Browns-Packers: Almost Deja Vu

For the first time in sixteen years, Clay Matthews will be playing linebacker in Cleveland...

For the first time in nearly 16 years, there will be a Clay Matthews playing linebacker in Cleveland.

But it won't be for the Browns, but against them. And although it will be on the same footprint, it won't be at Cleveland Stadium, but rather at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

And it won't be William Clay Matthews Jr., but William Clay Mathews III.

It will come on Sunday when the Green Bay Packers, for whom Matthews plays, visits the Browns.

His father, of course, was a draft pick of the Browns in 1978, one of two first-rounders taken, the other being Pro Football Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome. Matthews is a borderline HOF candidate himself after having gone to four Pro Bowls and being selected All-NFL twice in a 16-year in Cleveland.

His last game in Cleveland came in the 1993 home finale on Dec. 19 against the New England Patriots. He left the Browns in the ensuing offseason in the total free agency that had just come about in the NFL, signing with the Atlanta Falcons and playing with them for his final three seasons before retiring, ending a 19-year career. He still leads the Browns in most consecutive seasons played, and most games played with 232.

Matthews III, who played at USC, just like his dad, could have been a Brown, too. Head coach Eric Mangini flew him into Cleveland for a tour of team headquarters and a meeting before the draft in April. The Browns had the No. 5 overall pick and needed an infusion of young talent on their linebacker corps. It excited fans who remembered Matthews' father and how well he had played for the Browns, helping a struggling franchise get back on its feet and become successful. Maybe it could happen again.

Matthews thought about the possibility as well.

"I knew the Browns had a high draft pick and because of that, I didn't think I'd go there," he said on Wednesday during a conference call with the Cleveland media. "But as they fell and I knew they had a supposed need for linebackers, I thought that maybe it could happen."

Yes, the Browns fell – again and again and again. They traded down in the first round three different times, eventually stopping at No. 21, where they did indeed take a PAC-10 player, but not Matthews or fellow USC linebacker Ray Maualuga. Instead, they tabbed Cal center Alex Mack. Five spots later, at No. 26, the Packers took Matthews, and with the sixth choice of the second round, at No. 38, the Cincinnati Bengals got Maualuga.

Maualuga played well against the Browns in Cincinnati's 23-20 win in overtime three weeks ago in Cleveland. Though they obviously won't admit it, the Browns are hoping Matthews' play also doesn't remind them that they passed him up, too.

The timing seems right for Matthews to make a difference in the game. In last Sunday's 26-0 victory over the Detroit Lions, Matthews got his second straight start, and his first in the Packers' 3-4 base defense, at right outside linebacker, the same spot his father manned for the Browns. He had two sacks, five total tackles, four of which were solos, and a pass defensed.

"I fell into a few plays," Matthews said. "The coaches gave me the chance to make some plays, and I had to take advantage of them."

In his first start two weeks before in a 30-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football, he also excelled, stripping the ball from the best running back in the league, Adrian Peterson, on a running play and racing 42 yards for a touchdown. It is the longest fumble return for a score by a rookie in Green Bay history.

So he's starting off his NFL career just like his dad did 31 years ago.

"I was too young to appreciate what my dad was doing at the time he played for the Browns," said Matthews, who was born in 1986, halfway through Clay Jr.'s career in Cleveland. "But I do know that he was a staple of the organization and played for a long time."

He remembers how much his dad – and the rest of the members of the Matthews family – were part of the Browns and Cleveland.

"Growing up, we had Browns banners and flags," Matthews said. "I think back home in my old room in (Agoura Hills) California that I've still got a Browns helmet.

"We were surrounded by it. There were photos of Eric Metcalf, Bernie Kosar and Matt Bahr.

"We were certainly a football family, and a Cleveland one at that."

At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Matthews is a little taller and stockier than his dad was when he played for the Browns. He also talks faster than his father. But they look alike, and they both have an interest in a lot more things than just football.

Mangini said Wednesday that when Matthews visited, they talked about politics and other topics.

"It wasn't the things you usually discuss when you have a player in for a visit," the coach said.

Matthews said when he went to the Senior Bowl and other all-star games after last season, "I kept running into coaches and scouts who told me stories about my father or my uncle (HOF offensive lineman Bruce Matthews)."

And on Sunday, he'll be back in Cleveland, where his father played, where his father played against his uncle twice a year, every year, as member of teams in the AFC Central, and even where his grandfather and Clay Jr.'s father, Clay Sr., played twice in 1950 and '53 as an offensive lineman with the San Francisco 49ers.

"I understand that Cleveland and the Browns meant a lot to my dad and my family, but I'm approaching it like every other game," he said.

Don't believe it for a second. Sure, his father won't be there. The members of his family try to go to Clay's home games in Green Bay so they can also watch their younger son, Casey, a junior linebacker at Oregon, play. The Ducks are in Seattle on Saturday to meet the Washington Huskies.

When contacted on Wednesday, Clay Jr. said the family "looked into coming to Cleveland. We could have taken the red-eye and connected through Houston, but we just thought it would be too much to try to do."

But Matthews III will certainly be there, representing the family in Cleveland, where his father, in attendance or not, remains a household name. This is one that, for obvious reasons, Matthews III – and his dad and his family -- have waited months for, since the NFL schedule came out in the spring.

And it's one that, also for obvious reasons, Browns fans have waited even longer for – 16 years, since the last time a Clay Matthews played linebacker in Cleveland.

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