The Green Bay Packers were greeted with some unfortunate news on Monday from team doctors when they found out Charles Woodson broke his collarbone near the end of their game against the St. Louis Rams.
The injury is expected to keep Woodson out for six weeks, and it is the same injury Woodson infamously suffered during Super Bowl XLV.
With Woodson out, Green Bay will get a glimpse into its crystal ball over the next month or so, as players such as rookie Casey Hayward and second-year player Davon House will be pressed into more prominent roles in the secondary.
It’s something Packers fans don’t want to think about, but Woodson recently turned 36. And by the time his contract runs out in 2014, the former Defensive Player of the Year will likely opt for retirement from the NFL.
That is assuming Woodson doesn’t hang up his cleats even sooner.
Aaron Rodgers said on his weekly radio show that Woodson is one of the toughest players he has ever played with. But as age increases, durability decreases and that is slowly beginning to show with the eight-time Pro Bowler.
Over the past couple of years, the Packers have adjusted for the eventual departure of Woodson by drafting players like Hayward and House, while also bringing in young players at safety in Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings.
Woodson has played safety this season in the defense’s base package, but when the Packers switch to the nickel and dime, it’s been McMillian and Jennings splitting time at safety. Morgan Burnett provides stability at the other safety position with starting experience that spans over three seasons.
It will be McMillian and Jennings who duke it out to be the everyday safety after Woodson’s time is up.
This is unless the Packers choose to bring in any outside players, but with the way Green Bay and general manager Ted Thompson like to go about their business, they will likely groom their current youngsters.
From what we’ve seen from Hayward this season, the Packers have a star in the making. Initially receiving limited playing time, Hayward, who is typically the nickel corner, was the starting cornerback against St. Louis with Sam Shields out of the lineup.
Hayward responded with yet another interception. He is now tied for the league-lead in interceptions—as a rookie.
Forced into his first significant action of the season, House also put together a pretty solid performance. He can expect to see plenty of action over the next six weeks, especially if Shields remains out, and he will be an integral part of the Packers’ future in the secondary.
Put Hayward and House in the nickel package alongside an All-Pro caliber player in Tramon Williams, and the Packers have a potent trio at cornerback post-Chuck Woodson, not to mention Sam Shields when Green Bay goes into six-DB sets.
But it’s not only the ability Woodson brings that the Packers will miss—it’s also his leadership.
Which cornerback will have the biggest impact during Woodson's absence?
Having Woodson under contract for the next two seasons, Green Bay will benefit from this leadership as Woodson can be counted on to tutor these young corners and safeties. Woodson is essentially a coach out on the field, and he will be an additional coach on the sidelines over the next five games.
Once Woodson’s teachings have fully rubbed off on his successors and it is time for him to retire, Williams will be in his early 30s and ready to overtake the leadership role in the secondary. Shields, House, Hayward, McMillian and Jennings will all be two years older as well.
For as young as Green Bay’s secondary is, it has performed fairly well, ranking 17th out of 32 teams in passing yards allowed per game, eighth in completion percentage allowed and tied for sixth in interceptions. Rookies account for five of the nine Green Bay picks (Hayward—4, McMillian—1).
Being Woodson-less over the next six weeks could be a blessing in disguise. Every player in Green Bay’s secondary will be under the age of 30, but these players need to learn how to play together without Woodson at some point.
Is there any better time than now?
The next three weeks for the Packers consist of games against Jacksonville, Arizona and a bye. That not only cuts Woodson’s healing time in half, but also provides Green Bay with very beatable opponents.
This gives the young unit time to gel and get a feel for how to play with each other.
And even if it struggles to do well at first, Rodgers is currently a man possessed, and has the ability to put the team on his back—especially against opponents of the caliber of the Jaguars and Cardinals.
Hayward has come out of nowhere with his ball-hawking skills, and House was expected to start opposite of Williams before suffering a shoulder injury during preseason. Combine that with improved play from Shields, and Green Bay already has what can be a formidable dime package at cornerback.
Just imagine how good it could be in two years.