November 22nd 1997. I am 9 years old and in my grandfathers den. He turns on the TV to the Michigan vs Ohio State game. I knew nothing of college football or any of its players. My limited sports knowledge consisted of the NFL and MLB. I sat through a hard hitting 1st half of the rivalry game. Michigan led 7-0 and the half was winding down. Ohio State punts, #2 on Michigan catches the ball. I remember it like it was yesterday. He darts left immediately. Then in an instant cuts up field as he splits both defenders and jukes left along the sideline. #2 just out runs the whole Ohio State return team for a game changing touchdown. The Ann Arbor crowd goes nuts. The announcers are falling over themselves with praise for this football player. That was the moment I was officially introduced to college football, that was the first time I saw Charles Woodson.
Fast forward to February 15th 2013, Charles Woodson was released by the Green Bay Packers. My heart sank with the news. I knew it was all but a certainty that C-Wood would be let go. Not because his skills were non existent, that is far from the truth. But because his cap number for 2013 was just north of 10 million. The NFL is a business, and extensions are looming for younger guys like BJ Raji, Clay Matthews and former MVP Aaron Rodgers. 10 million is lot to pay a 36 year old SS. I still hold out hope that the market will be low enough that Woodson decides to accept a cap friendly number and come back to Green Bay. The place that resurrected his career after it was all but assured that he was a washed up malcontent with injury issues in that fateful spring of 2006. The story of Charles Woodson is an interesting one. Just like a roller coaster ride, he has had his highs and his lows. But in his time in the NFL he has cemented his place in Packer lore, NFL lore and Canton. When Woodson does finally decide to hang them up, he be the last of his kind, a unique blend of defensive skills from a cornerback that we may not see for awhile.
The Michigan Years (1997 and the Heisman Race)
Lets start at the beginning. As said before, I never started following Woodson till late into his junior year campaign in 1997. Although after that Ohio St. game I followed Charles as much as i could. I soon learned that the performance vs Ohio St. was just the tip of the iceberg. His 1997 stat totals were impressive to say the least; 44 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 8 interceptions, 12 receptions for 238 yards, 2 receiving touchdowns, 1 rushing touchdown and 1 punt return touchdown. All that in 12 games, yes 12 games! Heisman worthy is an understatement. Woodson’s performance helped propel the Wolverines to a share of the National Championship and a Heisman finalist.
The 1997 Heisman race has been one of the most debated races in college football history. The 5 finalists came down to Texas RB Ricky Williams, Marshall WR Randy Moss, Washington State QB Ryan Leaf, Tennessee QB Peyton Manning and Michigan DB/WR/RET Charles Woodson. With the favorites being Manning and Woodson. Here are a couple of the quotes from the people who voted:
‘‘I had Manning at the beginning, and even though I fluctuated at times, when I look back on the big picture of the whole season, I still think he was the greatest player in college football,” Richard Scott of the Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald said.
Added Jimmy Hyams of The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel: ‘‘I’m voting for Manning because he had a great, great season. I think the folks who say he never wins the big game are wrong. It’s true he never beat Florida, but he beat three teams in the top 10 this year and he’s beaten 11 ranked teams in his career. And I think Manning’s intangibles are unmatched.”
But many of the voters felt Woodson’s impact on No. 1 Michigan’s success couldn’t be denied.
Said Vahe Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: ”He had the ability to control a game from the cornerback position, and that’s just as valuable as controlling a game from the other side of the ball.”
But Kirk Bohls of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman said it’s impossible to overlook Woodson,’‘What does the guy have to do, kick field goals, too?” Bohls said. ”I mean, if a defensive player can’t win the Heisman after the year he had, they might as well rename it the Heisman Quarterback Trophy.”
The 1997 Heisman Race
Charles Woodson, CB/WR, Michigan..7 int, 11 rec, 231 receiving yards, 3 total TDs….1815 pts
Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee…287-477, 3,819 passing, 11 INT., 36 TDs……1543 pts
Ryan Leaf, QB, Washington St….210-375, 3,637 passing, 33 TDs……861 pts
Randy Moss, WR, Marshall……..90-1,647 receiving, 25 TDs..253 pts
Ricky Williams, RB, Texas…….1,893 rushing, 6.78 avg., 25 TDs…..65 pts
Charles Woodson went on to become the 1st primarily defensive player to win the coveted Heisman Trophy and the only one since. He was a college football rarity, his litany of skills beat out 2 future 1st ballot NFL Hall of Famers. In 2007 he was named #11 on College Football’s Top 25 Players of All-Time. College Football has not seen a player like Woodson since.
The Raider Years(1998-2005)
Woodson declared for the NFL draft following his junior season at Michigan. He was selected 4th overall by the Oakland Raiders. His first couple years in Oakland were nothing short of outstanding. He was voted 1998 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in which he tallied 64 tackles, 5 INTs, 1 INT for touchdown and 1 forced fumbled. He was also voted to the Pro Bowl. Woodson then followed that up with 3 consecutive All-Pro seasons in 1999, 2000 and 2001. By his fourth year Woodson was one of the top if not the best all round cornerback in the league. He had the lock down cover ability of a Champ Bailey, the ball skills and instincts of a Dion Sanders and the ability to come off the edge in either run support or a blitzer like Rod Woodson. In his first 4 years Charles Woodson didn’t miss one game, he was a constant on a Raiders team that was inching ever closer to Super Bowl contender status.
All that came to a head in the 2001 Divisional Playoff game in Foxborough. The Raiders and the up start Patriots dueled in a snow covered mess through 4 quarters. On a pivotal drive for the Pats to try and send the game into OT. Woodson comes off the edge and sacks former Wolverine teammate Tom Brady. He forces a fumble which is recovered by the Raiders. Due Woodson uncanny timing on the blitz, Brady never saw him coming. The play was ruled a fumble and the Patriots fate was sealed. But everyone knows what ensued. The “Tuck Rule” was born, the Patriots dynasty run of 3 Super Bowls in 4 years started and the Raiders were subjected to yet another playoff heartbreak.
Woodson and the Raiders would reach the Super Bowl the very next year but that game, like Woodson’s 2002 season, was an underwhelming performance. Injuries started to set in for the All-Pro corner. He suffered his first major injuries of his NFL career in 2002, missing 8 games with a fractured shoulder and sustained a broken leg toward the end of the season. The Raiders continued to nose dive under the leadership of Bill Callahan to a 4-12 mark in 2003. Woodson grew unhappy with the coach and voiced his thoughts publicly. His contract was set to expire in 2004. Reluctant to commit long term to the now oft injured Woodson, the Raiders elected to use the franchise tag not once but twice on Woodson. He suffered broken leg injuries in the 2004 and 2005 seasons playing only a combined total of 19 games in two years. The Raiders had seen enough. Once the bench mark for cornerback play in his first 4 years, the organization had believed his skills had eroded pass the point of no return. From 1998-2001 Woodson amassed 251 tackles, 11 ints, 4 Pro Bowls, 3 All-Pro’s and played every single game. From 2002-2005 he was a shell of himself; 205 tackles, 6 ints, 0 Pro Bowl or All-Pro selections and missed 35 games. The Raiders cut bait with their former face of the franchise who they now determined to be an old, washed up malcontent with no serviceable corner skills left. At 29 Woodson was on the open market, only problem, nobody wanted him.
The Packer Years(2006-2013)
Nearly two months into free agency and Charles Woodson’s phone was barely ringing. The NFL can be like a girls locker room, once word gets out about someone, it spreads like wildfire. The league had cooled considerably on Woodson. By late April 2006 only 2 teams had contacted him; the Buccaneers (who wanted him to convert to safety) and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers were the only team willing to give Woodson a shot at playing cornerback and the only team willing to pay him a reasonable salary. But Woodson resisted, Green Bay had gotten a rep from many of the players around the league that it was no place for a “black man”. Not from a racial standpoint but from a social one. The area was primarily rural, quiet and lacked the requisite night life that many of the other cities offered around the league. Certainly nothing comparable to that of Oakland. And he wasn’t that far off, Ryan Longwell once stated that if he wanted to take his wife out to a nice place, the best option was Applebees. Nick Barnett, MLB for the Packers from 2003-2010, once tried to invest and build a nightclub in Green Bay to accommodate something resembling a nightlife, but his approval was voted down by the city and his plans squashed. As the days ticked by Woodson would ask his agent if anybody had called? “No one new but Green Bay left a message again the other day, their still interested” replied his agent. Eventually Woodson caved, on April 26, 2006 he signed a 7 year deal with the Packers that could be worth up to $52.7 million if all performance escalators were met. Charles made it clear he did not want to come to Green Bay but was “forced too” because they were the only ones who offered him a contract.
2006-2008(Returning back to form)
Another person arrived in Green Bay in 2006, newly hired head coach Mike McCarthy. During their first 6 months together, they were hardly a match made in heaven. Woodson still harbored the same malcontent attitude he had brought from his stint in Oakland. During practice one day Woodson was just itching for a fight and he got into a heated verbal altercation with the coach. McCarthy kicked Woodson out of practice. Some players weren’t sure if this new addition in Woodson would work out. According to both of them, this opportunity gave them a chance to “clear the air“. “Ever since then, he knew what to expect from me and I knew what to expect for him. And it’s been good relationship ever since” stated Woodson. Good was an under statement. Finally healed up and free from all the nagging injuries in Oakland, Woodson went on a tear, the likes of which the National Football League had never seen.
Woodson reclaimed his spot as a top cover corner during his 2006 campaign. The Packers put him to use in as many ways as they could. He could be counted on to cover either outside position and or the opposing team’s top target. They even had him returning punts for the first time since 2001. He posted career highs in interceptions (8) and tied his total of defensive touchdowns (1) and passes defensed (20). Woodson also played a full season for the first time since 2001. He helped resurrect the Packers from a 4-12 season in 2005 to 8-8 in 2006. And he and Al Harris formed one of the top cornerback duos in the league. He was not voted to the Pro Bowl that year, although his numbers and performance as a #1 CB suggested otherwise. C-Wood was back and dare i say better then ever.
2007 showed that Woodson’s play was no fluke. Although his raw numbers took a little bit of a dive, his play helped rejuvenate a once porous Packers defense and secondary into top 10 unit. Throughout the year Woodson’s play making ability showed up when the Packers needed it most. I remember two such instances; Week 6 vs Washington and Week 9 vs Kansas City. Against Washington, the Packers were reeling from a loss against the Bears and couldn’t afford another one. They trailed for most of the game, it was 14-10. Woodson had helped keep the Redskins at bay earlier by intercepting a ball deep in GB territory. But the Redskins had the ball and were marching across mid field as the 3rd quarter was coming to a close, the Packers needed a spark. Washington handed a reverse to Santana Moss, Woodson closed quickly. A Packer linemen swiped at the ball as Moss was turning up field. The ball pops loose and falls behind Moss, everyone is in slow motion, unaware the ball is out, everyone except for Charles Woodson. He dives over two lineman to recover the ball. While being surrounded by four Redskins he jumps to his feet, jukes out QB Jason Campbell and returns the fumble 57 yards for a game changing touchdown, the Packers lead and go on to win 17-14.
Against Kansas City four weeks later, the Packers had previously trailed 16-22 with 4 minutes to go. They scored 10 points in 2 minutes to claim a 26-22 lead with 1:40 left in the game. KC picked up a couple of first downs to start off and were driving. Every Packer fan had that deep sinking feeling of a defensive let down. And then, right on call, Woodson jumps a crossing route and races 46 yards for a game clinching defensive touchdown. Those are the two plays that are embedded in my memory that sum up Woodson’s play in the clutch. Especially that Washington play, McCarthy went on to say after that game, “Charles Woodson is the most instinctive player I’ve ever been around”. For the second year in a row Woodson was not voted to the Pro Bowl, his teammate Al Harris was. Every fan in Green Bay knew the truth, Woodson was back to that level and the league needed to recognize that. Green Bay went 13-3 that year and advanced to the NFC Championship Game where they were an overtime away from going back to the Super Bowl. Leave no doubt it, Woodson was a big reason why.
2008 would be a year of transition, turmoil, division, hope and disappointment all wrapped into one for the Green Bay Packers. But not for Woodson. While the team was trying to endure the Summer of Favre and it’s transition to heir apparent but yet relative unknown Aaron Rodgers, Woodson posted his best statistical season to date. While the defense had climbed into a top 10 unit in 2007, it regressed in 2008 as a whole due to the scheme of coordinator Bob Sanders. In Week 3 vs Dallas, Al Harris suffered a freak spleen injury that sidelined him for most of the season. The defense now counted heavily on Woodson to be a shut down corner/run defender/turnover machine/catalyst all in one. While the rest up the defense failed to hold up it’s end of the bargain. Woodson posted career highs or near career highs in interceptions (7), sacks (3) and defensive touchdowns (2). Finally the team had begun to tap into Woodson potential as an in the box defender and blitzer. But due to injuries and lack of proven depth, the team had to have Woodson on the outside covering the teams best receiver constantly. The defensive scheme was predictable and much of the time Woodson would be covering a decoy. The Packers and defense collapsed down the stretch and lost seven of their last 9 and finished a disappointing 6-10 after a 13-3 campaign the year before. But even at 32 years of age, usually the death knoll for most elite cornerbacks, Woodson was elected to his 5th Pro Bowl and first since joining Green Bay. He was playing the best football of his life and was proving all the doubters wrong. But he still wasn’t being utilized to his full potential, he needed a change. That change came in 2009 when Dom Capers and the 3-4 defense came to Green Bay.
2009-2010(The Human Swiss Army Knife)
The 3-4 defense has been around for some 20 odd years now. It first originated in the early 1990s in Pittsburgh. Specifically, 1992, when two defensive minds came together. Dick Lebeau and Dom Capers. Now the foundation of the 3-4 defense will always be Lebeau’s, he first started this scheme long before he got to the NFL. But everyone can agree it was perfected in early 90s by both Lebeau and Capers, effectively being called “Blitzburg”. With Capers coming on board in 2009, the Packers needed to set the foundation of the 3-4, all three tiers of the defense needed to have a staple. The 2009 Draft covered the first 2, a big nose tackle to occupy blockers and let the inside linebackers roam free, B.J. Raji. A pass rushing OLB that had to be able to stand up in coverage and also be a disruptive force on the edge, Clay Matthews. But Capers needed a a lynch pin to the defense, a catalyst if you will. Someone who could be a safety, a corner, a linebacker and blitzer all rolled into one. He already had what he was looking for on the team, Charles Woodson.
Capers envisioned the effect Woodson would have on the defense to the likes of Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and his very own CB on the 1992 Steelers, Rod Woodson. In Charles he had his very own Swiss Army Knife; Woodson could cover the elite receivers on the outside, could play the role of a center field SS, be down in the box as a hybrid linebacker in run support, be a threat as a blitzer off the edge or he could be a combination of the previous two and play the coverage nickle corner spot. While it might have taken a little time for rookies Raji and Matthews to get up to speed. Woodson assimilated to his duties fairly quickly and put together his best season as a professional and one of the greatest statistical seasons by a defensive back in NFL history. I, as a Packers fan, was consistently amazed at how many times he would come up with a game changing play during that season. It led me to coin the phrase, “Charles Woodson is single-handily saving football in Green Bay.” And even then, I might not have been doing him full justice.
The first game where he put the team on his back was Week 2 vs the Bengals. He recorded 10 tackles and two game changing interceptions that preserved the Packers lead. Including a 37 yard INT for a touchdown. Unfortunately it was in a losing effort. He proceeded to get 6 tackles, one for a loss and a game clinching interception in a win over the Rams the following week. Charles continued to play at an absurdly high level in the coming weeks. But two games stick out down the stretch where King Chuck simply took over games the Packers needed to have after starting 4-4; Week 10 against the Cowboys and Week 12 @ Detroit on Thanksgiving.
After giving up 38 points the previous two games and blowing a 28-17 lead to the win-less Bucs, something needed to change. Dallas came into Lambeau riding a hot streak for an NFC showdown. Woodson proceeded to have his most complete and dominant game of the season when the Packers needed it most. In a tight and hotly contested 17-7 grind-out style victory, the defense stood tall. They rode #21 and his momentum shifting play. Midway through the 2nd quarter, game still knotted at 0-0, Tony Romo completes a 40 yard pass to a streaking Roy Williams. The pass will give the Cowboys the ball deep GB territory, the first big play of either team. Roy turns up field, Charles is the last man remaining to tackle him. Roy jukes and evades Woodson’s tackle, but Charles gets one hand on the ball and slaps it out of Williams hands, Packers recover. What assuredly was going to be at least 3 points from the Cowboys if not a touchdown drive, turns into a momentum killer for Dallas.
Fast forward to the 4th quarter. The Packers hold a slim 10-0 lead as the Cowboys have the ball with 10 minutes to go. Its 2nd and 6 from there own 32 yard line. Romo goes back to pass, little does he
know that Woodson is coming on a nickel corner blitz off the left edge. Romo never saw him coming, he is blindsided for a sack and forced fumble. The ball fumbles and squirts around as eventually Clay Matthews recovers and is forced out at the Cowboys 5 yard line. So far Woodson is responsible for two forced fumbles. One saving Green Bay 3-7 points and the other directly giving the Packers the ensuing 2 yard touchdown pass a few plays later. At 17-0, the Packers have taken control of the game. But Charles wasn’t done just yet.
Green Bay is protecting a 17-0 lead, Woodson and the defense has been outstanding the entire game. But Cowboys are knocking on the door, 1st and goal from the Packers 2 yard line. Needing someone to provide a spark, Woodson answers the bell again. Showing his versatility as a cover man. He disguises his intentions, crowding the line as if he’s going to blitz, Romo sees that, checks to a quick pass to the right flat for his All-Pro TE Jason Witten. Woodson responsibility is Witten all along. He knows Romo’s check, jams Witten at the line, lets him go to the flat only to jump Romo’s perfect pass with a diving interception at the one yard line.
It’s one of the greatest displays of intellect, timing and athleticism all wrapped into one play. And with that game changer, Woodson effectively seals the game for the Packers. Charles so far has saved the Packers anywhere from 10-14 points just by himself. The Packers needed this win badly. And Woodson and the defense rose to the occasion. His final stat line for the game is jaw dropping; 9 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and 1 interception. He played 4 different positions that day; corner, slot corner, safety and linebacker…….Did someone say Swiss Army Knife?
If the Dallas game was Woodson blockbuster moment of the 2009 campaign. Then the Thanksgiving Day match-up with Detroit was his sequel. Returning home to where his collegiate ball was played, Woodson delivered a stat line, the likes of which the NFL had not seen done (or since). 7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced and recovered fumble, 2 interceptions and a defensive touchdown. All on the national stage of Thanksgiving. He even stuck a Heisman pose for the Detroit faithful, many of them still remembering his glory days at U of M. It was another complete game for Woodson who again showcased his many talents. From covering Calvin Johnson to forcing fumbles on tight ends. Woodson’s final numbers that year, 74 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 9 interceptions, 18 passes defensed and 3 defensive touchdowns.The Packers vaulted to the #2 defense in the NFL.These two games were not only the catalyst to a season turnaround for the defense and the Packers (won 7 of their final 8). But a statement, he was making an air tight case for Defensive Player of the Year.
At 11-5, the Packers season came to a close as they earned a birth in the postseason in a Wildcard game vs the Arizona Cardinals. The Packers were eliminated in a thrilling OT quarterback duel 51-45. As disappointing as that exit and defensive performance was, Charles Woodson was honored a few weeks later with the 2009 NFL DPOY award. A career first for him and a remarkable achievement for a 33 year old CB. The award race came down between two cornerbacks, Darrell Revis and Woodson. While Revis that season was the best pure cover/shutdown corner in the league, his impact on the game as a whole was no where near Woodson’s. As I stated earlier, Woodson could effect the game from multiple positions, while Revis was regulated to just one. Woodson became just the 5th cornerback in the 36 year history of the award to win. Also the first defensive back to win it since Rod Woodson and Dion Sanders went back to back in 1993 and 1994. Never in my life had I seen a defensive back play to the level that Charles Woodson did that year. He truly did do anything and everything for the Green Bay Packers. He finally had tapped into his full potential and the NFL had finally taken notice. But there was still something missing…….
Up until this point, Woodson’s career had been like one of those rides you see at Disneyland. Starting out fast, having its ups and it’s downs. Sometimes coming to a screeching halt and at other times, everything is upside down. What ensued for the Packers during 2010 season would be much of the same. After a gut wrenching defeat at the hands of the Cardinals the year before, many pundits were predicting the Packers as the “sexy” Super Bowl pick that year. With a young dynamic offense headline by Aaron Rodgers and a defense that had a good mix of ascending players and savvy veterans like Woodson, why not. But much like Charles’ career, nothing ever really goes according to plan.
Starting out of the gates fast with a 3-1 start, things were looking good for Charles and his Packers. Woodson again tormented the Lions in a 28-26 victory; posting 13 tackles and yet another pick six, which was his 5th consecutive season with at least one defensive touchdown. His score ended up being the deciding difference in the game for the Packers. But as the Packers cooled off, losing their next two games, Woodson’s game changing plays became less and less frequent. The Packers were being decimated by injuries, especially the defense, on a historical level. In the first 6 weeks the Packers lost their starting MLB, SS, DE and OLB. Some defensive spots were a revolving door of who’s healthy this week. But Woodson remained a constant of reliable play. After beating Brett Favre and his Vikings in Week 7, Woodson and the defense found their groove. Over the next three games, the defense gave up only 10 points. Including a shutout over the Jets on the road. Woodson had yet another pivotal interception to quell a promising Jet drive, old reliable came through yet again. Over the second half of the season the defense really began to jell as a full unit, but after giving up 31 points and a loss against the Patriots late in December, serious questions were being raised about the playoff viability of this team. At 8-6 with two games remaining, the whole team needed a sense of urgency.
In the Packers 6 game run to the Super Bowl, many facets of the team stepped up. But none were more consistent then the defense. They played 6 championship worthy teams during that stretch and never gave up more than 25 points in any game. Many times, they were counted on to close out those tightly contested match-ups. While Charles game changing plays were scarce, his heady and consistent play were the backbone of a defense that was one of the best in the league. By the end of the 2010 season Green Bay had risen to the #2 overall defense. And while Wood was a big part of it, he was flanked by play makers all around him. B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins led a fierce interior pass rush. Desmond Bishop provided the athletic tackle machine needed for a 3-4 MLB. The defensive secondary had Pro Bowl talents in Tramon Williams and Nick Collins, with a rising star Sam Shields coming up. But along with Woodson was the dynamic, relentless, do-it-all OLB Clay Matthews who was in the running for the 2010 NFL DPOY. The defense was now a force to be reckoned with. A unit that could carry the load if the offense had a bad day. The Packers and Woodson were primed for a run to the Super Bowl.
The Packers closed out the season with 2 must win games; beating the New York Giants 45-17 and the hated Chicago Bears 10-3. The defense and Woodson helped hold the opposing quarterbacks to passer ratings of 63.6 and 43.5, while sacking them a combined 7 times and forcing 6 interceptions and 2 lost fumbles. Next up was a Wildcard rematch with the Philadelphia Eagles and their electric MVP candidate QB Michael Vick. Woodson added yet a another responsibility to his many talents, QB spy for the dynamic Vick, who had run amok on the NFL during the 2010 year. Vick was neutralized in the game, and his effect was minimal till the 4th quarter. But the Packers sealed his fate with an interception in the end zone for a 21-16 victory. On to Atlanta. After a heartbreaking loss in the regular season, Woodson and the Packers were out for revenge. They got it in a resounding performance from Aaron Rodgers and a 48-21 throttling of the Falcons. Woodson came up big twice off the edge, one that led to a sack for Charles. The other, a key 3rd down sack by Matthews early in the 2nd quarter. Charles was just 2 games away from accomplishing his ultimate goal, a Lombardi Trophy.
All that stood in the way of Woodson was the hated Chicago Bears, the team the Packers had to beat to seal a playoff birth. What ensued was a classic grudge match between the NFL’s oldest rivals. The defensive dominance over Jay Cutler continued as the Packers knocked him out of the game. While Woodson was overall quiet, his play allowed other players like B.J. Raji and Sam Shields to burn the Bears for game changing interceptions. The Packers advanced on to Super Bowl XLV. It was Woodson’s first time back since the 2002 season. Afterwards in the locker room, Woodson gave a speech that would echo the theme for the Super Bowl in the following weeks. As the unquestioned emotional leader of the Packers, Woodson words struck a cord with every Packer player; “Hey, I want ya’ll to think about one thing….One…..For two weeks think about one thing…….Let’s be one mind, let’s be one heartbeat, one purpose, one goal for one more game….One… Lets get it”
February 6th, 2011. Super Bowl XLV, Packers vs Steelers. At 34 years old, Charles knew he wouldn’t get too many more opportunities to perform on football’s biggest stage. As he said before the game, this was as good as he’s ever felt. The defense came out strong in the first half. Woodson had already amassed 3 tackles and was threat to be accounted for. Green Bay had only yielded 3 points so far and took a 14-0 lead when Nick Collins returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown. Trailing 21-3 with the half winding down, Pittsburgh needed a score badly. Showing he still had some juice left, Woodson lined up man to man on Mike Wallace, possibly the fastest WR in the NFL. With no safety help, Woodson jammed him perfectly and ran step for step with Wallace on a go route. Woodson played perfect defense and even tried to make a diving grab on the overthrown ball, CRACK! Woodson was slow to get up, he rolled around for a little bit, pain reverberated through his entire left arm and shoulder. He stuck it out for one more play but quickly retreated to the sideline and went straight into the locker room. The Steelers rallied and scored a touchdown with 39 seconds left, 21-10 heading into half. The game was far from over.
Not a lot was reported on what happened in the Green Bay locker room during halftime, even much less was said till after the game when Greg Jennings painted a picture. Donald Driver ruled out, Charles Woodson ruled out with a broken collarbone. Emotions ran high, coaches scrambling to fix their game plans……… Charles spoke up, “You guys know how bad I want this“, he choked up with tears, the frustration clearly visible to his teammates. After gathering his composure for a few moments he managed to get out, “Get it done……get it done“. He knew he would not be able to go to war with them to finish the job. After a career of going to hell and back, on this stage, Charles would be relegated to the sideline. Jennings was right when he called Charles, “the heart and soul of our team”. Up 21- 10, the second half started slowly for the Packers. The offense’s 3 and out gave way to a Steelers touchdown in which they proceeded to run the ball right down the Packers throat, 21-17. Ball and momentum on Pittsburgh side, they were marching to what would appear to be a game leading touchdown, with just over 12 minutes to play; Ryan Pickett, Desmond Bishop and Clay Matthews combined for the biggest play of the day. Pickett “spilled” the RB dive, Matthews’ hit forced the fumble and Bishop recovered it, Packer ball. Aaron Rodgers then marched GB down the field and hit a wide open Greg Jennings for the touchdown, 28-17 Packers.
Two minutes to go, Packers lead 31-25. Woodson was having flashbacks. Just over a year ago the Packers were in the same situation against the Steelers, Ben drove the length of the field and threw a game winning TD with no time left, Steelers won 37-36. Charles was nervously looking on as the defense needed one last stand to seal Super Bowl XLV. There was no need to worry. Tramon Williams swatted the ball out of Mike Wallace’s hands on the 4th down, the game was over, Woodson and the Packers were World Champions. As confetti rained down upon him, his left arm in a sling, a smile on his face and the Lombardi Trophy in his right hand, Charles Woodson had reached the mountain top, pro football’s pinnacle. After all the arduous years in Oakland, the rebirth in Green Bay, the playoff heartbreak from years past, he was a champion and no one could take that away from him. His legacy was complete.
Will we ever see a player like Charles Woodson again? You tell me; A play-maker with a multi-tooled skill set, the first defensive Heisman trophy winner (1997), 1997 College Football National Champion, Top 5 NFL draft pick, 1998 NFL Rookie of the Year, 8 time Pro Bowler, 7 time All-Pro, 2009 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl XLV Champion. Woodson was a unique football player. With the NFL becoming more and more specialized, we might not see a defensive back who could literally play all over the field. He truly is the last of his kind. And that will land Sir Charles in football’s final resting place, Canton. He was a mix of the old and new school. I for one am thankful I got to see him compete from beginning to end. He will be one of the players I tell my grandchildren about as they look up his highlights on whatever passes for YouTube or an iPhone in the future. And I’m sure that when they see what I saw week in and week out, their jaws will drop, just like mine did when I saw him play.
I wanted to end on the 2010 season because it really was the peak of Woodson’s career, a ride off into the sunset if you will. But I also wanted to give him justice for his final two years in Green Bay. He defended the Packers championship in 2011 to the tune of a 15-1 season. And his numbers were again stellar, 74 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 interceptions and yet another defensive TD. But winning masks a lot. It was clearly visible that Woodson had lost a step. And so had the defense. After being #5 in 2010, they plummeted to #32 in 2011, statically the worst pass defense in league history. Part in due to the departures of players both in Free Agency and to injuries. While they did lead the league in interceptions, the gambles they did take resulted in big play after big play. Everything came to a head in the 2011 Divisional Game vs the Giants. Woodson was responsible for allowing Hakeem Nicks to catch 37 yard Hail Mary pass at the end of the half to completely change to momentum of the game. The Packers ended up losing 37-20 and squandered 15-1 season.
2012 was focused on improving the defense, in the 2012 draft, the Packers used 6 picks on defensive players. Woodson would be asked to move to safety permanently in the base 3-4 defense. Although he was still used as a cornerback in the sub packages, his speed was declining and the Packers had some young guns ready to fill the void. While the defense did in fact rebound from the #32 ranking to #14, they failed to deliver in the big games against quality opponents. Woodson also suffered his first major injury of his Packer career in Week 7. Another broken collarbone would knock him out the remainder of the regular season. The Packers, much like 2010, suffered a rash of injuries but trucked on through to finish 11-5. Woodson returned for the Wildcard game vs the Vikings, got 6 tackles and a tackle for loss in the Packers 24-10 victory. But he, like the Packers defense in the Divisional game in San Francisco, got exposed in an embarrassing effort against the 49ers. They proceeded to give up a season high 579 total yards of offense and an NFL single game record for rushing yards by a quarterback, 181 to Colin Kaepernick. Packers lost 45-31. For the second year in a row the Packers and Woodson fizzled out in the Divisional round. For the second year in a row the defense was primarily to blame. Changes were coming.
When Charles Woodson signed his contract in 2006 worth up to 52 million, some thought it was overpaying for a washed up has been. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was worth every penny during his duration with the Packers and more. But as his play was diminishing, his salary cap number kept moving north. With the NFL salary cap actually regressing since 2010, teams had to be more frugal about who earned the big money. Everything came to a head on February 15th, 2013. Woodson was either to negotiate a cut in salary or be out right released, the latter happened. Woodson couldn’t have handle the decision with more class. As evidence of how Packers GM opened up about Woodson’s departure, “We are grateful for all that Charles has given to the Green Bay Packers over the past seven years,” General Manager Ted Thompson said. “He has been an integral part of the Packers’ success and our Super Bowl title in 2010 would not have been possible without his contributions. A once-in-a-generation talent as a player, he is also a great leader and ambassador for the organization off the field. Charles will always be a member of the Packers family and we look forward to his eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We wish him and his family all the best.”
To me that quote sums up Charles Woodson perfectly. A rare blend of a football player that we will not soon forget. And that we might not see again.