GREEN BAY, Wis. – Ted Thompson isn't a fan of the word vindication. He doesn't seem to like the implication that he actually wastes his precious time on what other people think.
But it would be inhuman not to feel a twinge of it heading into Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, boasting a cornerback tandem in Al Harris and Charles Woodson that could be the difference in a Green Bay Packers Super Bowl run. A tandem that might be better equipped than any in the NFL to match up with the onslaught of quality receivers in these playoffs – from Seattle's quality depth to Dallas' big-play trio of Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn and Patrick Crayton, to the possibility of a championship matchup that could feature the talents of Randy Moss and Wes Welker or Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison.
As the Packers general manager put it, in a postseason "geared for passing offense," Green Bay may be holding the most significant pair of veteran trump cards in the playoffs.
"Al and Charles have each played in very big games and they both are the kind of players who rise to the occasion," Thompson said. "We certainly think having them out there gives us a bit of an edge."
That edge was locked into place 21 months ago, when the Packers general manager made the 2006 free agent move that left other NFL franchises staggering in disbelief, if not doubled in laughter. The signing of Woodson to a contract that could reportedly pay him as much as $52 million – including $18 million up front – stunned some league insiders, both in length (seven years), and up-front commitment ($10.5 million paid out in the first year).
Thompson had given elite cornerback money to a player whose free agent dossier labeled him a falling star on the verge of burning out.
"Frankly, (the signing) looked a little desperate," said an AFC general manager who was very familiar with Woodson's body of work with the Oakland Raiders. "In that stage in free agency (Woodson was signed in late April), he was looking like a one-year (contract) type. He was one of those (players) who had something to prove before giving him the money he wanted. But (the Packers) thought differently."
With Harris already in the fold, the gray matter inside Thompson's head flickered with visions of an upper-tier tandem of veteran cornerbacks – two players who had stood their ground against guys like Moss, and also played their best in big games. In Harris and Woodson, Thompson saw players who could cope with the rigors of man coverage, and allow Green Bay's defense to maximize flexibility at nine other positions.
At the time, the Packers were steadily playing the nursemaid to the cornerback spot opposite Harris. They traded the disgruntled Mike McKenzie to the New Orleans Saints during the 2004 season and their first-round pick that April, corner Ahmad Carroll, failed miserably.
In Thompson's mind, having a quality cornerback across from Harris would allow the defense to play a more aggressive style without worrying about blown coverage.
"In the games that we watched where (Woodson) was playing, he was still a very, very good player," Thompson said. "He has a real knack for the game. He's one of the more instinctive players I've ever been around. He and Al are a little bit different styles, but I think they complement each other well."
Well enough that opponents have ranked the tandem as one of the NFL's best, if not the toughest 1-2 pairing in the league this season. Some were even shocked when only Harris was named to the NFC's Pro Bowl roster, despite Woodson having one of the best seasons of his career: 63 tackles, nine passes defended, four interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. Those digits were down from last year's eight interceptions and 20 defended passes – largely because teams stopped going to Woodson's side of the field this year.
"I think the world of Ahmad (Carroll), but I didn't get a lot of opportunities at the ball before Charles got here because teams kept going to his side," Harris said. "With Wood here, I get some opportunities now, which I really appreciate. My opportunities come from him playing well."
And while the statistics backing up Green Bay's pass defense haven't been eye-popping – they are ranked 12th in the league in passing yardage allowed – they look more impressive the deeper you go. Despite playing in games where opponents have often been forced into a passing mode to keep up with the Packers' offense, Green Bay allowed the eighth fewest completions (18.4 per game) and second-lowest completion percentage (55.2 percent). And those numbers would likely have been a bit better had Woodson not missed Green Bay's game against Dallas, when Tony Romo passed for 309 yards and 4 touchdowns.
"Woodson not being there definitely made a difference," Cowboys wideout Patrick Crayton said this week. "It was noticeable. The Packers still did a lot of what they like to do, play man coverage and press at the line and all that. But the guys that filled in for Woodson, we were able to get by them every once in a while.
"When those two guys are healthy, I think you're talking about, at the very least, one of the top three cornerback combinations in the league. When you look at corners, you rate them on playmaking ability and whether you have to game-plan for those guys. And you spend a lot of time game-planning for those guys. You have to be careful with them. They do things sometimes to bait you into throwing the ball, bait you into thinking a guy is open when they aren't."
The Seahawks have spent ample time in their offensive meetings prepping for those traits – breaking down the subtle nuances of both players. What they see is a pair of cornerbacks who get similar results in different way. Harris is more physical at the line, beating up wideouts in the first five yards of a play to disrupt their route, then using his feet to recover during a play. Meanwhile, Woodson still shows enough athleticism to bait quarterbacks, shadowing wide receivers with just enough distance that he can close on a ball in coverage.
"On film, you see good-sized corners who utilize their arm length and speed to neutralize receivers," Seahawks wideout Nate Burleson said. "They've faced some talent this year, but they do a good job of keeping guys in front of them and not giving up big plays. We'll have to nickel and dime them and hope for a chance to take a big shot. You're not going to go into that game thinking 'Oh, I'm going to put up 400 yards on these guys.'"
That's precisely the type of opposing film room evaluation that has to make Thompson and the Packers smile. Two wins away from a Super Bowl berth, and three from another world championship, they have a pair of players who don't fear names like Moss, Owens and Wayne.
"Those guys are good, but Al and I, we're good, too," Woodson snapped. "Last time I checked, none of those receivers could fly. They run routes, we run with them. Their feet are all on the ground, just like ours."
- Ted Thompson
- Green Bay