The Irreplaceable Charles Woodson

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Charles Woodson
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.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • ZeroTolerance

    Excellent insight and summary.

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, ZT.

  • Ed Schoenfeld

    Thanks for a nice article on Woodson and his role for the Packers.

    I think one of the issues with moving Woodson to safety is exactly what becomes of his unique ‘slot corner’ position. Many of the things he does in that role are contained in the idea of an ‘in the box’ safety, yet much of the Packers defensive scheme presently relies on having two “cover” safeties behind Woodson in the slot.

    I have some confidence that they will get two decent cover corners out of Shields, Hayward, and House. I have less confidence that the current candidates at safely (Peprah, McMillian, MD Jennings) will step into a cover safety role. (From reports on OTAs, Jennings may have the best shot at it).

    Without the right players at the other positions on the field, counting Woodson as one of the safeties could dramatically reduce the creative ways Capers can use the secondary, and turn the Packers defense much more vanilla. I believe the need to play vanilla after Collins was injured was a major contributor to the defensive fiasco last season (I have it tied with the lack of a second effective pass rusher.)

    So this will be a very interesting training camp to watch, as they work out whether Woodson needs to move to safety to extend his career and if so, what happens with the deign of the defense as a result of that move.

    • PackersRS

      Good point about the vanilla defense. Would add that Shields’ inability to play press and Tramon Williams’ bum shoulder also played a big part in it.

    • Chad Toporski

      Yeah, I’m not so sure why people are so caught up on Woodson moving to safety. As you said, his role is so unique to the offense that to lose it would change a lot.

    • Oppy

      You are exactly right about the “vanilla” play of the defense… You can look back through Dom’s history with Green Bay, and if we have a weakness at safety due to injury or just all around poor play, Dom’s defensive fronts are excruciatingly conservative.

      With the type of sell-out gambling that Woodson commits to at the drop of a hat, you better have two attentive, assignment sure safeties over the top.

  • Bubbaloo

    Great article Chad, one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Although I (we) know it is inevitable, the thought of playing without Woodson makes me cringe. In some ways he has become the Donald Driver of the defense, not quite what he once was, but damn, what’ll we do…………….

    • cow42

      except that if they didn’t have driver, the offense wouldn’t even notice.

      • Chad Toporski

        Ouch… the truth hurts?

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, Bubbaloo.

  • marpag

    I’ll get blasted for this, but based on last year’s play, Woodson was overrated. I’ll give him a B+, but are B+ players really irreplaceable?

    Granted, he had a lot of turnover plays (9), and that’s huge. But he gambled for those, and that really cost the defense on a number of occasions. Without a single starting-caliber safety on the field, you just can’t gamble like that.

    Woodson missed 18 tackles, more than anyone else on the team. (That’s 3 more missed tackles than AJ Hawk, for those of you in the AJH Fan Club). He also gave up more touchdowns (5) than anyone else. And he wasn’t nearly as dynamic blitzing from the edge as he was the year before.

    You can say that Woodson is a unique athlete and therefore “irreplaceable”. OK. But just being different than everyone else isn’t really what I’m looking for. I’ll take a truly first rate cover guy any day over some sort of corner/safety/linebacker/something-or-other that even I don’t really know where to play. Woodson may be some sort of freakish hybrid, sure. But who’s gonna cover Calvin Johnson? I no longer see Woodson as that guy.

    Don’t misunderstand me… Woodson, even at 36 (?) is still pretty darn good. Maybe the Packers won’t find someone just like him, but they can – and must – find someone who can be a first rate perimeter cover guy against today’s passing offenses.

    • Chad Toporski

      I wouldn’t be so quick to write off Woodson’s career and base your opinion on last season, especially with so many things going wrong on the defense. None of these guys play in a vacuum, meaning the 11 guys on defense all depend on each other to get the job done.

      You also can’t just throw a couple stats out and call it a day, because anyone could probably find a good stat for every bad stat. According to PFF, “In the slot last season, [Woodson] allowed a QB rating of just 40.3 on the throws he was targeted on, and picked-off four passes from his 37 targets.”

      https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2012/06/01/defensive-prototypes-defensive-backfield/

      As for covering Calvin Johnson, I personally think Tramon Williams is more than capable. His shoulder injury last season hindered his play, but he is more than capable of handling a team’s top receiver.

      And not to sound crass, but just because you don’t know where to play Woodson doesn’t mean a guy like Dom Capers doesn’t. After all, I’m sure he has his job for a reason.

      • marpag

        I’m not sure where I said that I was “writing off Woodson’s career.” Was it in there somewhere? Was it the B+ thing?

        My apologies for “just throwing out a couple of stats.” Thanks for calling me out on that… and then backing up your point by throwing out a couple of stats.

        Please. I’m aware that there are positive stats, too. Perhaps you noticed that I mentioned the number of turnover plays Woodson produced, or the fact that I rated him as very good. I also noticed that he was credited with 18 missed tackles and five touchdowns allowed, which no one can really explain away as “just stats” that the poster obviously hasn’t thought through carefully enough.

        As for covering Calvin Johnson, the dude had 244 yards (!) and a touchdown in the week 17 game against Green Bay. This falls short of my expectations. If you think Tramon can cover him, ask him if he can start right away.

        And not to sound crass, but yes, I know Dom Capers has his job for a reason. I also know that he’s been fired from several of his jobs… also, I’m told, for reasons.

        • Chad Toporski

          “…based on last year’s play, Woodson was overrated.”

          And then you continued to talk about what he did last season. Sorry if I mistook that for you focusing on last season rather than him as an actual player.

          As for the stats, I threw those out to prove my point, that stats aren’t everything.

          I just don’t think you see the whole picture here. I’m not sure why, but you don’t accept that Woodson has a specialized role that is important to the success of this defense. If you would rather have a specialized player who can only cover people, then good for you. But I think Woodson has been pretty damn effective at what he does, and the defense would not and will not be the same without him.

          • marpag

            And I don’t deny your right to hold that opinion. I’ll admit that an extremely versatile guy like Woodson can cause problems for the opponent. But I’d stand by my statement that corners are on the field first and foremost to keep wide receivers from catching the ball. If they can blitz or really stack up the run, that’s some nice gravy. But the Packers gave up the most passing yards in their history last year. I’d like to see someone who can cover. And I think Woodson is definitely slipping in that area.

            Also, YES, I AM basing my comments on last year. I intended to do that all along. (I thought this was obvious when I said “based on last year’s play” right at the beginning of my post). My point was – as I said – that I don’t believe Woodson’s play last year was as good as his reputation. I’m not commenting on his entire career, nor am I saying he can’t do better next year. I’m commenting on last year. I can do that if I want to.

            • Chad Toporski

              I apologize for the miscommunication, then. Thank you for clearing up your intentions with your original post. I understand where you are coming from now.

            • PackersRS

              You can do and think what you want, but you’re completely disregarding the entire philosophy of the 2-4-5 employed by Capers, much like you’re completely disregarding Woodson’s role as a player when citing those stats and his play.

              A 202 pound CB is bound to miss more tackles than usual, if his role is to tackle RBs constantly. Very different than tackling WRs.

              This “Woodson didn’t cover well” fallacy falls to the ground in lieu of the 40.3 QB rating computed when he was thrown at, with an astonishing 10.81% INT rate.

              Then you proceed to talk about covering Calvin Johnson (which has nothing to do with how well Woodson played, since there were few instances where he was assigned to Johnson), but you omit the first game, played with all starters, where he caught 4 passes for 49 yards and a garbage time TD.

              To me, your reasoning for why Woodson didn’t play to his reputation last year is flawed to begin with, but not only that, your bring up empty stats that don’t prove anything at all, and disregard those that go against your argument.

              • marpag

                Seriously?? If making tackles and preventing touchdowns aren’t the very heart and soul of a defender’s job, then what would you say the job of a defender is? I said that Woodson led the entire team in missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. Do you really mean to say that these are “empty stats that don’t prove anything at all?”

                And then, after declaring the meaninglessness of tackling well and preventing touchdowns, you want to prove Woodson’s worth by…. a computerized QB rating?? Please forgive me if I break out laughing.

                As for covering Calvin Johnson, I never said Woodson was the one covering him. Far from it; that would be the next thing to suicide. Woodson wasn’t assigned to Johnson because the coaches know that he can’t run with Johnson. If Woodson were our best cover option, he would be on Johnson like glue every play. As it is, however, he lines up in the slot… because that’s where you put corners who can’t run anymore.

                And you’re right, I did shamefully omit the stats from CJ’s first game against GB last year. Let’s correct that oversight: Over the past four years, CJ has averaged 94.9 yards per game and 1.3 TDs per game against GB. Apparently, Woodson is not the only Packer who can’t cover. I would like it if the Packers could correct that.

                I know we run the mighty Dom Capers 2-4-5 defense and all, the intricacies of which make for some mighty fine lectures on the internet, but if the 2-4-5 can’t tackle the opponent and keep him out of the end zone, then why should I give a damn about it?

      • Oppy

        Chad, I like the fact you have pointed out that Woodson has to be placed in a special category.

        When people claim he plays the CB position at an elite level, I will ardently disagree. He’s still a playmaker, but he’s no longer great at playing CB. His coverage skills have diminished. He is, however, crafty and physical, and an asset to the defense to be certain.

      • Steve Cheez

        Go ahead and sound crass, Chad!

  • PackEyedOptimist

    Personally, and hey, I’m just a fan, the thing that I was worried about relating to Woodson last year, was that he wasn’t appearing to handle blockers and tackle as well. Trying to cover up for the loss of Jenkins and Collins and Williams was going to affect his coverages, but up until last year, Charles was like Reggie and Kampmann–if you ran at him, he tackled you. Always. That wasn’t the case a bunch of times last year. I was hoping he had an injury we didn’t know about.

    • marpag

      You might be just a fan, but you are also correct. 18 missed tackles is an awful lot.

  • homerunsimpson

    i dont think woodson’s role needs to be filled. I think that the job of the defensive coordinator is to use his player’s talents as efficiently as possible. Thats where Woodson’s role comes from. It doesnt mean that capers wants to run a particular scheme and found the perfect guy for it. I dont think woodson is irreplaceable. We just need talented players, and as Woodson’s ability to play the game declines, a better player will take his spot. The scheme will change to fit the new players.

    • Chad Toporski

      I think we’ve essentially drawn the same conclusion. While Woodson’s specific role and what he brings to the defense is irreplaceable, you’re right that Dom Capers will alter his scheme to fill in the holes Woodson leaves behind.