Thursday, October 25, 2007

Charles Woodson--Praise Be

It was ten years ago, but it seems like yesterday. It was ten years ago, but it seems like a lifetime ago. It was October 25, 1997 a chilly day in East Lansing to be certain and #5 Michigan had headed north to face the #15 ranked Michigan State Spartans, a team which had just suffered a two point setback to Northwestern at Ryan Field the week before, but at that time still the Spartans best start since 1966. Michigan was coming off its closest win of the year, a four point victory over Iowa at the Big House that was far less in the realm of joy, and far more in the realm of relief for Michigan football fans (sound familiar?). The season had not yet become magical, but there was something special in the air, as it was the first time Michigan had started the season with six straight wins in 11 years. Spartan quarterback Todd Schultz entered the game with a 61.5% completion percentage and 10 TDs to just four picks, while Michigan's defense had allowed a grand total of nine second half points, thanks largely to one man, Charles Woodson.

Five tackles and two interceptions later, a football player ceased to be and a legend was born in his stead, largely because, while the second of Woodson's interceptions showed his skill in pass coverage, the first of Woodson's picks seemed to defy physics, gravity, and common sense. An elegant ballet of a powerful leap, body positioning, and steady hands, Woodson pulled down a pick (caused, in no small part, by great pressure on the quarterback during a roll out) that should not be, lands, keeps possession of the ball near the Michigan State sideline, and gets up to play the "Who's the man?" game. That one moment shows the awesome power of Charles Woodson, but it does not explain why he is the most important Michigan player of the last 50 years.

Woodson played in all three phases of the game, on the field for a remarkable 765 plays during the 1997 regular season, 152 of those coming on offense or special teams. During 1997 alone, he had seven interceptions, and while he did not make any of them a pick six, he did his damage on that front on special teams with his punt return against the Buckeyes in the season closer at Michigan Stadium. He also killed Ohio State's first drive of the second half with a pick in the end zone. In the biggest games, when Michigan needed him the most, Woodson seemed to find a way to shine. All of this from a man who was likely being game planned away from and generally thrown away from after being an All-American his Sophomore year. Of the 15 times Woodson touched the ball on offense in 1997, Michigan scored three touchdowns and picked up nine first downs.

The overall point here is one often overlooked as much in the national argument about Woodson's Heisman as it is by Michigan fans looking at Woodson's importance in the grand scheme. Woodson's presence (not his mere presence, mind you, that's different), changed the game in so many ways. Opposing offenses had to plan on throwing away from his side of the field, allowing Michigan to bring the fury up front with guys like Sword, Hall, Steele, and Dhani Jones. Similarly, Woodson brought out the best in Marcus Ray (a player whom I always really liked because he just HIT people), because defenses attacked him with greater frequency. On offense, Woodson was a wild card, you had to account for him, even if he was just in as a decoy. On special teams, his punt return average was not spectacular, but the belief that he could break one made teams leery of kicking towards him. Charles Woodson made his team better, not only because of what he could do on the football field, but because of what teams thought he could do on the football field. Players like that come along once in a generation, and we were fortunate to have seen one of them come through Ann Arbor.

No comments: