The Irreplaceable Charles Woodson
A lot of talk has been centered lately on Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson. Just yesterday, the NFL’s Top 100 Players of 2012 revealed that he had been voted as the 36th best player in the league. But the big question on the minds of fans and pundits alike is: how much longer can he keep it up?
Entering into his seventh season with the team, Woodson is a 15-year veteran who will be turning 36 in October. He has just about seen and done it all, and is likely on the path towards becoming an NFL Hall of Fame member after retirement. One more Super Bowl win might just secure a spot for Woodson among that legendary group.
Charles Woodson currently ties for 20th among the NFL’s all-time career interception leaders with 54, and he is just one interception return for a touchdown away from tying the record held by former Pittsburgh Steeler Rod Woodson.
The story of Woodson’s arrival in Green Bay has been recounted numerous times. In 2006, he left his 8-year stint with Oakland for free agency after the Raiders made no attempt to re-sign him. Picking him up, however, was considered by many to be a risky proposition due to his injury history, coming off a broken leg in 2005.
But along came Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers, who were feeling some pressure after their worst season record since 1991. A slew of injuries to key offensive players, the release of Darren Sharper, and the allowance for Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle to walk in free agency would lead to a dismal 4-12 season. It was the first season as General Manager for Thompson, and it would become the last season as Head Coach for Mike Sherman.
It almost seemed like fate brought the two together.
Brett Favre, whose retirement was starting to become a question mark, was reportedly urging the Packers’ brass to make some “high-profile additions” to the roster. After signing veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett just a month earlier, Ted Thompson made a 7-year, $52 million deal to secure Woodson. It has since become his most notable free agency signing across his 8-year tenure as GM.
Of course, as Charles Woodson has admitted freely, he “did not want to come to Green Bay,” but was forced to when they became the only team to offer him a contract.
The rest, as they say, is history. Woodson has become the star player in the Packers’ defense, serving a role that is not easily defined. The guys over at ProFootballFocus.com even placed him in his own category of slot cornerbacks.
“Mix one part cornerback, one part safety, one part linebacker and you have the ‘Woodson,’” writes Steve Palazzolo. “The Woodson is aptly named for Charles Woodson, whose unique skill set makes it work, and he has become the key cog in Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 2-4-5 defense. The Packers run the 2-4-5 as their base and it all hinges upon Woodson’s ability to blitz, take on blocks, and cover.”
They go on to note that 2009 was his best year to date, when “he graded at +19.4 in coverage and +15.4 against the run.” Though known primarily for his coverage skills, the passing of time has made him more effective along the line, where he can be closer to the action and more disruptive.
It’s this shifting of roles due to aging and some recent comments by Head Coach Mike McCarthy that have Brian Carriveau of CheeseheadTV wondering if Woodson will see even less action along the perimeter in the future. The distinction, he notes, would come in their base 3-4 defense, where Woodson has chiefly “paired with Tramon Williams as [one of] the only two cornerbacks.”
It’s clear that Woodson is not as physically capable of playing the position as he once was. In football jargon, he has “lost a step.” Age is the ultimate unstoppable force that any athlete has to contend with. But with age comes wisdom, and it’s Woodson’s head that makes him the playmaker that he is. He is a master in film study and a fiend for baiting the quarterback with veteran moves. Add a touch of fearlessness, and you have a force to be reckoned with.
It is, perhaps, this attitude and cerebral aptitude that have allowed Charles Woodson to continue playing well past his physical prime.
While the question lately has indeed become “how much longer” Woodson will be playing, one of the bigger questions might just be “who will replace him” when he does hang up the cleats? He fills such a unique role on this defense that it’s really hard to answer.
Some of the commenters on our blog have noted that Jarrett Bush might actually have the most in common with Charles Woodson than any of the other cornerbacks. He is a physical player who does better close to the line rather than on an island in coverage. We’ve even seen Dom Capers play Bush in a similar manner during Super Bowl XLV, when Woodson was sidelined with an injury in the first half.
As for the other cornerbacks, Tramon Williams is primarily a cover guy. Though he is a physical player, his ability to play man-to-man would be wasted if moved away from the perimeter for a significant number of snaps. Sam Shields is still growing, but it’s fairly clear that he lacks the aggressiveness and technique required of the role filled by Woodson.
The rest of the list is filled out by unproven rookies (e.g., Casey Hayward) and second-year players (e.g., Davon House), and prudence would dictate not to make too many assumptions about them at this point.
But the reality is that Charles Woodson is irreplaceable. Players of his caliber are not only hard to come by, but they often provide such an individual style of play that you will never find someone else quite like them. A good example of this, though perhaps cliché, is Troy Polamalu. The safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers has such a unique instinct and skill set that you can’t just plug someone else into his role, no matter how good they are.
The comforting fact for Packers fans, though, is that they don’t necessarily need to replace the role that Charles Woodson fills. Yes, they will need a capable starting cornerback, but beyond that, all they need are a few playmakers somewhere else on the defense. Dom Capers has the ability to take his players and use them in the most effective manner, and he will adjust accordingly whenever Woodson’s time is at an end.
Ted Thompson has drafted some intriguing prospects this offseason, and one of them could well become the disruptive force that the defense will need.
Regardless, one thing is certain: Charles Woodson has had a Hall of Fame career with the Packers, and no matter how much longer it continues, he is and always will be irreplaceable.——————Follow @ChadToporski