Charles Woodson's impact with the Packers went beyond the field, and now he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer
GREEN BAY — In 2009, Charles Woodson had one of the greatest seasons ever for an NFL defensive back.
Playing the “star” slot position in Dom Capers’ defense for the Packers, Woodson won NFL defensive player for the year while leading the league in interceptions (nine) and interception returns for touchdowns (three). He also had five other takeaways (four fumbles forced, one recovered), two sacks and nine tackles for a loss.
But while that was the most productive season of Woodson’s career, there’s another with the Packers that jumps out as extraordinary in its own right as we look back on an 18-year career that will be capped by his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. That season was 2008.
On performance alone, it ranks among the three or four best of his career, so it played a role in making Woodson an easy choice as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But it stands out because of the circumstances under which it was accomplished, and for what it revealed about Woodson’s character and will to win.
For the final seven weeks of 2008, Woodson played on a fractured big toe that prevented him from practicing more than once a week, and often even that one day of practice was part time.
Woodson would be getting inducted into the Hall as a first-ballot inductee Sunday night no matter who presented his case to the selection committee of 48 voters. But as the voter from the Green Bay market, I had to say something meaningful about him to the committee when his case came up in the selection meeting last January, and I chose to talk more about his ’08 season than ’09.
The reason? It in its own way was as remarkable a season as I’ve seen a Packers player put up since I began covering the team in 1993.
Woodson played great for the Packers from the first year (2006) he signed with them as a free agent, but 2008 was when he went from being an outstanding player to an awe-inspiring figure and unparalleled leader in the locker room and within the organization.
He not only showed up every week despite the painful injury for a team that would finish 6-10, he put up a great performance that set an example of professionalism and will to win par excellence. It among other things helped provide the depth and resonance for teammates of his tearful speech at halftime of Super Bowl XLV after a broken collarbone had knocked him out of the game late in the second quarter — a speech he was too overcome to finish. His daily actions in 2008 said far more to his teammates than any words he might have conjured.
“I haven’t seen anybody not practice and do what he did (in ’08),” said Tramon Williams, who was in his second full NFL season that year and would go on to a distinguished career as a Packers cornerback in his own right, in a recent phone interview. “It was eye-opening. He was hurt and injured. Not a lot of people could do that.”
So how did Woodson do it?
His work schedule over those last seven weeks went like this: Wednesdays and Thursdays he received treatment on his fractured toe while his teammates practiced. On Fridays, he’d practice as much and as fast as he could without aggravating the injury, with the length and intensity of those practices varying by how his toe felt. Then on Sundays, he invariably played.
He finished the season with seven interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, a career-high three sacks, and one fumble forced and another recovered. He also led the team in passes defensed (17).
This week I asked Williams and Aaron Rodgers what they remembered about Woodson that season, and independently they shared the same visual: Routinely walking into the Packers’ training room after practice and seeing Woodson watching film on a computer while getting treatment.
“Every time you saw he’d be taking care of his body, he’d be in a cold tub, in a hot tub, or he’d be on the training room table, and he’d be watching film,” Williams said. “He may be in the hot tub, but he was watching film. He was still doing what he can do without being on the field."
Said Rodgers: “The beauty of some of the guys that played with him during that time is the ones that really had a lot of success soaked it up. I'm talking about Tramon Williams had a really nice, long career, Sam Shields who became a No. 1 lockdown corner for us and a really nice career for us. They studied that, they watched him, they watched his habits.”
Woodson in ’08 was already deep into his career at age 32 and in his 11th NFL season, so he had a backlog of knowledge to glean scheme and player tendencies from film study. But what seems to have helped set him apart was his ability to also visualize playing while watching game video. It was the next-best way to rehearse the movements he had to make on the field without actually doing them in practice.
“There’s no difference between what your eyes are telling you (watching video) and what actual practice tells you,” Woodson said in a recent interview. “I just tried to put everything from the film to the field.
“… You always visualize making plays. I’ve got to visualize myself lining up on Sunday first-and-10. Film tells me what that team likes to do in that field position with that particular personnel or that particular down and distance. So once you get on the field, look at your indicators. It’s first down, what do they like to do? You go through the game that way.”
Woodson’s lesser-known 2008 season came one year before the Packers hired Capers as defensive coordinator, and it was Capers who offered the position change that cemented Woodson’s status as a future Hall of Famer. Woodson was tailor-made for Capers’ playmaking “star” position, where he was a master of playing cat-and-mouse with opposing quarterbacks. It’s the same role in which fellow Hall of Famer Rod Woodson flourished for Capers and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1990s.
For maximum impact, the defensive back playing the star needs tremendous knowledge and instincts to go with great physical talent and a willingness be physical in the run game. Charles Woodson was all those things and won defensive player of the year in ’09 with that aforementioned stat line at an age (33) when most defensive backs are in steep decline if not out of the league.
“You kind of built things around them in terms of they could blitz, they could cover, they were tough,” Capers recently said of the Woodsons. “We blitzed Charles a lot, but he was such a good tackler, he played like a small outside linebacker. If you remember when we won the Super Bowl, we played like 850 snaps of nickel defense, and we played it against a lot of personnel groups just because of the physicality of Charles. Very instinctive, got his hands on a lot of balls, made big plays. To me, you evaluate the great players, their impact on the game, two or three times a game they’re going to make plays that has a big-time effect on a game.”
Said Rodgers: “(His) instincts are completely unmatched in any player I've ever played with. I mean, his ability to diagnose a play is incredible.”
Woodson attributes those instincts at the star position in part to his youth in Fremont, Ohio, where his older brother, Terry, often brought him along to play sandlot football in the neighborhood. It was tackle without pads, and Woodson was several years younger and much smaller than most of the other kids.
In those settings, overmatched in strength and with only a handful of players on each team, he had to be tough if he was going to play, but he had to more than that, too. He also had to find a way to do a little bit of everything on both sides of the ball – run, block, tackle, catch and throw. It proved to be formative in helping hone his instincts and all-around skills.
“I was a football player, I liked to move around and be in different positions,” Woodson said of his NFL career. “I liked to be on the best (receiver) one minute, then move to the inside the next series and play nickel, great. The next time I’m used in the run game to stop the run. That’s what I loved about playing in (Capers’) scheme. It took me back to being a junior high or school kid where, just put me on the field, wherever you need me to play I’ll play, and I’ll play at the highest level.
“I feel like that’s when I had my most fun, when I was out there moving around being a major part of the defense at different positions. That was fun. Put me wherever you want and there wouldn’t be any drop-off.”
By the time Woodson finished his career with the Packers — his final season with them was 2012 —he was a shoo-in first-ballot Hall of Famer and a player who ranks among the best cornerbacks in NFL history. In the star role, he twice (2009 and ’11) was named first-team All-Pro and led the league in interceptions.
In his four seasons with Capers, Woodson had 19 of his 65 career interceptions, scored five of his 13 defensive touchdowns, and had 7½ of his 20 sacks. In the two seasons he wasn’t first-team All-Pro, he was second team.
But as spectacular as he was in the star role, if there was a season that revealed Charles Woodson to his football core, it probably was the year before Capers arrived, the year before Woodson was defensive player of the year. In the Packers’ rebuilding season of 2008, he showed his teammates just what it means to be great in both talent and will.
“He's just a special, special player,” Rodgers said this week. “Special guy.”