Into the sunset
This year’s retirement season is brutal on the NFL, and on us as fans. Peyton Manning has retired as the league’s most statistically decorated quarterback and, in my opinion, the greatest one it has ever seen. I don’t wish to go at length into the reasons why I believe this to be the case, but let’s just put it this way: what do those who disagree have to hang their hat on? The amount of Super Bowls won by Brady and Montana. Let’s not kid ourselves: both of them are top 5 quarterbacks as well. However, the rings argument for their superiority over Manning is as overstated and simplistic as it is problematic.
In fact, it’s not so much an argument as it is an unsophisticated cliché. And if we are willing to cast aside this cliché, and agree that there is more to a player’s greatness than if or how many times he was on the winning team for the last game of the season, the question becomes this: when it comes to the quarterback position, who has ever played it at a higher level than Manning? The answer: no one.
Just how great was Charles Woodson?
Still, this offseason also forces us to say goodbye to Charles Woodson, the Raiders’ star defensive back who retires after a season in which he still played at a fairly high level. The depth of his link to Manning is really quite stunning. They are the last members of the 1998 draft class to retire. They both came into the league as high first-round picks (Manning was first overall; Woodson went fourth). Before their respective pro debuts, Woodson became the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Who was the preseason pick to win it, but wound up finishing second in the voting? Manning. Both of them came into the league with the potential to revolutionize their respective positions, and they both did.
The ways in which Manning changed the quarterback position (another reason why he’s the greatest ever) are well documented. As for Woodson, the changes to defensive back play he has ushered may be more subtle, but I’m not convinced they’re any less significant. That’s why I consider him to be the greatest defensive back I’ve ever watched.
I shall now pause to give the Deion fanatics among my friends the chance to climb back down from their living room curtains.
Just a moment…
And we’re back.
Yes, I’ve seen Deion play. Yes, he’s the greatest cover corner in history. So what, then, would make him inferior to Woodson? My take on the Deion-Woodson debate is that Deion’s era-specific advantages are hard to ignore. Sure, the tape suggests his pure speed is better than Woodson’s, and that his “loose man” skills are as well. His interception numbers are also gaudier.
But my thinking goes as follows: put rookie Woodson in a time machine and send him to 1988, playing in an NFL when you could get away with corners who were relatively uninterested in tackling and assuredly awful at it (as Deion was) because the bubble screen game hadn’t yet forced corners to acquire the shed-and-tackle skills of a linebacker. In those times, could Woodson have been, say, 98% of what Deion was? No question, and some, even back then, would have taken Woodson because he was a more complete player.
Put rookie Deion in 1998 and have him face what has become the NFL of today. Is he 98% of Woodson? It’s a murky proposal. Sure, in terms of man-to-man skills, we’d speak of him the way we speak of peak Darrelle Revis. But how would his disdain of zone coverage affect the perception of him by coordinators (There was a guy who could never in a million years have played for a coach like Bill Belichick)? Would his horrendous tackling and overall aversion to it not diminish his value to coaches and GMs?
How would his value compare to what it was in the late 80s-early 90s? 85%? 90%? 95%? How would he fare in the run game or against hitches, jailbreaks and bubble screens getting off blocks from the likes of Andre or Calvin Johnson? How would he do if a modern DC matched him up against a Rob Gronkowski? Is that even feasible?
And there is more. Because of his superior technical skills and overall ability, late-career Woodson was able to become a safety who wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in the run game and whom DCs could bring on a blitz with excellent results (as Dom Capers did during Woodson’s stint as a Green Bay Packer). Meanwhile, look at what happened when Deion’s skills eroded (which just so happens to coincide with Dallas letting him go): he fell off a cliff when he arrived in Washington, and instantly became a liability. I think that means something.
It’s also worth mentioning that there has been something “Tim Duncan-esque” about Woodson’s excellence. Deion was the very definition of flash (not always to his benefit) with gem quotes such as , “I don’t love the camera; the camera loves me!” Meanwhile, Woodson has pissed excellence in silence (and on several mediocre Oakland teams) for pretty much his entire career, and you had to watch him to see just how amazing he was. It reminds me of the Duncan-Kobe discussion. Have a basketball conversation with a casual fan, and he’ll probably tell you the notion that Kobe was better than Duncan is beyond debate. And he’ll be wrong.
It’s kind of the same thing with Woodson versus Deion. Sanders has the support of legions who nostalgically remember his days as a man coverage ayatollah, and the young people know him because he’s on television. Woodson only has the connoisseurs’ support, and that of those who saw him crush it on a Super Bowl team in Green Bay. Woodson’s reputation has also “suffered” from him playing at the same time as several truly legendary corners like Champ Bailey (mortal lock as a Hall-of-Famer) and Chris McAlister (who would be discussed in similar terms had he played long enough). Aside from maybe Rod Woodson, who did Deion have to compete with? Old Ronnie Lott? Dale Carter? Aeneas Williams?
Between Woodson’s incredible athletic talents, the sheer completeness of his game, and the way he reinvented himself when his physical skills began to fade, he would have been a Top two or three player at his position for his entire career in any era. His versatility allowed for the modern use of the star defensive back who gets moved all over the field to prevent top receivers from creating mismatches. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey is a highly-touted all-around prospect in this year’s NFL draft a DB, mostly because of his ability to line up all over the field. People describe him as another Patrick Peterson; I think he’s another Woodson, and that’s why defensive coordinators salivate at the thought of having him on their team. Whatever multitude of ways Ramsey will be used as an NFL player, he’ll owe part of it to Woodson.
As for Deion, put him in today’s NFL, and he’s essentially the Washington Post or the New York Times: still great, still a reference in many ways, but not necessarily as memorable. And that’s what sets Woodson apart from Sanders, for me, despite Woodson’s fatal flaw of not being interesting enough. Heck, by the time my friends finish this post, they’ll probably have resumed thinking about Richard Sherman. For Woodson, it’ll be another day of being overlooked. It seems even his retirement can’t save him from that.