Posted on Thu. Aug. 06, 2009 - 10:10 am EDT

Woodson soared with the Ravens

He shaped Baltimore's young defense into a dominating force.

of The News-Sentinel

After 10 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and one transitional season with the San Francisco 49ers, Rod Woodson faced a career crossroad.

He could still play at a high level, as evidenced by a three-interception game while with the 49ers. And he wanted a team where his skills and mind-set would best fit.

That's when Marvin Lewis called.

Lewis, now the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, was the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens in 1998. He saw Woodson as the missing piece of savvy and experience that could push the Ravens into the NFL's elite.

“I really decided to go there because of Marvin Lewis making the phone call,” Woodson said. “He said they had a whole bunch of talent there that needed to learn how to win.”

Enter Woodson, the teacher.

Woodson had always been a leader, even in his early years with the Steelers. As he moved into the second half of his career, transitioning from cornerback to safety, he found ways, through guile and example, to turn a brash, young defense into a dominating force.

Woodson, a Fort Wayne native, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Canton, Ohio. His 17-year career included an embarrassment of great moments. And during the second half of his career, the high point was undoubtedly his four years with the Ravens.

Woodson led the NFL in interceptions in 1999 with the Ravens, and his presence helped the team to a Super Bowl championship after the 2000 season.

Brian Billick - the former Ravens coach who has written a soon-to-be-released book, “More Than a Game,” about economics in the NFL - says Woodson's addition to the team had a huge positive effect.

“Very few players are as complete a player as Rod Woodson was,” Billick said. “You see that in something as simple as the transition from corner to safety. Corner is a very instinctive, physical position. Safety requires a certain vision and intelligence to play. He made the transition seamlessly.”

When Billick looks back on his time coaching Woodson, another contribution stands out that can't be measured by interceptions or Pro Bowl appearances.

“The thing that impressed me was that we had a pretty dynamic group, led by a young Ray Lewis,” Billick said. “Rod was at the stage of his career where it would have been natural and understandable if he commanded a certain leadership role for himself, as opposed to relinquishing it to a young player. Rod was able to foster (Lewis' leadership) and allow that to flourish.”

Woodson downplays his role with Lewis with a show of humility that remains part of his personality even on the verge of his enshrinement into the Hall of Fame.

“Ray molded himself into a great leader,” Woodson said.

The Ravens' defense in 2000 continues to be ranked as one of the most potent in NFL history, and Baltimore dominated the New York Giants 34-7 in the Super Bowl. Woodson and Lewis became good friends, with Lewis coming to Fort Wayne to participate in Woodson's youth football camp in summer 2001.

Billick said Woodson not only encouraged Lewis' leadership, but also gave the coach some peace of mind.

“His presence gave me great comfort during our championship run,” Billick said. “What could happen on a football field that Rod Woodson hadn't seen before? When things were tight, he'd give a little wink and nod to say, ‘We're OK here.' During the course of games when there were adjustments to make, he easily communicated those.”

After four years with the Ravens, Woodson became a free agent again. He was 37, an age when most defensive backs are already enjoying the benefits of retirement.

The Oakland Raiders made Woodson an offer, one that came with the unintentional bonus of bringing Woodson's career full circle. When he started playing football as a youngster in Fort Wayne's Police Athletic League, Woodson's team was the Raiders.

So could the old guy still play? No question.

Woodson led the league in interceptions, tying his career high with eight, returned two of those for touchdowns and helped the Raiders reach the Super Bowl. Woodson had an interception in the Super Bowl, but the Raiders lost to Tampa Bay.

Woodson finished his career a year later at age 38.

“I played 17 years; that definitely beats the average,” Woodson said. “I know how fortunate and blessed I was to spend that much time in the league.”

It wouldn't be a stretch to say the NFL was blessed to have Woodson that long, too.

Rod Woodson

Post-Steelers highlights

♦1997 San Francisco 49ers: Recorded his first career three-interception game.

♦1999 Baltimore Ravens: Led the NFL with seven interceptions. Pro Bowl player.

♦2000 Baltimore Ravens: Helped the Ravens to a Super Bowl title. Pro Bowl player.

♦2002 Oakland Raiders: Led NFL with eight interceptions. Helped Raiders win AFC Championship. First-team All-Pro.
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