GREEN BAY, Wis. – Most days, it would have been a good time to visit. Charles Woodson would have talked with ease about feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, happy to leave behind the futility of his final days in Oakland.
Instead, the Green Bay Packers cornerback spent Wednesday dealing with what he called the second most humbling game in his eight-plus years in the NFL – a 48-17 loss to the Bengals in which he surrendered two touchdowns. So on Wednesday, he coped. He adjusted. He talked in hopeful tones about rebounding. But for this struggling franchise, it sounded like an all-too-familiar soundtrack.
"When you have a bad game, the season doesn't end there," Woodson said.
No need to share that thought. If the Packers learned anything last season, one bad game comes and goes, yet there very well could be another right around the corner. And the more you look at this Packers team, it seems to be a story line destined to repeat itself in 2006. While all the drama and attention have been focused on quarterback Brett Favre, there might be a more pressing issue. Specifically, a defense that has yet to see its prized free agent acquisition rebound to his previous Pro Bowl form.
"It wasn't his best game as a Packer," coach Mike McCarthy said of Woodson's performance against the Bengals, which saw T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Tab Perry burn him for a pair of touchdowns. " … I think the long week (of practice) with a couple of our guys, may have contributed to that. Those performances, it's unacceptable. It was disappointing, but it's an opportunity for us to learn from and grow as a football team."
It was an interesting phrase – learn and grow. That's not exactly what you're paying for when you sign an eight-year veteran cornerback to a $39 million contract that includes $10 million worth of checks in the first season. But that is the reality with Woodson at this point in his career. The rest of the outside world is still learning about what he is at this stage in his career. Much like other aging former shutdown cornerbacks Ty Law and Patrick Surtain, it's become an argument in the making – is Woodson merely an average corner living on reputation or does he still have the ability to lock up the top wideouts in the NFL?
That question got louder and more prevalent as his career went on in Oakland, where many thought the former Heisman Trophy winner never looked the same after an injury-marred 2002 campaign. That season, he played in only eight regular season and three postseason games after breaking his shoulder and suffering leg injuries.
"His game lost some elasticity," said one AFC West personnel man. "When he was at the top (of his form), he could run with a guy. But what made him really dangerous was when it looked like he was beat. He had the athleticism to still snap back on a route and get back into a play when the ball went into the air. He just had some quickness to him … he covered a lot of ground fast, and that made him tough in coverage. I think that deteriorated some (after the 2002 injuries)."
Interestingly, Woodson compared his performance Monday night to a game from 2002. Woodson came back his first game from his fractured shoulder and lined up against Terrell Owens and the 49ers in Week 9. The results: Woodson's worst game ever. Owens caught 12 balls for 191 yards – including three on a pivotal overtime drive that led to a 49ers field goal and 23-20 win.
"He drug me all over the field," Woodson said. "That was a rough one for me. But it was a familiar feeling (compared to the Cincinnati game) because I just couldn't keep up and get my legs up under me."
But how much Woodson's game has fallen off over the last several years in Oakland is hard to measure. The excuses for Woodson's decline – he failed to make the Pro Bowl his last four years after three straight appearances from 1999-2001 – could be attributed to a litany of things. After Jon Gruden's departure and the aging team's salary cap crash in 2003, Woodson found himself playing in a young and inexperienced secondary. You could even point to his attitude, as he and the Raiders feuded his last two seasons about terms of a contract extension.
Whatever the reasons, his fresh start in Green Bay has been filled with inauspicious moments. He failed to show up for the team's offseason workouts – significant news considering the Packers have added several new pieces to the defense. And while his practices have had flashes of promise, he hadn't had any breakout moments in two preseason games before crashing and burning against the Bengals.
Compounding the worries, Green Bay's defense hasn't appeared to be a unit that is going to create a great deal of chaos in the pocket, which should put the lions' share of pressure in the passing game on the secondary. That problem reared its head against the Bengals, when quarterback Carson Palmer had plenty of time to navigate in the pocket.
That was an issue even Woodson alluded to on Wednesday, when he lamented, "A lot of the times I was there and the quarterback had a little time, and when the receiver started running after the route and running with the quarterback, I didn't have the power in my legs to catch back up."
Hearing Woodson talk about the juice in his legs could be just one more red flag, considering he'll be handing more snaps than ever this season – playing both cornerback and handling punts for the Packers. But he bristled at the suggestion he's lost something off his game, either physically or mentally.
"Why wouldn't I have confidence?" he said. "It's like one bad game happened and all of the sudden, everybody is like 'Uh oh, what's going on? What's wrong with him?' I had a bad game. I was fatigued. My legs were pretty much dead. That was it.
"I'll bounce back. I always do."