FRISCO - During his Ring-of-Honor career that is again knocking on the Hall-of -Fame door, Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson made more tackles than any player in the franchise’s 60-year history.
After watching this year’s abysmal defense surrender record-setting numbers en route to a 4-9 record, the 51-year-old Woodson is proving he can still deliver a crushing hit.
“The way they play, it makes the competitor in you cringe,” Woodson tells CowboysSI.com during a promotional tour for Crown Royal’s “Stay Hydrated” holiday campaign. “It was my job to hit people. To punish quarterbacks. To have my teammate’s back.
"But these guys … I don’t know. They’re helping up runners. Giving love taps on helmets. After the game, sure, it’s a brotherhood. But between the lines, where’s the animosity? We just don’t see anger in this defense’s veins. We see tackling like they’re playing flag football. That’s why all season they’ve been gashed.”
With three Super Bowl rings, five Pro Bowl appearances, 1,350 tackles, 23 interceptions and 11 sacks, Woodson retired in 2004. Along with the Texas Rangers’ concurrent search to fill their 18-year void at catcher left by Pudge Rodriguez, the Cowboys looking for the next semblance of Woodson at safety is one the longest and lousiest pursuits in DFW sports history.
In his wake, the Cowboys have tried high draft picks (Byron Jones), low draft picks (Alan Ball), undrafted free agents (Barry Church), expensive free agents (Ken Hamlin), converted special-teamers (Danny McCray), converted cornerbacks (Terence Newman), rookies (Jeff Heath) and re-treads (Brandon Carr). In the laughable litany of post-Woodson safety, the Cowboys have trotted out 20-plus players also including Lynn Scott, Tony Dixon, Keith Davis, Anthony Henry, Patrick Watkins, Gerald Sensabaugh, Abram Elam, J.J. Wilcox, Xavier Woods, Darian Thompson and Donovan Wilson.
The success rate at safety mirrors the team’s quarter-century empty chase of a Super Bowl. Since Woodson departed, the Cowboys have boasted only two Pro Bowl safeties (Roy Williams and Hamlin) and none since 2007.
“Our old special-teams coach (the late Joe Avezzano) used to say, ‘Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you’,” Woodson said. “At safety, you might not always win the physical battle. And make no mistake, this isn’t a physical football team. But if you’re outmanned, you have to win the mental battles. You don’t do either of those – you get run over on one play and blow an assignment the next – that’s when the bear gets you. With this team there’s just too many mental errors, too much 'hero ball'.”
The Cowboys are the once-proud franchise with five Lombardi Trophies, led by safeties such as Mel Renfro, Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters and Woodson. The savvy Waters was known to bark out opposing offenses’ audible calls at the line of scrimmage. Harris made Canton behind his “Captain Crash” persona; Renfro did so as one of the most versatile and athletic defensive backs in NFL history.
But in 2020 that Cowboys’ bravado has been muted, even flexed by NBC out of primetime TV to noon kickoffs,, to be called by announcers their fans have literally never hear of. There are myriad excuses – and some valid reasons – for the Cowboys’ disaster, including their again underwhelming play at the back end of the secondary.
When the Cowboys let Heath leave in free agency after the 2019 season (to ultimately sign with the Raiders), most shrugged in indifference at losing an undersized, inferior tackler. But then the Cowboys refused to spend money signing Earl Thomas or assets trading for Jamal Adams. Left with an unspectacular stable of talent, they even brought back former cornerback Carr to play safety but released him after three games.
That has left them with Wilson (a hard hitter who has shown flashes of being a playmaker), Thompson and Woods. Though Thompson caused a fumble during Dallas’ victory in Cincinnati last Sunday, the egregious performance of Woods has encapsulated a Cowboys’ crappy season in which the safeties have only one interception and the defense is on pace to allow the most points in team history.
Against the Ravens last week, Woods was so bad that even former Cowboy and Fox analyst Troy Aikman couldn’t hold back. Woods flailed haplessly on a lame tackle attempt near the goal line, later embarrassingly soft-shoved Lamar Jackson after he converted a third-down run, and then tackled a Baltimore receiver though the pass was overthrown by a good 10 yards.
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“That’s about as poor of safety play as you’ll see,” Aikman said after Woods’ obvious pass-interference penalty. After Woods later played Patty Cake with Jackson, Aikman unleashed again: “You’d like a safety that can come up and be a thumper. (Woods) has a chance to make a play and hit Lamar Jackson short of the first down. But … I just don’t know exactly what this is. It’s not what you want to see from your safety, that’s for sure.”
Those plays, of course, from the same safety that drew the ire of Cowboys fans earlier in the season after admitting he wasn’t giving maximum effort because … well, just because.
“On certain plays, some guys – I mean, me included – there may be a lack,” Woods said after an October loss to the Browns in which Dallas was ravaged for a record 307 yards rushing. “But overall, the effort is there. We’re in the NFL. You don’t expect guys to go full speed for 70 plays. That’s not possible.”
Combine the lacking energy with, at times, laughable execution -including No. 28 Rashard Robinson whiffing on tackles and tarnishing the legacy of Woodson’s number - and it’s made 2020 wholly forgettable.
But for Woodson, it’s not merely the results but also the resolve.
Like many fans – and even head coach Mike McCarthy – he was appalled by the lack of retaliation toward Washington linebacker Jon Bostic after his violent, head-hunting hit on quarterback Andy Dalton in October.
“Oh, back in the day that would’ve started with Larry Allen and Nate (Newton) and Big E (Erik Williams) and been a bench-clearing brawl,” Woodson said. “You’ve got to protect your guys, and send a message. But it didn’t happen, and there’s no excuse for that.”
While Cowboys fans grapple with a long-shot playoff path that requires them going 3-0 down the stretch and Washington 0-3, with a defense that has deteriorated from “Doomsday” to “Easy Money”, and with a championship drought headed toward 25 years, this Winter they can at least root for Woodson to reach immortality. A Hall-of-Fame semifinalist for the fifth time, he is among 25 candidates that will be trimmed to 15 in January before the Class of 2021 is announced during Super Bowl LV week in early February.
“I try to take the emotions out of it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the reason I started playing football at age 7,” said Woodson, who these days is an entrepreneur with several businesses anchored by a commercial real estate firm headquartered adjacent to the Cowboys at The Star in Frisco. “It was always my dream to win championships and be recognized as one of the all-time greats.
"I’ve seen Drew Pearson wait and Cliff Harris wait and I’m not looking forward to another year of waiting. Hoping this is it.”
Among the 25 semifinalists are defensive backs Eric Allen, Ronde Barber, LeRoy Butler, Rodney Harrison, John Lynch and Charles Woodson.
“As a '90's safety, I can say we’ve been overlooked for a long time,” Woodson said. “We took on tight ends at the line of scrimmage. We covered receivers in the slot. We hunted the ball and we certainly didn’t shy away from contact. You just don’t see that in the NFL today.”
Especially, unfortunately, from his present-era Dallas Cowboys.