Free agency: Will Matthews be a Packer or a goner?

At a high school reunion last fall a woman told of a falling out she had with a longtime friend with whom, despite the lurid details of their split, she still kept in touch.

Her husband chimed in. “Yeah, you know, the Clay Matthews effect.”

The implication was made in half-jest, coming after the third straight game in which Matthews was flagged for a costly roughing-the-passer penalty: Memories of good times past were the only connection they had today.

Not a fair analogy, maybe, but a relevant one with the approach of free agent signing season that begins Wednesday. The Green Bay Packers will decide whether to slog forth with or without their all-time sack leader — or, maybe more accurately, Matthews will decide whether he wants to continue as a Green Bay Packer.

Matthews will not be brought back at the rate of his previous, $66 million, five-year deal. He may be offered the same sort of minimum contract that Jordy Nelson turned down last year before signing with Oakland. Then Matthews’ fate becomes a matter of other offers, and weighing them against whatever the Packers may put forth.

Apart from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, there has been no more identifiable face of the Packers over the past decade. With the all-out, siege mode that he attacks every play, Matthews embodies the hustle and work ethos that Packer fans embrace. To see him thrashing around with the long locks flowing out from under a different helmet would be strange indeed.

Something has to give, though, when economic reality meets Time the Avenger. Matthews’ numbers have dwindled from the glory days of his 10-sack, ‘09 rookie year and the Super Bowl season of 2010 when he recorded a career-high 13.5 sacks and made first team all-pro.

Matthews, the third-highest paid player on last year’s roster, started all 16 games in 2018 but had just seven tackles for loss, one forced fumble and a career-low 3.5 sacks to show for it.

How much of that reduced production can be attributed to age is arguable. A 33-year-old man, which Matthews will be this May, is considered young everywhere except professional sports. A split-second of quickness lost can make all the difference for an edge rusher.

It’s also impossible to know how much psychological play came into Matthews’ sub-par 2018. Full-tilt abandon was his default setting, but after being whistled for a third personal foul under the league’s new rules protecting quarterbacks, he may have suffered the same quandary that others around the league described as a sort of defensive player limbo: Get out there and be an absolute beast … but not too much.

The decision to keep or release Matthews boils down to money, the same factor that will determine the fate of other Packers like Randall Cobb, Nick Perry and Jimmy Graham.

Cobb forged some indelible memories with the Packers, but his $13 million salary, the fifth-highest on the team, has not been justified by his overall production. Cobb, who will turn 29 in August, caught 12 touchdown passes in his 2014 Pro Bowl season but only a combined 16 in the four injury-riddled years since then.

Available cap space is part of the business and money talks in the free-agent market, where the right signing can turn around a team’s fortunes. To wit, it’s doubtful the Packers finish 6-9-1 if they’d managed to reel in Khalil Mack last summer.

But that spilled milk has nothing to do with now. If the likes of Matthews and Cobb are finished as Packers — and they probably are — it means another door has opened, and there’s a pile of money behind it.

With a great quarterback, an aggressive general manager, a new coach and a new offense, the Packers are looking at a huge opportunity to get something going again. All good players eventually get old; winning doesn’t.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@newmedia-wi.com.