GREEN BAY, Wis. — Mike McCarthy heard Jim Harbaugh’s comments about Clay Matthews and shared them with his Green Bay Packers players in Monday’s team meeting. McCarthy, however, has a much different opinion of his star outside linebacker than what the San Francisco 49ers coach does.
“Clay Matthews is not a dirty player, by no means,” McCarthy said Monday. “As always, we’ll stay above it.”
Leading up to Sunday’s game — which San Francisco won 34-28, Matthews talked about taking shots on quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a way to slow down the 49ers’ read-option offense. Harbaugh called it “tough talk” and said it sounded like “targeting a specific player.”
Well, when Matthews had a chance to hit Kaepernick in the game, he didn’t hesitate, including on one play after the whistle. Kaepernick had stepped out of bounds when Matthews jumped at a fully horizontal angle and took down the mobile San Francisco quarterback.
Matthews was called for a personal foul, but the hit escalated a mini-brawl along the sideline and turned into offsetting penalties when 49ers offensive lineman Joe Staley was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Matthews and Staley took shots at each other, though Harbaugh called out Matthews for the way he went about it.
“If you’re going to go to the face, come with some knuckles, not an open slap,” Harbaugh told reporters Monday in San Francisco. “That young man (Matthews) works very hard on being a tough guy. He’ll have some repairing to do to his image after the slap.”
Harbaugh, ironically, once broke his hand during his days as an NFL player and missed a month of action without pay when he punched former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.
Harbaugh mentioned that he saw Matthews throw “two punches to Joe’s head; well, one punch and one open slap.”
That wasn’t the only aspect of the situation that Harbaugh took issue with.
“You talk about launching,” Harbaugh said Monday, according to reports in San Francisco. “You talk about a clothesline to the neck area when our quarterback is six, seven feet out of bounds.
“We’re not going to back down and just get pushed around after the whistle. When it’s not being called after the first offense, you have to have a plan, and for us, it’s not to go pushing and throwing punches. It’s to lock up and protect yourself. Joe did that as well as you could do it.”
McCarthy wasn’t happy with Matthews after the play. It would have been fourth down had Matthews not committed the penalty. And, when Green Bay came out for its next defensive series, Matthews was on the bench for the first two plays. But McCarthy also didn’t think what Matthews did was some sort of intentional way of cheap-shotting Kaepernick.
“I thought it was a bad decision by Clay,” McCarthy said. “I think he was overzealous. I know he left his feet and, you know, playing hard. I think it’s football. I think much is blown out of proportion. Clay played very well in the game. That was probably one of his couple of bad plays.”
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers sided with Matthews as well, at least in terms of not viewing him as being a dirty player.
“I don’t believe that; I think Clay is an aggressive player that’s going to play with a lot of emotion,” Capers said. “I thought he played a good football game. You saw him come and make minus-yardage plays. You saw him sack the quarterback. It was unfortunate that the sideline play, I think he just misjudged where he was really.
“We have to make sure that doesn’t happen, but I like the aggressiveness Clay plays with. He plays with his heart and a lot of emotion. I’ve been here with Clay now – this is five years, and I certainly don’t believe that (he’s a dirty player).”
The 49ers have now defeated Green Bay three times in the past 12 months, but this is clearly becoming a rivalry game. With the talent on both teams this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Packers back in San Francisco in the playoffs for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
“They’ve gotten the best of us here as of late,” Capers said. “I think those things go on until you find some way to quell that and stop it. That’s part of the business.”