Ted Thompson was right to part ways with Charles Woodson when he did.
Now, let’s be clear from the start: Woodson is a future Pro Football Hall of Fame player, probably on the first ballot. When he was at his best during his seven years with the Packers, he was a bona fide difference maker and one of the two or three most important players on the roster. In my 23 years covering the team, the only defensive player more universally respected in their locker room was Reggie White.
But by 2012, his final season with the Packers, Woodson was no longer a great player. He was 36, which is ancient for a defensive back, and had endured recent injury issues (a broken collarbone in the Super Bowl in February 2011 and another that cost him nine games in 2012). For a player that age, that’s a huge red flag.
So in the offseason of 2013, Thompson, the Packers’ general manager, thanked Woodson effusively for all he’d done for the franchise, and released him rather than pay $10 million in salary and roster bonus. Thompson didn’t even ask Woodson to take a pay cut.
A look at Woodson’s stats since he has moved on to the Oakland Raiders the past three seasons no doubt convinces some and perhaps many that Thompson made a big mistake. Woodson’s 11 interceptions in his 45 games since 2013 are tied for No. 11 in the NFL, and his five interceptions this season are more than twice as many as Packers starting safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (two) and Morgan Burnett (none) have in their 21 games combined.
No question, Woodson even at age 39 is more instinctive and a better ball hawk than Burnett and Clinton-Dix; that’s the weakest part of their games. But that doesn’t mean he’s a better player, and it doesn’t mean the Packers should have brought him back in ’13.
It’s true that the Packers were a disaster at Woodson’s former safety spot the year he left. Thompson thought that either M.D. Jennings (a third-year pro at the time) or Jerron McMillian (a fourth-round draft pick in 2012) would emerge as a viable starter. Both bombed out. That hurt.
But there’s the old pro sports adage that a team is better off parting with a good player a year early than a year late. So Thompson was a year early on this one, because he didn’t have a suitable replacement.
Better he found out that Jennings and McMillian couldn’t play in 2013 than 2014. That would have only put off the pain, and while Woodson would have been an upgrade that season, he wasn’t tilting the field anymore. In 2009 he was the NFL’s defensive player of the year. In ’10, he still was one of the Packers’ top two playmakers on defense. But in ’11, his decline from great to good was one of the reasons the Packers’ defense declined as well. By ’13, he was coming off a major injury and turning 37.
Teams have to be ruthless in player personnel. Vince Lombardi was as cutthroat as they come. Sometimes clubs have to force themselves to get better at a position by releasing a declining veteran rather than hanging on.
Thompson kept A.J. Hawk at least a year too long, maybe two, and look at the price the Packers have paid at inside linebacker. They had to move Clay Matthews inside in ’14 and they’re still looking for a suitable complement, let alone someone who would allow Matthews’ move back to outside linebacker.
But Thompson was proactive with Woodson. The Jennings-McMillian debacle at least forced him to find better, and he used a first-round pick last year on Clinton-Dix. Now the Packers have a good starting duo, with Burnett in his prime (27 in January) and Clinton-Dix an ascending second-year pro (24 next week).
Reasonable people can argue whether Woodson today is as good as or even better than the Packers’ starters. One thing for sure: He’s done better, and stayed healthier, than anyone could have reasonably predicted for the last three years. He hasn’t missed a game, and along with the 10 interceptions has two sacks, a forced fumble and seven fumble recoveries.
That’s only added to his Hall of Fame resume. To remain that productive from ages 37 through 39 speaks volumes to his talent and intelligence.
But he’s also giving up more than he used to. Though Pro Football Focus doesn’t have a monopoly on player evaluation, it’s worth pointing out that it has Burnett (No. 13) and Clinton-Dix (No. 25) ahead of Woodson (No. 27) in its safeties rankings.
Also according to Pro Football Focus, Clinton-Dix (26) and Burnett (17) each has two to three times more “stops” than Woodson (eight). It defines a stop as a solo tackle that results in an offensive failure, with the parameters of failure changing by down and distance. Woodson also has 11 missed tackles to Clinton-Dix and Burnett’s six each.
One of Woodson’s great assets when he was at his best with the Packers was that along with coverage talent he also was a willing and excellent run defender. That’s clearly one area where his age shows most.
Woodson’s matchup against the Packers this week will be especially interesting because he knows their offense so well. Starting when Aaron Rodgers became starter in 2008 through Woodson’s last season of ‘12, the two practiced against each other day after day in offseason workouts and training camp.
Nothing bothered Rodgers more than being intercepted by Woodson – the quarterback often complained that Woodson knew some of the plays that were coming and many of the offense’s signals. The interceptions happened often enough.
The Packers run the same offense as they did then, and though they’ll have to change any signals from Woodson’s time, he no doubt will recognize much of what they’re doing.
Likewise, Rodgers knows Woodson’s tendencies for when to jump routes, and his tricks to bait quarterbacks into interceptions. Theirs will be a game within a game at the highest of intellectual levels.
But even if Woodson gets the better of Rodgers once or even twice Sunday, that won’t change anything. Woodson has played better than anyone could have expected, but Thompson and the Packers were right to move on when they did.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.