The Fine Fifteen: In Praise of an Ageless Star
Before we get to the Fine Fifteen, time to reminisce a little. As I watched 39-year-old Oakland safety Charles Woodson intercept 39-year-old Peyton Manning—twice—on Sunday, I thought one of the most compelling events of this or any season deserved some note.
Why so compelling? Nine days ago, at my Sunday perch at NBC Studios, Rodney Harrison said, almost casually, “Charles Woodson is the best defensive back of all time.” Coming from a Hall of Fame-nominated safety himself, that is a heck of a statement. But Woodson may be just that good—he has doubtless had one of the two or three starriest careers of any defensive back who has spent significant time at both cornerback and safety. As for Manning, well, he’s going to put all the records so far out of reach that it’ll be at least 15 minutes before anyone breaks them.
I like the fact the fact that Manning was glib and complimentary about Woodson post-game Sunday in Oakland. “Well, it’s taken him 18 years,” Manning said of the player who beat him out for the 1997 Heisman Trophy and who hadn’t intercepted him in 17 previous NFL seasons. Woodson, for his part, wasn’t interested in talking about his interceptions against Manning—because of the result of the game: Denver 16, Oakland 10. “It’s all about wins and losses,” he said glumly at his locker.
Woodson deserves recognition, though. For this:
• Now tied for sixth all-time on the career interceptions list with 64, he needs two to pass Ken Riley and hold fifth place alone at 66.
• If he intercepts eight more passes (and for that he’d almost surely have to play a 19th season) he’d have 72, and that would be the most of any player who has played in the NFL since 1980.
• He played the Denver game with a dislocated shoulder that hasn’t healed since he suffered the injury in Week 1, and with at least one sore calf and sore hamstring.
Really: What a player Woodson’s been.
My best Woodson memory dates to the Super Bowl five years ago. This was about two hours after Green Bay’s 31-25 win over the Steelers. Woodson, with a fully broken left collarbone, emerged from the shower, the last Packer to do so, his body severely tilted down to the left. He had injured his shoulder in the first half of the game, had given an inspirational halftime talk to his teammates and now just wanted to soak in winning the Lombardi Trophy, his first.
As Woodson began dressing, Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated and I stood there, marveling at a guy getting all done by himself, right down to the tying of his shoes, with a broken left collarbone. He moved at the pace of a man three times his age, spending a minute and a half putting on his black dress shirt. “I’m a champion,” he said while dressing. “It’s all I ever wanted. We’re going to go see President Obama. I hope he’s got good doctors, in case I want to get a second opinion.”
Then he added, “Now I’m going to ask you for a favor.” Woodson turned his back to us, his left arm already through the sleeve of his black jacket, his eyes closing to help bear the pain.
“Help me with my jacket.”
Layden and I both reached to get the coat in position so that Woodson could push his uninjured arm through the sleeve.
Here’s what had happened: With two minutes left in the first half, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw deep up the left sideline to wideout Mike Wallace, with Woodson in stride-for-stride pursuit. Woodson dived, trying to make a play on the ball, and he landed on his chest and left shoulder, cracking the collarbone. He could feel he was badly hurt but stayed in for one more play before the pain got to him. He went in for X-rays, and there was no doubt about it. Busted.
When Woodson found out the extent of his injury, he was inconsolable. “I haven’t cried that much in I don’t know how long,” he said. But he wanted to address his team at halftime. Coach Mike McCarthy let him. “You know how bad I want this, guys …’’ Woodson said, and that was it. Bawling.
I asked him what he thought Al Davis—the Oakland boss who’d drafted him in ’98 and saw him leave the Raiders in 2006 as a free agent—might be saying that night.
“ ‘I should have never let him get out of here,’ ” said Woodson.
A couple of equipment men helped him pack up, and slowly, Woodson was out the door. As he left, he yelled a joke to one of the Packers’ team medics. “Hey doc!” he said. “If we had a game next week, would you shoot me up?”
That’s real-world football right there. And he’s still playing, five seasons later. Enjoy Woodson while you can.
Now on to the ranking at the five-game mark:
1. New England (4-0).
2. Green Bay (5-0). Hmmm. A little concern here. Last two weeks: 20.5 points per game, 342 yards per game … and, total, nine of 27 on third down. That is very un-Packerlike. They’ve got San Diego (tired, traveling) at home Sunday, then the bye. They probably need the bye right about now.
3. Cincinnati (5-0). Make no mistake about it: A Cincinnati team down 24-7 to Seattle at the start of the fourth quarter last year would not have won the game. This Bengals edition did.
4. Arizona (4-1). Ravens won the Super Bowl three years ago by outscoring their foes by 54 points over the course of the season. Arizona’s outscored its foes by 100 points over five games.
5. Denver (5-0). Rocky Mountain Revolt! I drop Denver from three to five. I love the defense, but the offense scares me. At some point, maybe in one of the November Sunday-nighters against Green Bay or New England at home, it’s going to have an effect. I just think the Broncos would lose on a neutral field to the four teams in front of them right now.
6. Atlanta (5-0). Short week. Thursday, at New Orleans. Not a gimme—at all. And it looks like Julio Jones and his bum hamstring could miss the game. Could this be the week when the fourth-quarter magic disappears?
7. Carolina (4-0). So the Panthers go to Seattle (instead of Seattle going to Charlotte for once), and Carolina is coming off a needed bye and will likely get the concussed Luke Kuechly back. The Panthers will need all of that to win in the land of the 12s.
8. Seattle (2-3). If the Seahawks don’t protect Russell Wilson better in the next 11 games than they have in the first five, this is the highest the Hawks will fly in the Fine Fifteen for the rest of the season.
9. New York Jets (3-1). Washington this week, and then New England in Foxboro, and there’s your basic referendum game for the Men of Bowles.
10. New York Giants (3-2). Giants at Eagles, Monday night. No Victor Cruz. Odell Beckham Jr. (hamstring) looks doubtful, and he may not be himself if he plays.
11. Minnesota (2-2). Lots of upside coming off the bye, with a running game purring along at 4.9 yards per rush, and a 67 percent passer getting better every week. Very bullish on the Vikings’ playoff chances.
12. Pittsburgh (3-2). That was one gutsy (and I can think of many stronger words) way to win a football game, going for the touchdown with five seconds left and down by three, using the the Wildcat. “This game is over if Le’Veon Bell doesn’t fight that extra inch!” Jon Gruden said on the telecast. And it would have been, but not in the Steelers’ favor.
13. Philadelphia (2-3). Last three weeks: 2-1, 27.7 points per game. The times, they may be a-changin’.
14. Buffalo (3-2). Impressive couple of drives for Tyrod Taylor in the second half against the Titans. He’ll need four quarters of those on most Sundays for Buffalo to break its playoff drought.
15. Indianapolis (3-2). The Colts should know what’s coming to central Indiana Sunday night: New England’s running game. Last year, Jonas Gray. This year, Dion Lewis. Chuck Pagano will lay everything at the feet of his run defense in the next few days, and let those players know that if they don’t win their battles against the Patriots’ line, the Colts aren’t going to win the game.
Also receiving votes
16. San Diego (2-3). Chargers’ reward for getting their guts ripped out last night? A trip to Green Bay on Sunday.
17. St. Louis (2-3). In Gurley they trust. At least they should.
18. Washington (2-3). Jay Gruden has to hope the real Kirk Cousins didn’t show up at the end of the game in Atlanta Sunday.
19. Oakland (2-3). Bye this week. Charles Woodson really needs it.
20. Cleveland (2-3). Uh, sports quiz: What team in the NFL has gained the most yards in the last two weeks? Cleveland, 932.