Woodson’s Path

By Ed Bouchette
Updated: June 29, 2009

PITTSBURGH — On occasion, a player comes along who does not belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a player so dominant in his sport that he deserves a higher honor.

A player such as Rod Woodson.

Who says? How about these guys:

“Without a doubt,” Bill Cowher said, “he’ll go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game.”

“If you tell me Rod Woodson is your top defensive back of all time,” said Dick LeBeau, “you will get no argument from me because he certainly merits that.”

“He was a player you get once in a long time,” said Dan Rooney.

And more …

“He, in my opinion, might be the greatest athlete that Chuck Noll ever drafted,” said Mel Blount. “And that’s saying a lot when you think of all the Hall of Famers. This guy was special.”

“He was one of those rare top draft picks who probably even exceeded what people thought he would be,” said Tom Donahoe.

And, from Tony Dungy on coaching Woodson his first two seasons with the Steelers: “You could see the specialness. We felt he’d be a multi-year Pro Bowler. You could see that from the first day.”

Woodson, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 8, ranks among the best defensive backs in NFL history — if not the best — by testimony, by performance and by gaudy statistics.

Consider:

His 71 career interceptions rank third in NFL history while his 1,483 yards in returns and 12 touchdowns on interceptions are No. 1. He made the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team in 1994, one of only five active players to do so — 10 years before his retirement. He made 11 Pro Bowls in his 17 NFL seasons and was the only player to ever make it as a cornerback, safety and return man. No defensive back ever made more.

“Gosh, I guess I was all right,” Woodson said when presented with the evidence. “It’s kind of tough putting myself on that pedestal. I have a hard time doing that.”

Instead, he took the stand to thank the many coaches who helped school him, those such as Noll, Dungy, John Fox, Rod Rust, LeBeau, Marvin Lewis, Brian Billick and Jim Mora.

“I was taught extremely well by some of best coaches in NFL history right there in Pittsburgh,” said Woodson, 44. “Without them, I don’t think I’d be in the Hall of Fame. I was naturally gifted, but how many times do you see naturally gifted guys who don’t do anything?”

Woodson spent his first NFL decade with the Steelers, then left as a free agent to play one season in San Francisco, four in Baltimore and two in Oakland. He played in Super Bowls with the Steelers and Raiders and earned his only NFL championship with the Ravens after the 2000 season, after he moved to safety.

There are reasons some athletes dominate a sport more than others, and there was no mystery why Woodson was able to do so. Not only did he have good size at 6 feet, 200 pounds to play either cornerback or safety, he had everything else to go with it.

“Let’s look at it this way: What is his minus? What is his weakness?

He had none,” said LeBeau, Woodson’s secondary coach and later coordinator with the Steelers in the 1990s. “He had size, he had strength, he had speed, he had reaction, he had great instinct and he was very, very smart.”

He also did not take his talent for granted. Dungy recognized that quickly, especially as Woodson and the rest of the Steelers endured a 5-11 season in 1988.

“He was very, very determined. His mindset was, “We have all these young guys who are going to be great players and I’m going to be one of this group’. You couldn’t measure that pride, the determination, the desire to be the best.”

And to think the Steelers got him with the 10th pick in the 1987 draft from Purdue. Think Cleveland and Arizona might like a redo on that one?

The Steelers once passed over Jim Brown in the draft, but it was payback time when the Browns passed over Woodson to claim Mike Junkin with the fifth overall pick (Junkin played three NFL seasons, two in Cleveland). Arizona drafted quarterback Kelly Stouffer with the sixth pick (Stouffer held out all of ’87, was traded and played four seasons in Seattle).

“You can always count on those franchises for help,” said Donahoe, then a Steelers scout who would become their director of football operations. “Everyone was shocked he kept sliding.”

So shocked that when Dungy asked Noll when he should visit Purdue in the spring of ’87 to see him — as was traditionally done by the position coaches — Noll told him not to bother because they would not have a chance to draft him.

Shortly after they snapped him up with the 10th pick, Noll declared, “I’m in love with him.”

That love affair had a rocky start because Woodson did not sign until early November of his rookie season after the 1987 players strike. During that summer and fall away from football, he ran for the L.A. Track Club on the European track tour and his time of 13.29 seconds in the 110 hurdles was the fourth-best in the world that year.

The only four-time Big Ten champ of the 55-yard hurdles still wishes he had run in the 1988 Olympics. “It always haunted me; what could I have done?”

Instead, he spent a long career haunting quarterbacks and receivers.

He even played wide receiver for a few plays one game after hounding new coach Bill Cowher to try him there.

Woodson helped revive a Steelers team that had slumped in the mid-to-late 1980s, making the playoffs for the first time in five seasons in 1989. Starting in 1992, when Cowher became coach, Woodson was part of the Blitzburgh defense that dominated the NFL, but did not win a Super Bowl.

“It was a thrill really to just watch somebody be able to dominate the backfield like that,” said former Steelers safety Carnell Lake, now coaching UCLA’s cornerbacks. “Rod was a true professional in every sense. He was one of the last guys out at night, one of the harder workers on our team. He knew football, had a great instinct for football and wasn’t afraid to take risks on the field. He’s one of those guys that when we needed a play to happen, it happened.”

Woodson’s only appearance in the Super Bowl with the Steelers came after his most devastating moment in the NFL, when his ACL tore while he tried to tackle Detroit’s Barry Sanders in the 1995 season opener at Three Rivers Stadium.

Since it generally was understood to take one year to recover from such an injury, Woodson’s season seemed over. Well, his regular season anyway. Rather than place his star on injured reserve, Cowher took an unprecedented approach and held a roster spot open all year, just in case.

“That’s one of the great feel-good stories of my coaching career,” said LeBeau. “Coach Cowher saved that spot throughout the season and never saw fit to take that last spot and saved it for Rod. It was, in a way, a tribute to what a great player Rod was.”

As Cowher remembers, “He was making progress and it was Rod Woodson.

It meant so much to us. We put Carnell Lake at corner and Willie Williams started. Rod was coaching those corners and it kept him alive and ready. He had given so much of himself to our team, I thought it was a small thing to give him an opportunity to play in a Super Bowl.”

Woodson did make it back to play in the nickel and dime defenses of the Steelers’ 27-17 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXX.

It was the beginning of the end for Woodson with the Steelers. He played one more season and left as a free agent under sour circumstances.

Woodson had another Pro Bowl season in 1996, his last under contract with the Steelers, but he was not the same player as before the injury.

At the end, Dan Rooney said he thought Woodson should be moved to free safety but that Cowher and Donahoe believed his knee and an injured shoulder would limit him there.

“There was a lot of medical evaluation with Rod and where he was in his career and where Rod thought he was,” Cowher says today. “And certainly it proved out Rod was able to play a lot longer than we thought at the time.”

Blount, the Hall of Fame cornerback from the 1970s, believes the Steelers did not try hard enough to keep him.

“This guy was special,” Blount said. “The Steelers might not ever admit it, but I said it when it happened and I’ll say it today, they made a big mistake when they let him get out of here. I think he proved that by having a great career and winning a championship somewhere else. He was a Steeler.” Woodson, bitter at the time, now believes leaving helped him. He played one year in San Francisco, then moved to Baltimore, to free safety and to a Super Bowl ring.

“It was a journey I had to take as person and player,” Woodson said. “Even though I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, it wasn’t in my journey, it wasn’t for me.”

He arrived in Baltimore in 1998 with great young defensive talent surrounding him.

“I saw this young talent and all the stuff I learned in Pittsburgh I got to give back a lot more in Baltimore, where they put me in the locker room in the middle of Peter Boulware, Ray Lewis and Jamie Sharper.

“All the stuff I learned from all these coaches, I got to talk to them about. It was fun to take that role, kind of an elder spokesman.”

It was a two-way street in Baltimore, where the Ravens helped Woodson as well.

“Rod was kind of an anchor for us,” says Brian Billick, who became the Ravens’ coach in Woodson’s second season there. “Obviously, by the time he came here, he had established Hall of Fame credentials.

“At that point in his career, it was all about one thing — he had the big contracts, the Pro Bowls, the fame and everything that goes with a Hall of Famer. But he did not have a ring. His purity of intentions was a great benchmark for us.”

Billick said rather than want to hog the spotlight, Woodson often deferred to Ray Lewis and let him have the spotlight “because Rod saw it was good for the team. That says a lot about Rod Woodson. Sometimes guys demand that role, but he saw a purpose in Ray Lewis having it.”

He also had a new role with the Ravens, that of free safety. He played the position in high school and college but played cornerback his first 11 years in the NFL.

“That’s a tougher transition than people realize,” Billick said.

Said LeBeau, one of the NFL’s great corners himself, “You’re seeing a different perspective on plays.” But, “Rod was one of those rare guys who could play any position at any stage of his career.”

And Woodson kept playing, and playing. In a sport where the average career lasts 3 1/2 seasons, Woodson played 17, closing it out in Oakland after an injury in 2003 at age 38. At 37, in 2002 in Oakland’s Super Bowl season, he led the NFL with eight interceptions.

“He had great anticipation, range, just the ability to be around the football and that creates that type of statistic,” Donahoe said. “A lot of people say guys get put at corner because they can’t catch, but that was not the case with Rod.”

Today, Woodson, his wife and five children live in suburban Oakland.

He moved there from Gibsonia after his retirement when he went to work for the NFL Network, based in Los Angeles.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame does not make a member declare which team he will represent upon induction, but Woodson’s heart remains with the Steelers.

“Sometime we have to separate the business and the game,” Woodson said, “and sometimes that’s hard. Sweat equity. Sometimes, for players, it’s more difficult than the team might think it is.”