THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Clay Matthews jogged off the practice field with a bounce in his step and a grin on his face, prefacing our interview outside the weight room at the Los Angeles Rams' temporary training facility last Tuesday with an emphatic declaration of satisfaction.
"I'm so happy to be here," Matthews said, gesturing toward the hills surrounding the Cal Lutheran University campus. "It just feels like this is where I'm supposed to be."
It's not hard to figure out why Matthews, after 10 standout seasons with the Green Bay Packers, is thrilled to be back in L.A. The veteran linebacker will play his home games at the L.A. Coliseum, where he thrived during his college career at USC, and practice in the shadow of Agoura Hills, his hometown. Eventually he, his wife, Casey, and their three children will move into a dream home that's being constructed less than 15 miles from the Rams' facility.
Oh, and the Rams are the defending NFC champions whose decision makers believe that the acquisitions of Matthews and veteran safety Eric Weddle can help put them over the top.
It's a heartwarming homecoming tale, except that Matthews, 33, never saw it coming. As he approached unrestricted free agency last March, the versatile veteran believed he'd end up back in Green Bay, even if it meant giving the Packers a bit of a Titletown discount.
Before he could weigh his options, however, he was told the team was no longer interested in his services.
"I was kind of taken aback, because I thought I'd always be back there, whether it was at a cheaper price [or not]," Matthews said. "So that was kind of a shock, because [my family] stayed out there and had our third child in the offseason, and I was hanging in town training there and everything. And yeah, that was kind of a surprise to me because I just figured I would be out there a few more years.
"People say, 'You chose to go to L.A.' I didn't choose. They told me there was no room for me."
There was no trace of bitterness in Matthews' tone, and he stressed that he does not harbor ill feelings toward the organization that drafted him 26th overall in the 2009 draft -- and for whom he earned six Pro Bowl selections.
He did, however, concede that his time with the Packers ended abruptly, and that he never saw it coming.
"We'd had some negotiations throughout the latter part of the 2018] season, talks between my agent (Ryan Williams of Athletes First) and the GM (Brian Gutekunst)," Matthews said. "It had been awhile since a -- some people say 'older'; I say an accomplished, veteran pass rusher -- hit the market, probably not since DeMarcus Ware left Dallas (for Denver in 2014). So we said, 'Alright, we're gonna hit the market and kind of see what the value is.' And then the [Packers were on board, going, 'Alright ... then we'll figure something out.'
"So I always felt like I would probably end up back there; we just needed to figure out what the going rate was. But that wasn't the case."
Matthews' world was rocked the morning before the official start of free agency -- during the 48-hour "legal tampering" period, during which teams and players are allowed to negotiate but not to sign formal agreements. Early on Tuesday, March 12, Matthews was driving from his home to the Packers' facility at Lambeau Field to work out when he got a fateful call from Gutekunst.
Recalled Matthews: "I picked it up and he just said, 'Hey, there's no money for you. I just want to thank you. I just want to thank you for being yada yada yada.' And, you know, that was kind of that."
Gutekunst declined an interview request from NFL.com.
The Packers, in reaching lucrative, multi-year agreements with free-agent edge rushers Za'Darius Smith (formerly with Baltimore) and Preston Smith (formerly with Washington), had decided to move on. Za'Darius Smith received $66 million over years, with Preston Smith commanding $52 million over the same span.
Matthews, somewhat stunned after receiving Gutekunst's phone call, nonetheless conducted his planned workout at Lambeau before plotting his next move. "[The key card] still worked," he said, laughing.
Complicating the assessment of Matthews' value in recent years was his willingness to play inside linebacker, sometimes for long stretches, during the latter part of his Packers tenure. That team-centric approach helped explain why the 6-3, 255-pound Matthews, after attaining double-digit sack totals in four of his first six seasons, had just 22.5 sacks from 2015 to '18.
"I'd say about two-and-a-half seasons I went inside and messed around," Matthews said. "I went inside in 2014, and we were blowing everyone out so I'd get to go back out on the edge second-and-long and third downs. They moved me back the next year, but (inside linebacker) Sam Barrington broke his ankle in the first game, and I ended up starting pretty much the rest of the year at inside 'backer at a moment's notice. The next year, I was doing my thing (at outside linebacker), and we were playing at Philadelphia (in late November) and they moved me back inside. I actually got lit up on a blindside block and completely separated my shoulder and missed some games ... and it wasn't until the playoffs till I got some strength back in it."
Back then, the postseason was a given for Matthews, who made the playoffs in each of his first eight seasons. He celebrated a Super Bowl victory following the 2010 campaign, during which he earned first-team All-Pro honors, and endured a painful near-miss four years later.
Though Matthews had just 7.5 sacks in 2017, he registered a team-high 21 quarterback hits. Last year, after Mike Pettine replaced longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers, Matthews managed only 3.5 sacks, a career low. However, he did lose sacks to roughing-the-passer calls in each of the Pack's first three games -- the latter two calls were highly controversial in the wake of a newly implemented rules interpretation -- and said he had far fewer opportunities to make plays in Pettine's scheme.
"I was asked to do stuff that didn't allow me to have the freedom that I had the first nine years with Dom Capers," Matthews said. "I was doing a lot of dropping, and I have no problem with that; our defense actually improved. A lot of second and third downs, when guys usually tee off, we were running a lot of games to protect us from the draws and the screens. And we had some injury concerns in the back, and we had to play a little carefully up front. I did everything they had asked and I thought I had a solid year."
The Packers, obviously, thought they could upgrade -- though that wasn't obvious to Matthews until he got the call from Gutekunst in March.
"You just sometimes wish they would be a little more honest and up front as far as how they see it," he said. "But, I mean, why should I get preferential treatment? Nobody is going to say, 'Hey, this is how we actually feel about you.' "
Once free agency began, Matthews had his sights set on L.A., even though the Rams weren't offering nearly as much money as he'd hoped to earn on the open market. Though the Ravens offered more, Matthews ultimately favored the Rams' two-year, $9.25 million deal, which includes $5.5 million in guarantees and, with incentives, could be worth as much as $16.75 million. His previous deal with the Packers, which expired after 2018, averaged $13 million a year over five seasons.
"Really, if I had a list of 100 things as far as why I would sign out here, everything was a check -- except for my ego from taking a pay cut, you know?" Matthews said. "Whereas like any other team we talked to, perhaps it wasn't best for the kids or it was hard for my family to travel or there was some other issue."
Before he officially accepted the Rams' offer, Matthews allowed his ego to take one more hit: His agent went back to Gutekunst to see if the Packers would be interested in bringing him back at a reduced rate -- basically, at a number similar to what the Rams were offering. Once again, Green Bay had no interest.
"My agent went back and said, 'Hey, we're getting ready to make a move. Is there anything ... ?' " Matthews recalled. "I don't think they were interested at that time. I think they were ready to move on."
That point was underscored in late April when the Packers announced that their first-round draft pick, former Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary, would wear No. 52, which Matthews had donned for the previous decade.
He quickly warmed to his new team, and the feeling is mutual. The Rams now have a savvy veteran to supplement the young edge-rushing duo of Samson Ebukam and Dante Fowler Jr., and Matthews will likely have ample opportunities to make plays in veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' pass-rush-friendly system.
"Clay has been phenomenal," said Joe Barry, the Rams' assistant head coach/linebackers coach. "I'm surprised he was available, and we're so happy to have him. He can obviously still play, and he'll make plays for us. But the thing that has really impressed me is the above-the-neck aspect. It's amazing how much knowledge and understanding of the game he brings to us, and for Ekubam and Fowler to be around a guy like that, to watch how he conducts himself, is invaluable."
Matthews, who played a little less than three-quarters of the Packers' defensive snaps last season, per Next Gen Stats, should see that number go down in 2019, meaning he'll theoretically be fresher when the game is on the line. Then again, it's not as if he's asking for additional rest.
"I just want to play," Matthews said. "One of the things I've said from early on is that [Phillips] allows his playmakers to play to their abilities. And for me, it's that wild-card factor -- taking shots, taking calculated risks -- whereas I felt I was a little handcuffed last year.
"I've always taken pride in the fact that I can do it all, whether it's covering backs out of the backfield, running vertically with the slot or playing inside 'backer. I mean, I'll be out in the field -- rushing the passer, playing the run, playing in coverage. And playing alongside great players is only going to help out."
The Rams, coming off a painful Super Bowl LIII loss to the New England Patriots that saw Phillips' defense shine in defeat, believe Matthews and Weddle can provide the same type of boost that veterans like left tackle Andrew Whitworth and cornerback Aqib Talib have given the team during coach Sean McVay's tenure.
And while Matthews' time in Titletown may have ended a bit suddenly for his tastes, the prospect of helping to win a title for his hometown is extremely enticing.
"Everybody says, 'Oh, I want to go play for a team that has a chance,' " Matthews said. "But we're one of the few that really does. I mean, they were 11 points from winning it all last year, and there are so many great players. Some teams have a Super Bowl hangover, but I think of it as a team that's about to ascend.
"Sean makes it fun. He's able to bring in these big personalities, reel them in and allow us to just go out there and do what we do best. I feel energized and ready to prove myself and I have no doubt that this is going to be a big year for me, as well as the team. I just feel like this is where I'm supposed to be."