Veteran safety to undergo back surgery

Updated: July 23, 2004, 8:44 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli |

Dallas Cowboys strong safety Darren Woodson, the stalwart secondary defender who ranks as the franchise career leader in tackles, will undergo surgery Monday to repair a ruptured disk in his lower back and likely will miss the regular-season opener for the first time in his 13-year NFL career.

Darren Woodson
Dallas Cowboys
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
79 65 14 0 1 1

Owner and general manager Jerry Jones on Friday confirmed the surgery, which has been rumored for a few days, and acknowledged a potential recovery time of six to eight weeks. Woodson definitely will miss all of training camp. Dallas opens the regular season at Minnesota on Sept. 12.

"We decided he needed some work and that's going to be a setback for us," Jones said. "But with the [physical] condition he's in, he should have no problems recovering."

Woodson, 35, appeared in every game during his first five seasons. He started 16 games in 2003, the fifth time he has achieved that benchmark, but since 1999 has missed 12 games because of injuries. He played in only 11 games in 2000 because of a fractured forearm, and an abdominal injury limited Woodson to only 10 appearances in 2002.

In all, Woodson, chosen in the second round of the 1992 draft, has appeared in 178 games and made 160 starts.

The loss of Woodson could be critical, given the Cowboys' lack of depth at safety as well as the synergy Woodson has created with standout free safety Roy Williams in their two seasons together. It is believed Dallas will use Tony Dixon at strong safety, though the fourth-year veteran has drawn mixed reviews from the current coaching staff.

Another possibility is youngster Keith Davis, the top defensive back in NFL Europe this spring, and an active hitter with a nose for the ball. The other safeties on the roster lack experience, and there is a chance the Cowboys will consider some players still in the free agent market, although that pool is also pretty thin. As a last resort, the coaches could move Williams to strong safety, the position he played much of his 2002 rookie campaign.

Said Jones: "We're looking at all the options."

In Woodson's absence, Williams, a Pro Bowl selection last season, now becomes the team's most experienced safety, having logged 32 starts.

Woodson is the only player left on Dallas' roster who has three Super Bowl rings from the franchise's glory days of the 1990s. In addition to still being a solid player on the field, he is an important presence in the Cowboys' locker room; "Woody" is the veteran on whom the younger players depend for direction.

His back problem, the first such ailment of his career, initially began as a bulging disk in the spring and Dallas' team doctors hoped to be able to treat it non-surgically. But when injections and other treatments were not effective, as had become evident in recent days, surgery was indicated.

A five-time Pro Bowl performer, Woodson has 1,350 tackles in his career, including eight seasons with 100 or more stops. His 99 tackles in 2003 were third-most on the team, behind only linebackers Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley. Woodson also has 23 interceptions, 95 passes defensed, and 11 sacks.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for