Time heals all wounds. That and good coaching. Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s decision to hire Chip Kelly as his team’s head coach was a blessing for linebacker Casey Matthews, one of Kelly’s former Oregon players who had struggled in limited game day action during his first two NFL seasons.
Despite Matthews’s struggles in his early professional career, Kelly had trust in him, remembering how valuable he was in Oregon’s defensive scheme shift. Kelly and Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti collaborated to transition away from the Ducks’ old 4-3 scheme and towards a multiple 3-4 scheme. Though they recruited Matthews to be a 4-3 middle linebacker, they trusted he could adjust in the new 3-4 hybrid scheme. Oregon inside linebackers coach and future defensive coordinator Don Pellum oversaw Matthews’s development into a reputable pro prospect.
Matthews almost won the Ducks a national championship in 2010 against Auburn. He made a tremendous play late in the fourth quarter when he forced Heisman trophy winner Cam Newton to fumble the football. This turnover sparked an Oregon drive which ended in a touchdown to tie the game at 19, only for the Ducks to give up a game-winning field goal at the end of the game.
There were some warning signs that Matthews was not suited to be a day-one starter in the NFL. He ranked low compared to other linebacker prospects in nearly every athletic category, as this spider graph from mockdraftable.com shows.
Nevertheless, Matthews’s performance allowed him to become a fourth-round draft pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and he was the first-team middle linebacker on the first day of his rookie training camp for the Eagles. There were a variety of factors working against Matthews that year besides the usual steep learning curve for a rookie. First, the NFLPA lockout made it illegal for the Eagles coaching staff to contact Matthews and help him adjust to the pro level. Second, head coach Andy Reid made the strange decision to hire longtime offensive line coach Juan Castillo as his defensive coordinator. Third, Reid allowed new defensive line coach Jim Washburn to use the Wide 9 technique—which lines up defensive ends far to the outside of the box and makes it easier for offensive linemen to attack linebackers—a centerpiece of the Eagles’ 4-3 scheme.
The Eagles’ first defensive play from scrimmage in 2011 showed how overwhelmed Matthews was as a rookie.
After Week 2, Castillo decided that Matthews was too overwhelmed to remain the starting middle linebacker. He moved Matthews to weakside linebacker and hoped he would fare better at that position. Instead, things got worse. The lowpoint of his rookie season was when he blew a coverage assignment and left a running back wide open to catch a touchdown on a wheel route.
Matthews was benched after this game. He sparingly played some reps as a backup and special teams player in Reid’s final two seasons. It seemed plausible that the new coach would lose patience with him and he would be a training camp casualty.
However, the new coach turned out to be none other than Kelly, Matthews’s old college coach. Matthews’s scheme versatility helped Kelly transition Oregon’s old 4-3 scheme to a hybrid 3-4 in the past. By embracing a variety of roles on special teams units, as well as all four linebacker positions in the Eagles’ new 3-4 scheme, Matthews showed Kelly he still had value as a backup in 2013 and 2014.
In 2014, a short-term injury to Mychal Kendricks and a season-ending injury to DeMeco Ryans forced Matthews back into the starting lineup. This time, however, he put his past struggles behind him and proved he can be a competent replacement.
Matthews has particularly excelled on blitzes, which gives defensive coordinator Bill Davis some flexibility in his playcalling.
Matthews excels when he gets a one-on-one matchup which suits his athleticism. For instance, a one-on-one battle with a running back is a much more favorable matchup than taking on an offensive lineman.
Matthews might not be the most athletic linebacker, but he has good enough form to even win a battle against above-average offensive linemen like Dallas Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith.
No one will mistake Matthews for his brother, Clay, or even DeMeco Ryans, but he is an example of a player who turned his career around in the right environment. Kelly has given him every chance to show value as a versatile backup and Matthews responded by tuning out his critics. When one contrasts Kelly’s stable tenure with the dysfunction that characterized the Eagles coaching staff in 2011 and 2012, it is easy to see why it was premature to write the obituary on Matthews’s career.
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