Jan 17, 2015 6:28 PM
Sitting Clay Matthews was a Pete Carroll error
The Associated Press
RENTON, Wash. (AP) During one of the most successful coaching careers in football, Pete Carroll rarely has committed errors. He did at Southern California with Clay Matthews, and Carroll still shakes his head about it.
A defensive mastermind throughout his years in pro and college football, Carroll always has had an eye for talented linebackers. Somehow, he didn't immediately see the skill in Matthews, a third-generation player who wasn't much more than a special teams guy early on with the Trojans.
On Sunday, Carroll's Seahawks (13-4) will face Matthews' Packers (13-4) in the NFC championship game. Carroll loves what he sees out of Matthews, a five-time Pro Bowler even though the coach didn't recognize that playmaking ability back at USC.
"That's a really interesting story," Carroll began. "Clay comes from a great family, an SC family: dad, uncle and all of that had been All-Americans and All-Pros. ... His older brother was a walk-on player before him.
"When Clay came in he was 208 pounds and he didn't run really well. He wasn't really strong, but he loved playing and he tried really hard."
Carroll paused, looking as if he wanted to smack himself upside the head before he continued with the SC saga.
"Unfortunately, this is one of the great mistakes that I missed in my coaching at SC was how good of a player he was," Carroll added. "I had said going in I think maybe his junior year, somebody asked me about Clay Matthews, and I said, 'I think he might be one of the best special teamers to ever play at USC.' He was a great player on (special) teams.
"I knew I couldn't really validate that, but I was blowing him up because he was a great kid."
Fast-forward to Matthews' final season with the Trojans. He was not a starter when top-ranked Southern Cal was losing at Oregon State. Searching for some answers, Carroll turned to Matthews.
The Trojans still lost, but Carroll realized he'd missed the mark earlier with Matthews.
"We put him in the game, and we said, 'We know Clay will do the right thing,'" Carroll said. "He started playing there, and he's been a great player since the time he was given the opportunity to show it. He was always there banging away, always there fighting, clawing and scratching.
"Maybe because of the way he came up, it took him a long time to develop, and (we) didn't recognize the great heart that he had, and unbelievable competitiveness and the great savvy that he demonstrates now. It's really one of my big misses. I should have figured that out a lot sooner than I did. He made the rest of it history and been an extraordinary player ever since."
Matthews consistently has performed in the NFL better than many of Carroll's other USC linebackers: Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers, et al. This season, Packers coordinator Dom Capers has moved Matthews from outside to inside and back, and Green Bay's defense stepped up in the second half of the schedule.
The Southern Cal days are far behind for Matthews, who went 26th overall to Green Bay in the 2009 draft and was runner-up to Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu for NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. He seemed to pay little attention to the fact Carroll will be on the other sideline Sunday, other than praising Carroll's achievements.
"Uh, you know he had a successful program at SC in my tenure there and years prior, and after me leaving," Matthews said. "So it's always interesting how coaches will deal with the next level, and he's obviously doing a fantastic job. He's got the right athletes in place to help his scheme out, and he's doing a great job. You've got to tip your hat to him."
Carroll admitted he observes the work of Matthews and every other Trojan in the NFL, even though he only occasionally reaches out to Matthews.
"Not too much," he said of communicating with his former player. "But because it's the SC family, everybody is always kind of keeping track of everybody else. We always have an eye on each other, I think."
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth and Genaro C. Armas contributed to this report.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL