GREEN BAY – He finally has his Super Bowl ring – the one all-consuming motivation, the one glaring omission on his resume, the one failure of his football life.
In high school, he was named the state of Ohio’s “Mr. Football” and a USA Today All-American, Ohio. In college, he led the University of Michigan to the 1997 national championship as a junior and became the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. In the pros, he was selected to six Pro Bowls from 1998 through 2009, but the one Super Bowl he reached with Oakland, Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season, he was on the wrong end of a blowout.
But now, that Lombardi Trophy-sized void has been filled. In his 13th NFL season, his quest for a title finally reached its destination, when his Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV over the Pittsburgh Steelers in February.
So now what do you do? What do you do when you’ve done it all? What do you do?
If you’re Charles Woodson, you discover, at the ripe old football age of 34, both the fountain of youth and the value of sharing the wisdom of experience with your younger teammates.
After suffering a broken collarbone shortly before halftime of the Packers’ Super Bowl victory, the field-tilting cornerback arrived at training camp in the best shape of his Packers career, at his normal in-season playing weight and
“Like I told him this morning, he looks like he’s 22,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said last week. “He’s buzzing around like I’ve never seen before, and this is my fourth year here. I’m so excited, I don’t know where he got his newfound energy from, but he’s buzzing around like he’s 22 years old again.”
Woodson said his workout regimen changed slightly because of the broken collarbone, although he went against doctor’s orders and started working out roughly six weeks after the injury. He incorporated swimming into his normal offseason workouts and kept boxing, which he picked up several years ago.
“I was doing pushups probably a month and a half, two months out from the injury. I couldn’t help it, man. It’s hard to just sit there and not do anything,” Woodson explained. “Did a little more swimming, a little more water work. Still did my boxing, and probably did more of that because I didn’t come up to Green Bay because of the lockout. I just did the water because it was convenient. Did a bunch of stuff in the water, a bunch of exercises. I think that helped out a lot.”
But as impressive as it might have been for Woodson to come back in such great shape – setting an example for his teammates that being “fat and happy” with one title was unacceptable – what has gotten Whitt’s attention is how Woodson has become even more of a voice in the cornerbacks room and in mentoring younger teammates.
“There’s no question, the way he’s reinvented himself the last couple years, is impressive,” Whitt said. “Really in the classroom, being a leader, taking the young guys under his wing, and showing them how to study film, showing them how to condition, and then bringing it out to the practice field and chasing routes, he’s a true pro.
“He was a little bit reluctant because when you’re so talented, you can do it, and just because you can do it, you think everybody else should be able to do it. Once he realized that, ‘Hey, everybody can be better with me helping them,’ then he was like, ‘OK, I can help these guys.’ But once he realized that, ‘Them listening to me will help them,’ he’s turned the light on and been outstanding.”
By his own admission, Woodson was no mentor upon his arrival in Green Bay in 2006. In fact, the story of how unhappy he was to find the Packers as his only free-agent suitor has been told and retold so much over the last few years that Woodson and coach Mike McCarthy have agreed to never discuss it again. (“I made a deal with Mike,” Woodson said. “That chapter’s over.”)
Nevertheless, the makeover is remarkable. McCarthy has admitted in the past that Woodson was the most difficult player he’s ever coached in Green Bay, and has spoken about how the two got off to a “rough start” and how Woodson repeatedly challenged his authority and the structure of his program. Woodson, meanwhile, admitted that he was “miserable” upon arriving in Green Bay and did his best to make others feel the same way.
But now, after becoming the team’s emotional and vocal leader on the road to Super Bowl XLV – his motto of “one mind, one goal, one purpose and one heart” is inscribed inside the ring – Woodson has taken joy in mentoring his younger teammates. While Woodson admits that the role has never come naturally to him, he’s now relishing it.
“That’s why I don’t think it’d be a good coach. Because it’d be hard to coach guys, because you’d want them to get it exactly the way you get it,” Woodson said. “That’s why I don’t force anything on them. I talk to them when I feel it’s appropriate to talk to them, but I don’t try to force things on them. Some are going to get it, some aren’t going to get it. But if you can crack that code a little bit for them and let them figure out the rest on their own, then I’ve done my job.”
Woodson knack for playmaking is well known. Not only has he returned an interception for a touchdown in each of the past five seasons, but since 2008 he has the most pick-six INT-TDs (six) in the NFL, the third-most interceptions (18, behind Asante Samuel and Ed Reed with 20), the most sacks by a defensive back (seven) and the third-most forced fumbles (10). Of his 47 career regular-season interceptions, 30 of them have come in his 78 games with the Packers after he had just 17 in 106 games in Oakland. He has also forced four fumbles in each of the past two seasons.
But what Woodson has taught his younger secondary mates is that many of those plays were the result of his intense film study and knowing what opposing offenses were going to do before they did it. Now he’s doing more to help others view film the way he does and apply it to the field, which, for example, is what happened on Jarrett Bush’s interception in Super Bowl XLV. Whitt said Woodson interjects more during position meetings than ever before, and it’s paying dividends.
“You try to tell them what you know,” Woodson explained. “I think it’s still a lead-by-example approach that I take, because what guys see in me is that they see the way I understand the game and they’d see me make a play because I was 98 percent sure of what was going to happen on that play. I think when guys see that, maybe a light bulb goes off over their head of, ‘Hey, wait a minute. It’s not a magic trick. He’s obviously seeing something that he studied on film. If he can do that, I can do the same thing.’
“Just because of that, guys started paying attention more, and sometimes in meetings, I’ll have Joe stop the play and I’ll say, ‘OK, if I’m in the game and I see the (offense) come out in this particular set – whatever it is, a two-man stack, a bunch – and if it’s third down or second down, this is what I’d be thinking.’ And then my studying of the film is only going to confirm it, so when I get in the game, if I see that, there’s a good chance that’s what they’re going to run.
“What you see on film is what they’re going to do on Sundays. I think doing that a couple times, and then guys going out on the field and things playing out just the way they played out on film, it helped them out a great deal. So now, you want to watch more film, see if you can pick up more things. It’s just explaining to them what I see on film and what I’m thinking out there on the field. They may get it, they may not get it. But as long as I go out there and produce, as long as I go out there and make plays because I know what’s coming, who wouldn’t want to go out there and do the same thing?”
Woodson’s ability to line up in a variety of places in the team’s nickel and dime defenses as a cornerback, a safety and even a linebacker, gives defensive coordinator Dom Capers incredible flexibility, especially given the fact that the Packers played roughly 69 percent of their defensive snaps with five or more defensive backs on the field. But Woodson bristles at the suggestion that his age has made him less of a pure cover corner than he once was.
“It’s funny (that) people say my coverage has slipped, but they ignore everything else that I do. I mean, what else do you want me to do?” Woodson said. “I give everything I have out there on the field, and if you’re sitting here telling me I’m getting beat every play (in coverage), then you’re wrong. I go out there and play any way they want me to play because that’s what I like to do. Sure, yeah, they could sit me out there on the edge all game. Then what? Yeah, they could waste me out there if they wanted to, but why? Then everything else drops off. The point of me doing all that other stuff is that I can go find the ball.
“I am a football player. Just put me in the game. That’s the way I like to play. Dom uses me in multiple positions. I blitz, I cover, I do it all. He’s able to draw packages to put me in the positions to make plays. It’s a lot of fun for me.”
And when Woodson is happy and having fun, the Packers are better for it.
“Things change. It’s a good situation now. I don’t even look back anymore. I couldn’t be happier than I am now,” said Woodson, whose wife April and the couple’s children arrive in Green Bay this week. “I just feel good. I’m happy, and I think being happy has a lot to do with it. Team, family, everything. I’m just in a good place.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.