But he really had no choice, because Green Bay was the only team that wanted him, even if he didn’t necessarily want to be in Green Bay.
Now, however, after two playoff appearances, a new defense, and a Defensive Player of the Year award, Woodson has no desire to leave, and by signing a contract extension on Thursday he stated his “mission at this point is to retire” as a Packer.
“It took a while, but once I came around, I came around hard,” Woodson told reporters moments after signing the extension following practice. He confirmed that the deal extends his original seven-year contract with the Packers for two more years, through 2014.
“It was a gradual thing, probably the more people that I met around here in the community and throughout Wisconsin, and just playing here. Playing here with the guys that we have, the organization, the way they are with the players, the way they take care of the players.
“Once I realized what I had, being here in Green Bay, then it was a done deal for me.”
Woodson is coming off his best season in 2009, when he tied for the league lead in interceptions with nine, returned three of them for touchdowns, led the team with four forced fumbles, and joined Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White as the only Packers to be named The Associated Press’ NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
He accomplished all of this in the first year of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, the first time in Woodson’s pro career (which began in 1998 with Oakland) that he played in a 3-4. He appreciates the opportunities Capers gives him to make impact plays from all over the field – as a corner, in the slot, or at safety.
The way he is used, combined with the fact that the Packers are a playoff contender with designs on making a Super Bowl run, led Woodson and his agent to ask about an extension following last season.
“We’ve got it here,” Woodson said of the team’s chances to go all the way. “We’ve got the players here to get it done, we’ve got the coaching staff to get it done. It’s all going to rest on our shoulders, the players to go out there and get it done. I absolutely believe that our mission as a team is to get there, and I think we can do it.”
If the Packers do, Woodson will certainly be a big part of it. Soft-spoken by nature but very demonstrative in the heat of battle, Woodson is highly respected both on the field and in the locker room by his teammates. One could argue he’s the most indispensible player on the entire defense, because no one else could come close to replicating his all-around impact.
“A great leader, mentor,” safety and fellow Pro Bowler Nick Collins said. “He’s been around the game a long time, and just his knowledge of the game, it helps you play a little faster and understand what’s going on because he’s always communicating, letting you know what he’s going to do. He’s like a big brother to all of us.”
Playing as well as he did last year in his 12th season begs the question how much longer Woodson can keep it up. Head Coach Mike McCarthy said Woodson came into training camp this year in the best shape he’s ever seen him, so it’s clear the veteran has no intention of resting on his most recent achievements.
“He has been an outstanding football player for us since Day 1,” McCarthy said. “I think the new defense really highlights his skills and his abilities.
“He is instinctive and tough as they come, so I don’t see any drop-off at all.”
Woodson doesn’t see himself ever putting on a different uniform again, either. He said he hopes to play out his contract, which would take him to age 38.
“It’s been a great ride for me and hopefully we can bring a championship here,” Woodson said. “Like I say, this will be hopefully my last team.”
Interestingly, Sunday’s season opener at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia will include the three players who have recorded the most interceptions in the NFL over the last two seasons – Woodson (16), Collins (13) and Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel (13).
Woodson and Collins have done a little more with the ball in their hands, combining for 753 return yards and eight TDs over the last two years compared to Samuel’s 181 return yards and one score over the same period.
But Samuel, who signed as a free agent with the Eagles in 2008 after five years in New England, also had two interceptions, including one returned for a TD, in the 2008 playoffs. Of his eight career touchdowns, four have come in the postseason, so he takes a back seat to no one as a defensive playmaker.
“He has great instincts, and that’s probably the one attribute – aside from obviously he’s very talented athletically – but he’s got instincts for the football, and he’s got very good ball skills obviously,” Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “But I would say it’s his route recognition, his ability to read the quarterback and cover at the same time.
“Some guys, they’re so focused on one thing, they’re maybe not in tune to the routes and the cuts of the other receivers. But almost regardless of the coverage, this guy has tremendous instincts and can find the football. You might think, ‘Well, he’s got to be over here,’ because of the coverage call. But somehow he figures out where you’re going with the ball.”
In addition, the Packers tied for the league lead last year with 141 points scored off of turnovers, while the Eagles were fourth with 116. The year before, Green Bay was first with 124 points and Philadelphia was tied for third with 115.
Taking the ball away on defense, and taking care of it on offense, have been staples of success for both of these teams. Last year, while the Packers topped the league in turnover margin (plus-24), interceptions (30) and total takeaways (40), the Eagles ranked second (plus-15), third (25) and third (38) in all three categories.
“When you have that distinction there, you’re going to be in a really good situation at the end of the games,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the turnover ratio. “On offense our goal obviously is to take care of the football, and we always felt like if we didn’t turn it over, we were going to have a chance to win, if not win every ballgame we played in.
“We just want to continue to do the things we did last year -- take care of the football, don’t turn it over. Personally, the ball is in my hands every play, so that’s a big emphasis for myself and the quarterback room, taking care of the football.”
The Packers added defensive end Mike Neal to their injury report on Thursday with what Head Coach Mike McCarthy called a strain in the abdomen. It’s listed on the report as a “side” injury, and Neal did not participate in practice.
Also, linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring) and cornerback Brandon Underwood (shoulder) were downgraded from limited participants on Wednesday to non-participants on Thursday. Linebacker Brady Poppinga (knee) did not participate for the second straight day.
McCarthy said all injured players would be re-evaluated on Friday morning.
The Eagles continue to have no injuries to report.
Additional coverage – Sept. 9