© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA – For as long as Jordan Matthews has been playing football, he’s never lived even as far west as Chicago. Matthews grew up outside Huntsville, Alabama, played his college ball in Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt, and has spent the entirety of his professional career on the East Coast with the Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots.
So why did Matthews finally come West? Mainly, the 49ers’ new offensive quality control coach: Miles Austin. Matthews does also appreciate the Santa Clara weather.
Matthews played with Austin on the Eagles in 2015 – Austin’s final NFL season. He credits Austin, at least partially, for the success he had that year – his sophomore season – as being the best of his career.
And no, that praise is not bestowed upon Austin just because he is now Matthews’ coach.
“Miles ain’t paying my bills, I don’t get no brownie points for talking good about Miles,” Matthews said. “That’s my dog.”
Austin, who was not made available for comment for this story, gave Matthews a slice of revelatory advice in that second year. Treat getting off the line like… well, it’s better if you hear it in Matthews’ own words:
“He would teach me to have this mentality like I was in a phone booth with a bear when it came to coming off the line,” Matthews said. “And so now, I haven’t been pressed since. I don’t feel like anybody can press me on the line, because even if you get on me, I’m fighting with a bear in a phone booth. Like I’m going to crack and get to five yards quick and then get into my route. Just that mindset and that demeanor to go out there and be a number one receiver, Miles really helped instill those values in me.”
Just how much did that advice, and Matthews’ appreciation of Austin, factor into the decision to sign with the 49ers?
“Probably like 70 percent,” Matthews said.
Matthews dealt with a bevy of injuries (right ankle sprains; two in 2016, one in 2017, sternum fracture, left thumb fracture, right knee tear in 2017, left hamstring strain in 2018) following that 2015 season. It was that second year in which he posted career highs in touchdowns (8, tied with his first year) and receiving yards (997). The injuries are something, like most professional athletes, he’d prefer not to look back on.
His first two seasons in the NFL, before those injuries, had him pegged as one of the league’s top receivers, and while he hasn’t reached those heights since, Matthews wasn’t alone in that early success. He believes his rookie class of wide receivers, coupled with the entrenchment of social media as part of NFL reporting, has shifted expectations for young wide receivers to an unreasonable level.
“I really do feel sorry for the new guys that have to come in,” Matthews said. “When I was coming in, the general consensus was, it took receivers three-to-four years before they could really expect production. Usually, the third year. And so, my class comes in; Odell [Beckham Jr.], Jarvis [Landry], me, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Kelvin Benjamin, Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and all of us have great years our first year. And then after one year, everybody thinks that it’s supposed to change.”
Matthews recalls being peppered with concerned questions about the Eagles’ Nelson Agholor, a now-Super Bowl champion, and telling reporters, “Guys, he’s going to be fine.” The same went for Zay Jones in Buffalo, who caught 56 passes for 652 yards and seven touchdowns in his second season.
“That’s the one thing that I can’t stand,” Matthews said. “It’s all the hype. Just let guys play football, but everybody’s trying to reach for a retweet and a like, and that’s the part that makes me sick.”
His view of the NFL landscape is shaped by his own experiences; it’s why he doesn’t believe in trying to explain it all to those young guys, like 49ers rookie receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd.
“I try and just do the right thing right now and they’ll follow,” Matthews said. “I believe people learn through experience and example. I don’t think people really learn a lot through explanation… That’s just truth. That’s across the board. How many people do you see in life that really were great that were like, ‘You know what? I went to a seminar and I learned everything I needed to know about life.’ No. It’s through experience, or they’re like, ‘I want to be like that person.’”
After all, the 49ers’ franchise quarterback didn’t exactly go to a seminar and learn how to play quarterback. He watched and learned for three-and-a-half years from arguably the greatest of all time.
“You think Jimmy [Garoppolo] is the way he is because somebody explained it to him? Or because he watched number 12 [Tom Brady]?”
So if Samuel and Hurd have less-than-spectacular rookie campaigns (and even Dante Pettis in his sophomore season), don’t send your frustration the way of Matthews.
That pair of early-round selections are entirely unproven assets, yet near-certain to make the 49ers’ roster this season. Matthews, meanwhile, following the two least productive seasons of his career, is in a fight for what’s likely the sixth wide receiver spot.
Assuming the 49ers’ glut of receiving options remain healthy, Samuel, Hurd, Pettis and Marquise Goodwin seem overwhelmingly likely to make the roster. Trent Taylor, while not a lock, looks like he’ll make the team based on how in-sync he remains with Garoppolo.
That leaves Matthews, Kendrick Bourne and Richie James Jr. on the outskirts for that final opening. There’s an off chance James Jr. sneaks onto the roster as a special teams-first player, but the numbers to make that happen don’t favor him; especially with Raheem Mostert, a proven special teams commodity and crucial depth option in the backfield, very likely to make the team.
It seems more likely than not, that the final wide receiver spot will be swiped by either Matthews or Bourne.
The latter, the 49ers’ wide receiving yards leader in 2018, was praised as having a “hell of a camp” by head coach Kyle Shanahan on August 7, although he dropped a pass turned interception that day, and failed to make a single catch in 11-on-11s the following day. Matthews, meanwhile, made a pair of crucial catches in a 1:15-left situational drive which ended in a first-team touchdown that day.
That’s a lot of talk, especially before the first preseason game has been played. Matthews, the now-six-year veteran, has heard plenty of that.
As a man of Christian faith, as The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch examined, and with a discernible self-awareness, Matthews is abundantly appreciative of the fact that he gets paid to play the game he loved as a kid; when he could often be found running up the hill beside his high school, Madison Academy, outside Huntsville, Alabama, or running beside his father Rod’s truck with his brother, Justin, in Academy polos.
The brothers had a “healthy reverence” for their father growing up, something Matthews said shaped their work ethic and values. But as adults, the dynamic has shifted some.
“Now, I’m best friends with my dad,” Matthews said. “We talk pretty much every single day, I love him to death. My brother would say the same thing. And so I think, yeah, a lot of those traits, getting up early, working hard, talking to people, being cordial, being respectful, those values were instilled in us a long time ago, and we still carry that with us today.”
Matthews now has a son of his own, Josiah, an 11-month-old, with his wife, Cheyna Matthews, a professional soccer player for both the Jamaican National team and Washington Spirit. As he puts it, his “cup is full.”
“I want the best for all my guys,” Matthews said. “Look, I’ve got a wife and a son, so I’m blessed. My cup is full. So I just play football. I really don’t compete against anybody but myself, really because I get the joy of playing football. If anything, I love when I see other guys go out there and make plays. I want them to. And then I trust that God’s always going to work it out how it’s supposed to be worked out, so I just have fun with it.”