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It was 2006. The Green Bay Packers were in the midst of a losing streak. His knee was hurting and his shoulder was in a harness. In the physical sense, he was all there – the prickly Wisconsin weather left little doubt about that. But mentally, he was alternating between pissed off defiance and wondering, "How the hell did I get here?" And now there were two people – true Wisconsin folks – sitting in another car, smiling at him. The look on Woodson's face must have spoken volumes.
"We don't want anything from you," a man behind the wheel said after rolling down his window. "We just want you to know that we really respect the way you play."
With that, the window rolled back up, and the car pulled away.
There are a lot of moments that have delivered Woodson to where he is now – in Green Bay, back amongst the league's elite cornerbacks, and likely on the verge of the NFL's defensive player of the year award. But Woodson punctuates this one with a toothy, 100-watt grin.
"That," Woodson said of the brief encounter, "meant everything to me."
Looking back, the ego has healed and the darkness has lifted. Woodson is no longer locked into mortal combat with his surroundings. The city he once couldn't fathom playing in has now come to define the next phase of his life – the one that has put his raucous days with the Oakland Raiders behind him, and made the sourest points of his reputation seem more relic than reality.
Four years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find an NFL executive outside of Green Bay who would have believed that was possible. Fresh into the first free agency of his career, Woodson was nothing less than radioactive. He spent two months as an NFL orphan, holding out for something, anything better than Green Bay. All the while, his agent would shrug, and Woodson would stare at the ticker at the bottom of his television, cursing when his name was never mentioned amongst the best available free agents. Eight seasons into his NFL career, his Heisman Trophy, All-Pro credentials and reputation as a lethal shutdown specialist had been cast into the abyss. And that's precisely where Woodson thought he was going when Green Bay was his one and only option.
"It was tough to watch," said Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), who remains one of Woodson's closest friends in the game. "… I'm not gonna lie. Green Bay was a head-scratcher. The amount of money he signed for [$52 million over seven years], you thought 'Oh good, at least he's well-compensated.' But then you thought 'Green Bay? This doesn't even fit Charles' personality. It doesn't seem like a place where he can be himself.'
"But you ask Charles now, and he'll tell you it was the best thing that could have happened."
' … A lot of dirty stuff aired'
The end with the Raiders – in some ways it has become the forgotten land mine in Woodson's resurgence. For the most part, it has been plowed under as a fertile adult life overflowed with positives. His career arc reached new heights, with Woodson and his wife April welcoming their first child, Charles Woodson Jr., into their lives in 2009. He became more of a civic fixture, and his philanthropy became an NFL beacon when he donated $2 million for pediatric research at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, at his alma mater, the University of Michigan.
But the land mine always laid dormant, that pressing question of what happened? How could a player so abundantly talented become so untouchable? Even Woodson seems to still wonder. Injuries late in his career in Oakland played a part, as some worried that eight years as one of the league's most physical corners had left him on the verge of a precipitous fall. He had a plate inserted into his leg one season. In another, he took injections for months, just to numb a painful turf toe.
Yet, there was no denying a valley in his game. Late in his career in Oakland, he wasn't the shutdown corner that he had always been. Coaches began to question the amount of discipline in his game. The talent was still obvious, but questions about the dedication to his craft began popping up. And after being paid a combined $19.32 million under the franchise tag in 2004 and '05, the price seemed to be outweighing the product.
"For what he was early in his career, his performance wasn't what you expect from someone in his prime. He looked like a declining player," said an AFC executive who watched Woodson blossom in Oakland. "… When he was a free agent, you were evaluating other factors as well. And he wasn't a guy who was going to be good for your program. He had an attitude problem. He had other problems. It wasn't a secret."
Indeed, two executives from different teams said they heard stories about Woodson's wild social life. Questions arose about his partying and drinking. There were tales of all-night benders in which Woodson would allegedly show up to practice or meetings without having slept the night before.
“I'm not gonna lie. Green Bay was a head-scratcher. The amount of money he signed for [$52 million over seven years], you thought 'Oh good, at least he's well-compensated.' But then you thought 'Green Bay? This doesn't even fit Charles' personality. It doesn't seem like a place where he can be himself.'”
– Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha on Woodson's signing with the Packers
"It was true, absolutely," Woodson says now. "I don't deny any of that. I partied. I partied with the best of them. I was 21, 22, 23, 24. I had plenty of money in my pocket. Yeah, I partied. … It definitely hurt me [as a fee agent]. When I came out, it was like 'Forget about it. We don't want to touch him.' Yeah, I partied. I came into practice – on time – from being out all night partying. I did that. There's no question. I wouldn't ever deny that or lie to anyone about it. But when it came to someone you were going to count on come Sunday, I've always been that guy. But yeah, I'm sure there was a lot of dirty stuff aired."
And it didn't escape Green Bay, either. When coach Mike McCarthy sat down with Woodson during his free agent visit, he got right to the point.
"Mike and I sat down when I first took a visit here," recalled Woodson, whose Packers play the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday's NFC wild-card game. "And he asked me, 'What's going on with you and Oakland? Why are some of these things being said?' "
Even now, McCarthy concedes the signing was a risk. Woodson had enough quality tape, a good rapport with his teammates, and the Packers believed he still had a high level of play in him. So when Woodson wasn't responsive to them in free agency, they were patient. And when it was clear nobody else was going to make a competitive offer, McCarthy and Ted Thompson landed what has been the best free agent signing of their regime. Even if it was destined to come with a few bumps.
"I was concerned. We had a rough start at first," McCarthy said. "We had some real days there that first year. We had some issues. There were a lot of conversations. He challenged the program structure constantly, and we worked through it."
"I wasn't here mentally," Woodson admits. "I didn't want to be here. It's one of those things where misery loves company. Mentally I was miserable here. I was still caught up in the fact that nobody wanted me but Green Bay. And Green Bay was the place where everybody said 'Ah, I'm not going up to play in Green Bay.' I was one of those guys, so I wanted everybody to be miserable with me. Anything Mike wanted me to do, I was rebellious about it."
And four years later? What has his legacy become? Woodson smiles.
"I think people will only remember me as a Packer," he says.
Covering a lot of ground
"Where is 21?"
On Sept. 13, prior to the season opener between the Packers and Chicago Bears, Green Bay coaches and players could hear Woodson's number echoing amongst the Bears' personnel. And maybe that should have tipped off the realization that something special was just beginning. Undoubtedly, Woodson's first three years in Green Bay were nothing to sneeze at: 19 interceptions, five touchdowns, four forced fumbles, four sacks, and a Pro Bowl nod in 2008 that signaled the ultimate reclamation of his reputation on the field. Despite his knocks coming out of Oakland, coaches say his film study and ability to conceptualize opposing offensive schemes has become razor sharp with each additional season.
But arguably no time in his career had Woodson consistently claimed the No. 1 spot on the agenda of every opposing offensive coordinator. When he played on an island, it was simply too easy to stay away from him. Much simpler to just sacrifice whatever receiver he was covering and go elsewhere.
Then came Green Bay's switch to the 3-4 defense, and coordinator Dom Capers, who began designing a much more diverse use of Woodson's skills. Rather than just throwing him on a wideout in man-to-man or stranding him in zone coverage, Capers saw a player who was capable of forcing offenses to adjust. Woodson wasn't just a cornerback – he was an all-terrain weapon, capable of being moved from corner to nickel to dime to safety, all in an effort to best expose an offense. Finally, he was going to get an opportunity to attack rather than just react.
After watching other players in 3-4 alignments feast on such versatility, Woodson was elated at the development. So much so, he was one of the first players to call McCarthy after hearing the news. No more being left on an island and forgotten.
"It was OK, now we're in the 3-4 and you've got to figure out what we're going to do," Woodson said. "Let's play some mind games."
The strength of the 3-4 is often the complexity and flexibility it offers. Pressure can become much more creative. Coverages can be disguised. Blitzes can come from wild angles. And Woodson would be in the mix for all of it. A reality the football world was invited to see in a preseason game against the Cardinals, when he produced two sacks and a forced fumble as Capers began lining him up in multiple positions … on the same series.
By the season opener, players were calling out his number and identifying him. More often than not, you can see a quarterback come to the line of scrimmage and first identify Woodson before going into his cadence. Protections shift toward him. Run plays are audibled away from him. It's the ultimate testimony to a player's impact, conjuring his days at Michigan, when Woodson's number – 2 – could often be heard echoing from opposing offenses and defenses as they struggled to combat his myriad of skills.
Woodson strips the Cards' Kurt Warner in the teams' preseason encounter.
(Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo)
In spite of the added attention, Woodson still managed to put up the best season of his career, producing nine interceptions, two sacks, scoring three defensive touchdowns, deflecting 18 passes and still providing suffocating run support with 74 tackles. That performance led Capers, who has presided over two defensive player of the year winners – Rod Woodson in 1993 and Jason Taylor(notes) in 2006 – to declare it "one of the best seasons that I've been around."
"There's a lot of similarities between Charles and Rod [Woodson]," Capers said. "When we first started, and I came in and watched Charles, the first guy I thought about was Rod."
Added McCarthy, "That's the reason why he has played nickel, dime and strong safety – it's the opportunity to get him closer to the ball. He's so instinctive. He's a good pressure player. He's a good coverage player. He's an excellent matchup player. We've put him on the best receiver since Al [Harris] has been injured. We've done everything with this guy."
And Woodson has done nothing but deliver, including a blockbuster game against the Dallas Cowboys that jumpstarted Green Bay's second half of the season, which saw them go 7-1. Against the Cowboys, Woodson spent part of the game lining up over tight end Jason Witten, racking up nine tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack, and a goal-line interception in the fourth quarter that helped seal the game.
For those who know Woodson, it was a paramount moment in his career – another testament to the talent that has carried him through the highs and lows. Talent that, four years later, has undoubtedly left other franchises wishing they would have taken the chance that only Green Bay was willing to offer.
"You look back, and I think he was young and made young mistakes [in Oakland], as we all did," Asomugha said. "There were a lot of young players, and we were winning at that time. There was so much going on, that there's a lot you can get caught up in. But there's also a point in your life where you feel like you have to grow up."
At 33 and the height of his impact, Woodson has seemingly reached that point. That it came in Green Bay is just an example of how some of the best stories are born of unwanted circumstances and in unexpected places.
"Coming here, the way people have embraced me, the way they respect the way I play the game, community-wise, for me there's a loyalty there," Woodson says. "I wouldn't want to leave these people. That's coming from my heart. I would not want to leave them."