By releasing cornerback Charles Woodson, the Green Bay Packers closed the door on of the most fascinating Packers stories in recent memory. Seven seasons ago, the Packers added Woodson in a high-risk, high-reward signing.
The signing became one of the best free agent additions in Packers history.
After releasing Woodson on Friday afternoon, Packers GM Ted Thompson had this to say about the star corner:
We are grateful for all that Charles has given to the Green Bay Packers over the past seven years. He has been an integral part of the Packers’ success and our Super Bowl title in 2010 would not have been possible without his contributions. A once-in-a-generation talent as a player, he is also a great leader and ambassador for the organization off the field. Charles will always be a member of the Packers family and we look forward to his eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We wish him and his family all the best.
The close to Woodson's Packers career is extremely bittersweet. From a business standpoint, the move makes complete sense. That said, it's painful to see a player that gave so much to the team, community and fans be released. Woodson's time with the Packers was truly enjoyable to watch as he rose to greatness. The memories from those seven years remain and tell the story that defines Charles Woodson.
Woodson's NFL career started with a bang. After being selected by the Oakland Raiders with the No. 4-overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, Woodson won the league's rookie of the year award for the 1998 season. He earned trips to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons as he led the Raiders defense to success.
In 2002, Woodson struggled with injuries and missed eight games after playing in all 64 during the first four years of his career. Despite missing half of the season, Woodson started in the playoffs and helped lead the Raiders to the Super Bowl. The timing wasn't right for Woodson as the Raiders lost, 48-21, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In 2003, Woodson managed to play in 15 games and played very well, despite the Raiders going 4-12 on the season. The next two seasons for Woodson were filled with injuries and an inability to regain the form from the beginning of his NFL career.
Tension built as the Raiders won five games in 2004 and four games in 2005. Woodson's work ethic and commitment to the game were questioned.
Arrival in Green Bay
When Woodson signed with the Packers as a free agent in 2006, many in the football world, including Packers fans, were shocked. A big-name free agent with some baggage and the Green Bay Packers seemed to be the unlikeliest pairing. The Packers broke from their norm to pursue the veteran cornerback. For Woodson, coming to Green Bay wasn't a choice, but the only option for him to remain at cornerback.
Woodson spoke about his skepticism of Green Bay and life in Northern Wisconsin (via Fox Sports):
I’d never really been to Green Bay and all I ever heard from people who played there was, ‘You won’t want to play there.’ I just heard it was no place for a black man. No nightlife, nothing to do, and that’s what I kept thinking about.
Oddly enough, Charles Woodson and the Packers turned out to be a perfect match for each other. The Packers offered Woodson a spot to focus on football and get his life together. Woodson offered the Packers the skills of a top cornerback in the league.
Resurgence in Green Bay
In 2006, Woodson and the Packers were determined to prove the rest of the NFL wrong. Woodson's incredible play that season proved he still could be a top player in the league, and that the Packers made a fabulous decision to pursue the former Raiders player.
Woodson finished the 2006 season with a then career-high eight interceptions, three forced fumbles and a sack. In Woodson's previous five seasons with the Raiders, he had a combined seven interceptions.
In 2007, Woodson's effectiveness decreased as he only came up with four interceptions and no forced fumbles or sacks. While his production numbers were down, Woodson helped lead the Packers to a 13-3 season. He scored two touchdowns on the year, one an interception return and the other a fumble recovery. Woodson missed out on Super Bowl glory once again as the Packers lost to the New York Giants in overtime of the NFC Championship.
The 2008 season featured a new quarterback for the Packers and Super Bowl chances were slim. Instead of getting frustrated and uninterested like he did when the Raiders struggled, Woodson delivered a strong season. He finished the year with seven interceptions, three sacks, a forced fumble and two touchdowns. Woodson earned both Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition for this 2008 campaign.
Throughout his first three seasons with the Packers, Woodson became an interception and touchdown machine. He tormented opposing quarterbacks and teams, mostly the Lions, by undercutting routes and blitzing from the corner position. Woodson helped the Packers defense become a mature, ball-hawking secondary that frequently took the ball away.
2009 Defensive Player of the Year
While he earned various accolades early in his Packers career, none was more prestigious than the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2009. Woodson finished the 2009 season with a career-high nine interceptions, four forced fumbles and and two sacks. He also returned three of those interceptions for touchdowns.
Woodson was all over the field for the Packers' defense. He made plays deep down the field, in the slot and on the blitz. This versatility allowed the Packers to use him creatively and get the most value out of him. In games Woodson had an interception, the Packers went 6-1.
Prior to the award being announced, there was much speculation over whether Woodson or New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis would win the award. Woodson ended up receiving 28 votes while Revis got 14 votes. Elvis Dumervil (three), Darren Sharper (three) and Jarred Allen (two) received the remaining of the 50 votes.
A Changed Man
While Woodson provided Packers fans with countless highlights to watch throughout the years, one of the most fascinating aspects of Woodson's career with the Packers was seeing him mature and become a great man. The troubled player from the Oakland Raiders had become a family-first man who matured off the field.
Woodson went from being the opposite of the phrase "Packer People" to being the picture next to the definition. He became part of the Green Bay community as well as the larger Wisconsin community. He gave back to the Michigan community as well, with a $2 million donation to the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and Women's Hospital where the Charles Woodson Clinical Research Fund was started.
On the football field, his renewed passion and commitment to the game transformed Woodson into a leader for the Packers. The quiet Woodson led by example. He was always prepared for games, came to play on Sunday and during the week, showed an ability to do whatever the team needed him to do and always operated in a professional manner. One instance of doing whatever the team needed him to was during the 2010 season when the usually quiet Woodson became a vocal leader.
While the Packers defense was absolutely decimated with injuries during the 2010 season, Woodson was a constant contributor. He was one of six players on defense that played in all 16 games and one of four that started every game for the defense. The then 34-year-old Woodson did everything for the Packers defense, including leading the team with 76 tackles.
Woodson finished the year with only two interceptions, but forced a career-high five fumbles. His ability to maintain his level of play and commitment while the Packers shuffled players in and out showed great leadership. Woodson helped the Packers defense finish sixth in turnovers forced and second in interceptions. Overall, the Packers gave up the second-fewest points per game.
The Packers 10-6 record sneaked them into the postseason after beating the Chicago Bears in the final game of the regular season. Woodson had a sack and five tackles in the game. The Packers momentum carried them right through the playoffs and past the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears. Woodson finally got another chance to win a Super Bowl.
The Speech and Super Bowl XLV
After the Packers hung on to beat the Bears 21-14 in the NFC Championship game, Woodson delivered the above speech to the Packers locker room. For the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, the idea of being "one" focused and centered the Packers. As the Packers celebrated their greatest feat since the late 90s, Woodson grounded the team to stay focused and remember their goal hadn't been achieved.
The Packers got off to a great start in the Super Bowl behind Woodson's leadership. He had two tackles before this play ended his game:
Just like that Woodson's collarbone snapped and his Super Bowl ended. This quote from a post-Super Bowl XLV article in The New York Times showed just how much of a leader had become:
An emotional Woodson addressed his teammates at halftime. “I told the guys they understand how much I wanted it, and to get it done,” he said.
Woodson's teammates vowed to get it done for him and, with a 31-25 victory, they did just that. After 13 seasons in the NFL, Woodson finally won the Super Bowl. He helped the Packers bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay for the first time since the 1996 season.
Woodson's speech after the Bears game didn't just catch the attention of Packers fans.
When the Packers went on their traditional post-Super Bowl victory trip to the White House, President Obama had this to say about Woodson (via Pro Football Talk):
I gave Charles a little bulletin-board material last year. Charles said if the president doesn’t want to come watch us at the Super Bowl, then we’re going to him. ... Charles, you’re a man of your word. And I’ve learned something that every NFL quarterback knows: Don’t mess with Charles Woodson.
While the next two years didn't go as planned for Woodson and the Packers, nothing can take away the success they had during his seven years. Woodson relaunched his career and put himself on a path straight to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the process, Woodson revamped the Packers' defense and helped deliver the Lombardi Trophy back home to a passionate fanbase.
Woodson will be remembered as one of the best defenders the Packers have had. The sure Hall of Famer's name will shortly be written in yellow at Lambeau Field. In 2006, the Packers gave Woodson a chance to rebuild his professional career. Woodson's story of making the most of that opportunity and giving back 10-fold make him an absolute legend for Packers fans.
While the next chapter in Woodson's historic career is yet to be written, his tenure with the Packers was a remarkable, unlikely journey to the pinnacle of the NFL.