Commentary

Woodson earned his spot among elite

Updated: August 7, 2009, 11:35 AM ET
By James Walker | ESPN.com

The credentials for Canton are unquestioned.

Whether it was his 71 career interceptions off 42 quarterbacks or winning a Super Bowl ring, former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson accomplished just about everything possible on a football field.

[+] EnlargeRod Woodson
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesRod Woodson had 71 interceptions in his career, third all time.

Woodson recorded more than 1,000 tackles from the secondary, his interception total is third all time, and he holds the NFL record for most interceptions returned for a touchdown (12) and total interception return yards (1,483).

But is Woodson the greatest cornerback ever?

"There has never been a more complete football player -- not as a cornerback, a defensive tackle, a receiver, quarterback, whatever," longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said emphatically. "He could do it all."

Settling the cornerback debate is difficult and would require an in-depth look at many different eras.

But merely being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday as part of the class of 2009 puts Woodson in rare company. There are only 20 defensive backs enshrined in Canton and only 11, including Woodson, were cornerbacks for a majority of their careers.

The illustrious cornerback list includes Herb Adderley, Lem Barney, Mel Blount, Willie Brown, Darrell Green, Mike Haynes, Jimmy Johnson, Dick "Night Train" Lane, Emmitt Thomas and Roger Wehrli. Deion Sanders -- a surefire Hall of Famer who is not eligible until 2010 -- should be included on this list, as well.

ESPN.com recently asked three NFL experts -- Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon and former eight-time Pro Bowl receiver Cris Carter -- to provide their lists of the top five all-time corners. All three had Woodson among the very elite.

Woodson spent most of his career with the Steelers. But Lewis coached Woodson during their 2000 title run with the Baltimore Ravens, a team that featured one of the most dominant defenses ever.

In no particular order, the Bengals coach has Woodson in his top five, along with Blount, Sanders, Brown and Green.

"I don't know if you could ask for a better player with both physical talent and mental ability," Lewis said of Woodson. "He was great in every way. He's a guy who was a great teammate, a great player, and he wanted to be at the point of attack. He wanted the responsibility of being the guy in the eye of the fire all the time, and he accepted that."

Carter played against Woodson in both the NFL and in college, as Big Ten rivals at Ohio State and Purdue, respectively.

Carter believes Woodson is the greatest cornerback of all time, but with one qualifier: Woodson has to share that title with Sanders.

"I would go 1A and 1B on those two," Carter said. "Speed wasn't a problem for Woodson. Size wasn't a problem. What era couldn't he have played in? He was a phenomenal athlete."

Moon, who was picked off three times by Woodson during his career, rated Woodson third behind Haynes and Sanders.

Moon faced Woodson many times during the heated AFC Central rivalry between the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh, and the former quarterback marveled at Woodson's physicality from the cornerback position.

An underrated stat for Woodson is that he also recorded 13.5 career sacks, all of which came while playing in the Steelers' aggressive "Blitzburgh" defense.

"He was a great tackler and a great hitter," Moon said. "He gave me my last concussion back in 1991 or so. There's about 20 minutes of that Pittsburgh game that I still don't remember, because he hit me coming off a nickel blitz and drove me to the turf."

Hall of Fame tight end and and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome deemed Woodson "the best cornerback of the '90s," which happens to be a decade Woodson shared with Sanders.

"Rod was a great athlete with speed and quickness," Newsome said. "If he didn't come to the NFL, he would have been on our Olympic team as a hurdler or sprinter. He played the game like a coach. He understood how offenses wanted to attack."

Rod vs. Deion

It's much easier to compare players of the same era, and Sanders and Woodson will forever be linked as the top cornerbacks of the past 20 years. Yet their playing styles were as different as their personalities.

• Woodson dominated the AFC for most of his 17-year career (he played for the San Francisco 49ers in 1997). Sanders spent all but two of his 14 seasons as a shutdown corner in the NFC.

• Sanders was brash and attention-grabbing. Woodson went about his business quietly.

• Woodson was an aggressive tackler who loved to make a big hit. Sanders, meanwhile, kept his focus on coverage and often treated tackling like a chore.

"Deion and I are similar in some aspects, but we're a lot different," Woodson said. "We all know that Deion was flashier than I was. I think he was faster than I was. He was probably a better shutdown corner than I was.

"I consider myself an all-around DB. If I need to play corner, I'll go play corner. If I need to play safety, I'll go play safety. Whatever I had to do."

Moon agreed that Woodson's versatility was one of the biggest differences between Woodson and Sanders.

"Rod could just play so many positions," Moon said. "Deion, you knew where he was going to be all the time. He was out there on the corner and never came in the slot very much and definitely didn't play safety or anything like that. Rod was all over the secondary, anywhere they needed him."

Woodson and Sanders did have some similarities. For instance, both were great returners on special teams, and once the football was in their hands, they knew what to do with it.

In what is becoming a lost art for defensive players in the NFL -- Baltimore safety Ed Reed being one of today's few exceptions -- Sanders (19) and Woodson (17) combined for 36 career touchdowns returning kicks, interceptions and fumbles.

"Against both, you had to really, really be thinking," Carter said. "And neither one of them you could just run past them."

According to Woodson, perhaps his biggest similarity with Sanders was his competitiveness.

"We took pride in [thinking] whenever we stepped on the field, we were better than anyone else that was in front of us," Woodson said. "I think the similarities go across the board with all the great players in the league, not just the cornerback position, but every position."

Defining moment

One of Woodson's career-defining moments came in 1995.

In the regular-season opener, an attempted tackle on fellow Hall of Famer Barry Sanders -- one of the most elusive runners ever -- went awry and Woodson tore his ACL.

Many believe Sanders' juke shredded Woodson's knee. Woodson prefers to say it was the turf that came up and bit him.

"It was the first game of the year and [the turf] was extremely hot," Woodson said. "Barry made a cut inside and when I planted, my foot stayed straight and my knee turned. So if people want to say it was Barry, they can say it was Barry. I'd like to say it was the turf.

"But did it impact the rest of my career? In some capacity it did. But my fate was my fate and my journey was my journey no matter what."

Whether it was Sanders, the turf or a combination of the two, the injury led to one of Woodson's defining moments and an eventual move to safety later in his career.

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher left a roster spot open so Woodson could return. And through hard work and rehab, Woodson became the first player in NFL history to make it back from reconstructive knee surgery in the same season when he participated in Pittsburgh's 27-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

Not only that, Woodson was a productive player on the big stage that night.

"That was one of my great memories in football," LeBeau said. "Rod had never been in the Super Bowl, and who knows at that time whether he would ever get there again.

"It turns out he has a championship ring. But for all we knew, that was going to be his shot at the Super Bowl, and it was just a great story to see him work and rehab and for Coach Bill to keep a spot open for him."

Woodson wound up playing eight more years, the final five at safety. During his final Pro Bowl season in 2002, Woodson was an amazing 37 years old and recorded eight interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, with the Oakland Raiders.

"He takes very good care of himself; he still does," said former NFL player Brian Baldinger, who now works with Woodson, 44, as an NFL Network analyst. "He's not a partyer. Rod is just a really meticulous, disciplined guy, and that's almost rare. At the same time, he had incredible ability -- almost like a Michael Jordan when you combine rare ability with intense focus and discipline."

Lewis, the defensive coordinator in Baltimore, was the coach who moved Woodson to safety in 1999. Lewis also had the unenviable task of breaking the news to Woodson.

"I can remember calling him on the phone during the draft," said Lewis. "I thought we had a good opportunity to draft a corner with the first pick when we drafted Chris McAlister. I said, 'Rod, we're probably going to spend this pick on a cornerback, and we'd like you to move to safety. Are you ready to do that?'

"Of course, Woodson said, 'Do you think he's better than me?'"

Lewis was quick on his feet and handled the situation well. The coach responded by saying the move would make for a better team and a better defense, and he was right.

Woodson was a natural fit at safety, recording 11 interceptions his next two seasons, which culminated with the Ravens winning their lone Super Bowl in 2000 behind a record-setting defense.

"He was instrumental in developing the high level of professionalism we see from [linebacker] Ray Lewis," Newsome said. "He took young corners like Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, and said: 'This is the way to do it.' We don't win Super Bowl XXXV without Rod."

End of a journey

In all, Woodson went to the Pro Bowl seven times as a cornerback and four times at safety. In addition to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Woodson spent one year with the 49ers and two seasons ('02 and '03) with Oakland to round out a tremendous 17-year career.

This weekend will be the culmination of a football journey that began in Fort Wayne, Ind.

And just days before his crowning achievement, Woodson remains in disbelief that he is about to join the ranks of football immortality as arguably the greatest cornerback to play the game.

"This is definitely an honor and a privilege to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Woodson said. "I've looked at my life and thought about how long pro football has been going on for over 100 years. To be [one of] only 200 or some odd guys in Pro Football Hall of Fame history to be inducted I think is amazing."

James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter