A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Clay Matthews and the deep end of the talent pool

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Linebacker/defensive end Clay Matthews III, wa...

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Clay Matthews is a star

Clay Matthews is on top of the world. This last regular season in the NFL he emerged as a defensive juggernaut and came within two votes of winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. Come playoff time, he then led the Green Bay Packer defense to a Super Bowl ring. If the NFL had a defensive award for the entire season, Matthews would probably get the nod as the best defensive player in the league this season.

Clay Matthews has only played 2 years in the NFL. He’s about as much of an immediate star in the league as you’ll see. Consider for example, that we haven’t had an NFL DPOY with 2 or less years of experience since Lawrence Taylor almost 30 years ago. While Matthews certainly has great instincts as a football player, he doesn’t get where he is right now without freakish physical talent. A quarterback can get away without being able to move that well, a linebacker cannot. And so clearly, while spotting which players will emerge as DPOY is a bit tougher, Matthews clearly has the physical tools that should make him pretty easy for scouts to identify. And of course, the man did get drafted in the 1st round of the NFL draft, so nothing to out of the ordinary there.

Clay Matthews was never a “future star”

Clay Matthews hardly played football in high school. He get very little recruiting attention from colleges, so he walked on at USC. He didn’t start a game until his 5th season there, which of course he only got to play because he red shirted a season earlier. His rapid rise so late in the prospecting prospect has everything to do with him growing to his current stature at a later age than his peers.

Matthews has one additional quirk to his story of course: He is Clay Matthews the Third, named after his father and grandfather, who both played in the NFL. As did his uncle. I don’t want to take anything away from Matthews mental makeup as certainly there are plenty of sons who give up in areas where early on it appears they can live up to their fathers. Pressure can easily get the best of such a person, and clearly Matthews has no such obvious neuroses which is part of the reason he’s not only succeeded, but arguably has already surpassed the peak of any of his genetic line.

Undoubtedly however, the fact that Matthews knew of his family’s success, and that he had access to them for advice, played a role in him continuing to pursue his football dream even when he wasn’t getting a lot of encouragement from the general football population. Most people who play high school football and don’t set the world on fire don’t try to play it in college, let alone feel the confidence to try to play at the single strongest football program in the country.

Scouting for adult talent among kids is problematic to say the least

Now consider: If you aren’t particularly large, there’s a quite good chance you simply won’t even play in high school. While plenty of not-so-talented boys sign up for football at that level, plenty of others do not. If Matthews were born into a different family, maybe he doesn’t even get exposed to playing in football in his youth, and his eventual growth spurt in his 20s then matters not one bit.

Pause for a second: NFL players play in the NFL beginning in their early 20s, and great linebackers can continue dominating the NFL well into their 30s, but the talent development and scouting process works to identify future stars in their teens…and there are roughly 1.1 million of those football-playing teens to potentially look at. Ain’t no way that scouts can even begin to look at all of them, let alone being to extrapolate how those players will develop physically.

The deep end of the talent pool

All of this makes me think about the notion of the development of a talent pool. There’s a tendency to think that the most talented athletes in a given sport stand out so much that they’ll be recognized and recruited. Many think that this was the case even decades ago, although many also believe that the growth in popularity and wealth available in a sport makes this process much more likely to occur reliably. (Count me in the second group) There is some general recognition that the more mental a player’s talent is, the less the certainty that his talent will be properly developed – though again, many do not even recognize this.

With Matthews we have a clear example of someone who is about as obviously physically talented as you’re going to get for the entire duration of the age bracket that the NFL cares about, and yet despite being the wealthiest sports league the world has ever seen, the NFL would have almost certainly missed out on Matthews entirely, if not for the fact that he happens to come from a family that has already had 3 members play in the league. Clearly, there’s a lot left to be desired in the entire talent cultivation process.

One philosophical parting shot if you’ll bear with me:

We in America like to think ourselves a meritocracy. However, a true meritocracy only comes from a perfectly mined talent pool, and Matthews, working in a sphere where talent differential is glaring both in its salience and fiscal impact, would likely have remained a diamond in the rough if not for some good, old-fashioned nepotism. So what does that say about exactly how much of a meritocracy we’re likely to achieve among the less tangible talents of society?

2 Responses

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  1. You forgot to mention steroids.


    February 17, 2011 at 10:00 am

  2. Ooh, fighting words. Okay:

    -I obviously can’t vouch for Matthews being clean. Who knows?

    -The general point of the article still stands. There are players totally missed by college scouts in American sports even among those who would prove incredibly physically talented. In basketball, this is most often associated with players getting a late growth (height) spurt.

    -I think people have gotten a little overboard with the “he can’t have gained that much muscle *that* fast”. When people mature, their body changes rapidly. The number I heard bandied about with Matthews is that he weighed 165 pounds his junior year of high school, which means that he gained 75 pounds between that time and the draft combine. That’s no insignificant period of time though – 7 years in fact. Gaining a touch more than 10 pounds per year during boy-to-man phase of growth isn’t all that crazy. I gained about the same amount of weight in the same age range without near the workout regiment of Matthews and without becoming overweight (though obviously I know I’m outside the norm as well).

    -Last I think you’ve got to consider Matthews’ family. Matthews isn’t much bigger right now than his father, and he’s smaller than his uncle. Some families just grow them big.

    Matt Johnson

    February 17, 2011 at 11:10 am

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