himself? Did he wonder if he could play at the NFL level?
“No,” Matthews said. “Even when they took me out, you know what you can do. It’s obviously why they drafted you in the first place. I came into a different situation, just the lockout, not having an offseason, to learning the defense and stuff and being thrown in as a starter. It was a little hard at first. You get used to it. But I know what I can do. I know my abilities. Obviously you just want to go out and show the coaches that you can play.”