It's too bad this can't be Casey Matthews' rookie year. Early in the 2012 offseason, Eagles strength coach Barry Rubin started working to get the 2011 fourth-round pick from Oregon up to 250 pounds, from 232, to give him more strength for grappling with linemen. Then the Birds traded for DeMeco Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker, who will start, and can teach Matthews a lot about the position in a less pressured situation.
A year ago, because of the NFL lockout, Matthews had little access to Rubin. The Eagles' window for doing something with a vet at MIKE was much tighter, and they ended up doing nothing, installing Matthews as the rookie starter at Lehigh, in his first day lining up in their defense.
It was breathtakingly unfair, a projection far beyond anything Matthews' career would have suggested, other than the fact of his famous bloodlines -- he is the sixth member of his family to play in the NFL, and older brother Clay is a star LB with the Packers. Turns out, bloodlines mean considerably less when you're running down running backs than when you're running at Churchill Downs.
Matthews as a rookie starter was a looming train wreck that just about everybody except Juan Castillo and Andy Reid saw coming. The most unfair part was that Matthews, who by all accounts worked hard and did the best he could, took the brunt of it. Matthews looking so badly overmatched in the middle seemed to be the perfect early season embodiment of the Eagles' confused, crushingly disappointing start to 2011.
Family members were heckled in the stands. After some sharp exchanges, Matthews withdrew from social media and, though generally still available to reporters in the locker room, he tended not to linger, answering questions as quickly as possible, looking haunted and gaunt.
Matthews started two games in the middle, one on the strongside, then pretty much disappeared from the linebacking rotation for a long time. By the end of the season, when the Eagles were winning games too late to salvage a playoff berth, Matthews was playing situationally again, not that badly, but he had become a punchline for the angry fan base.
Public perception is going to be a deep hole for Matthews to climb out of, and the worst part has to be that he didn't really dig the hole, his coaches chucked him into it.
"It was something that blew up over nothing. I think it was all just misinterpreted. I have no problem with the fans," Matthews said Wednesday after the Eagles' second day of full-team OTAs. "They're one of the most passionate [fan bases] in football, or in all sports, actually ... That's just how the attitude is, they're very passionate, they love you when you're winning. They'll get on you, or they'll let you know when you're not doing right."
Matthews said he doesn't feel he faces an insurmountable task.
"There's still some fans out there that question you, but there's still plenty that support me," he said. "They'll have my back. It's like that on every team. If you work hard, if you go out on the field and perform, there's no reason why they're not going to love you."
Matthews called playing behind Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowl player, "a win-win."
"I still feel quick" after the weight gain, he said. "I feel better now than I have in a while. A full offseason workout, not having to worry about the combine or the Senior Bowl and all that, it does have its perks."