Clay Matthews still waiting on thumb's up

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Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, July 27, 2014

GREEN BAY—The first time Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews broke his right thumb, people wondered why he couldn’t wrap it up and play right away.

The second time he broke it, people were wondering why it was taking so long for him to be cleared to practice.

After two surgeries and nearly seven months of recovery Matthews still isn’t 100 percent, but his injury is healed enough that he was able to practice Saturday, the first day of training camp. All he wore was a protective splint that allowed him to grab with all his fingers and thumb while restricting movement that might dislocate the thumb again.

It took him all offseason to return because the second surgery was far more complex than the first and involved taking part of a tendon in his wrist, passing it through a hole drilled in the thumb and wrapping it in a loop so that it ties down the joint and protects it from dislocating.

“It’s called Eaton-Littler,” Matthews said after practice Saturday. “They take some of your tendon, turn it around, drill through your bone, tie it up real tight. The simplest of explanations I say is it’s almost like Tommy John (surgery), but for a joint that needs to move.

“It’s a very invasive surgery. Not a lot of people know that.”

The type of injury Matthews suffered last season—twice—is known as a Bennett’s fracture and it occurs when blunt force travels down the thumb and causes a small part of the first metacarpal to break away from the hand. If not fused back together perfectly, the joint can become arthritic and make everyday things like buttoning a shirt very difficult, hand specialists say.

The first time Matthews broke it, it was while sacking Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford at Lambeau Field on Oct. 6. He sat out four weeks after surgery and then attempted to play with a padded club over his entire hand.

It wasn’t pretty.

“That Philadelphia game wasn’t very fun,” Matthews said of the Nov. 10 game. “I don’t think we had a choice. It was me and Mike Neal were the only linebackers. It was kind of like, ‘Yeah, we need you.’”

None of the specialists contacted for a story in the Journal Sentinel last October said they would recommend playing with a club four weeks after a Bennett’s fracture, but all of them said six weeks were about average for proper healing to take place.

Matthews made it all the way to the 10th week before he suffered the same injury, this time while sacking Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He appeared to hit the thumb on a helmet, causing terrific force to run down his thumb again. He didn’t play another down the rest of the season.

The first time he had surgery wire was drilled into the bone to keep the two pieces firmly together and create a smooth bond. This time, an incision had to be made in his wrist so a tendon running down the arm to the underside of the hand could be sliced lengthwise, passed through a hole drilled in the thumb, pulled tightly around the base and sewn to the bone.

“Anytime you have that type of surgery, you have to treat it like a soft-tissue injury like an ACL because there’s ligaments and tendons and all that in there, not just bones,” Matthews said. “My timeline kind of goes along with those type of injuries.”

In other words, Matthews needed the entire offseason to heal and get his right hand strong enough to play NFL football. He said he is not 100 percent yet, but he’s working on improving his grip so he can toss aside blockers, grab running backs and most importantly haul down quarterbacks.

Last year, Matthews missed five regular-season games but still had 7 sacks. He played 553 snaps, which means he had a sack once every 73.7 plays. In 2012 he missed four games and had 13 sacks in 867 snaps, or one every 66.7 snaps.

That’s not a huge drop-off given he was playing one-handed much of the time, so the expectation that Matthews can inject life into the Packers defense is very much alive. He just needs to stay healthy.

If he does, it appears defensive coordinator Dom Capers has all kinds of plans for him. In just one day of practice he lined up Matthews in numerous places, usually opposite newcomer Julius Peppers. Capers wants Matthews in places where the offense can’t lock in on him with their blocking assignments.

“He’s an impact player,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think any time you go through offense, defense, special teams, when you have an impact player you want to create targeting problems. It’s a lot easier from an offensive perspective if you know exactly where the guys are lining up every time. So that’s why we do it.”

Matthews said having a pass-rushing threat like Peppers will help take some heat off him, but he said he has never worried about who was playing around him, only how he was performing. After missing 10 games in two years, including the San Francisco playoff game in January, the best thing Matthews can do is show up every week.

He is excited about Capers’ plans for him.

“They definitely had me moving around from lining up in the middle of the field as a stack backer to the left, to the right, lining up in the slot, and just putting more of our playmakers on the field,” Matthews said. “I think I bring a multitude of weapons to the game and I think I could do that through lining up all over the field.

“We’ll see how that does moving forward, but I felt good about it today and hopefully it will only get better moving forward.”

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