State Your Case: It’s time we heard about Darren Woodson


Darren Woodson photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys

Brian Urlacher earlier this year said he was disappointed that former Dallas safety Darren Woodson isn’t joining him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, but I’m not. I’m disappointed Darren Woodson hasn’t been discussed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Ever. And that makes no sense.

The Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls in four years in the 1990s, with five players from those three teams in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. OK, that’s understandable. But this isn’t: All but one are on offense (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Larry Allen), with Charles Haley the exception.

So what? So in 1992, the Cowboys led the league in total defense. In 1993, they led it in fewest points allowed. In 1994, they led it in total defense again. And one year later they were third in points allowed.

Now, let me get this straight: You’re telling me there’s not more than one defensive player from those four teams that deserves to be discussed as a finalist? Please. You know better. There is, and his name is Darren Woodson.

“He was the guy who made that defense go,” Urlacher said on 105.3 the Fan in Dallas. “Darren Woodson, to me, was a beast. My favorite player of all time.”

Darren Woodson was such a dominant safety that he retired as the Cowboys’ all-time leading tackler, was a five-time Pro Bowler, a four-time All-Pro and a three-time Super Bowl champion. But he was more than a hard hitter who made a lot of stops. He was one of the game’s first cover safeties, blanketing slot receivers for championship teams — so good that Sports Illustrated in 1994 described him as “the most productive player on the best defense in the NFL.”

In  word, he was versatile. And when we interviewed him on the Talk of Fame Network, he cited “versatility” as the first trait that Hall-of-Fame voters should be looking for in their safety candidates.

“Anyone can play 14 yards back in Cover-Two,” Woodson said. “Anyone can play in the middle of the field, and line up there and not have to have any coverage responsibility. But I would say a safety who can cover … a safety who can come up and tackle … and a safety who can blitz around the line of scrimmage and make plays (is what makes a Hall of Famer).”

Hmmm, sounds a lot like Darren Woodson.

A linebacker in college, he was converted to safety in the pros and was an immediate success — with over 1,000 tackles, 23 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles and 11 sacks in his 12-year career.  He could play up. He could play back. It didn’t matter. He was always a factor, which is why the Cowboys inducted him into their Ring of Honor in 2015.

But Hall-of-Fame voters haven’t budged. Not yet, they haven’t. Yes, Woodson has been a semifinalist. In fact, he’s been a semifinalist twice. But he’s never been one of the 15 finalists discussed by selectors, and given his success and the success of the teams on which he played, that doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.

Yet the odds aren’t with him. First of all, voters historically haven been slow to act on safeties, though two have been inducted (senior nominee Kenny Easley and Brian Dawkins) the past two years. Second, there’s a line of really good ones either in the queue or on their way — with John Lynch, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu the most noteworthy. And third, Woodson was not an all-decade choice.

Granted, that shouldn’t keep him out (heck, Lynch wasn’t one, either), but it does reduce his chances when you consider that LeRoy Butler and Steve Atwater — first-team safeties on the 1990s’ all-decade team — can barely get a sniff. Butler has been a semifinalist just once and Atwater a finalist once.

So where does that leave Darren Woodson? On the outside looking in, that’s where.

Look, I don’t know how you sort these guys out, but Butler, Atwater and Woodson should have their cases heard by voters … and only one of them has. I mean, if you’re considered the best at your position for a decade, shouldn’t that mean something? And if you were the defensive leader on a team that won three Super Bowls in four years and went to the conference championship game all four seasons, shouldn’t that mean something, too?

I think it should. So let’s start talking about Darren Woodson.

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12 Comments

  1. bachslunch
    July 3, 2018
    Reply

    Clark, good quality write up and agreed, Darren Woodson (4/5/none) has a strong HoF argument. He’s as you rightly point out one of a clutch of safeties more or less of the time in a logjam along with Steve Atwater, John Lynch, LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper (who likely won’t get in because of character issues), and the upcoming Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Sadly, no surprise given the problems the position has historically had regarding the HoF. Why Woodson didn’t make the 90s all-decade team instead of Carnell Lake is a good question.

    Interestingly, he’s also the only member of his draft class who has any potential chance of be8ng inducted (1992). And unfortunately it’s not the best of chances, either. I definitely support his HoF candidacy. Hope he gets in someday.

    • bachslunch
      July 3, 2018
      Reply

      Apologies for the double post. No idea how that happened. It originally looked like the first of these had disappeared when I tried editing. Looks like it posted instead for unknown reasons.

      • July 4, 2018
        Reply

        No apologies necessary. Look forward to hearing from you.

  2. bachslunch
    July 3, 2018
    Reply

    Clark, excellent write up and good case made for Darren Woodson (4/5/none). Why he isn’t on the 90s all decade team and Carnell Lake is — that’s a good question. As you correctly note, he’s one of a logjam of safeties more or less of the time along with Steve Atwater, Leroy Butler, Darren Sharper (who likely won’t get in because of character issues), and the upcoming Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. In other words, the usual problems safeties have regarding the HoF. I support his candidacy.

    Interestingly, he’s the only member of his draft class (1992) with much chance of making the HoF.

    • July 3, 2018
      Reply

      Great to hear from you and always interested in your comments. I don’t know how much of a chance he really has. Doesn’t seem as if anyone is talking about him. Unfortunately, it’s a Latest Is the Greatest feeling on the board that seems to have taken hold, and that’s a shame. Doesn’t allow for deserving guys like this to have their cases heard. Instead, voters can’t wait to fast forward the cases of people who will make it … but whom they want to make it immediately.

      • bachslunch
        July 3, 2018
        Reply

        Thanks. Yeah, I don’t get the rush to elect the newest kids on the block, either. That’s how Senior backlogs get formed and expanded, which is no good for anyone.

        Woodson is the kind of player who probably needs a few times as finalist to get in. Some folks, like Art Monk and Tom Mack and Harry Carson and Jack Youngblood apparently needed several years worth of “marinating” time before they got in. These folks were lucky enough to get it and were elected after several years of candidacy. Other folks, like Randy Gradishar, weren’t so fortunate.

        • July 4, 2018
          Reply

          Except the clock is ticking on him. Doesn’t have that long left as modern-era candidate. Needs to have his case heard. Then maybe he can make a move. It happened with Boselli. Could happen here, but, as I said, not optimistic. Guys will want to rush Reed, Polamalu in when they can wait and give some of the older guys like Butler, Atwater and Woodson their day in Canton.

  3. Patrick Bailey
    July 3, 2018
    Reply

    Should have been all decade instead of Lott who only played one or two seasons in the 90s. Alas that is typical with some of the anti-dallas leaning selectors. Hope he makes it along with Butler and Atwater. Always thought better than Butler but he played for media favorite GB plus he blitzed more which beings attention. Not sure why Lynch gets so much pub.

    • July 4, 2018
      Reply

      You are absolutely right on the all-decade issue. I’m a Butler fan. Atwater, too. But none of these guys gets (and that includes Woodson, of course) seems to have momentum. I mean, we just got Butler to the semifinal stage this year FOR THE FIRST TIME. Unreal.

  4. Rasputin
    July 3, 2018
    Reply

    I hadn’t heard Urlacher had said that. Good for him. Great article, Clark. I definitely think Woodson belongs in the HoF. There’s a reason the team inducted him into the RoH so fast. It was legitimate. Even guys as important as Jay Novacek, Nate Newton, Erik Williams, Moose Johnston, and Deion Sanders aren’t in the RoH. Woodson ran a 4.38 40 and tackled like LB. I’m still not sure I’ve seen a better combination of coverage, run stopping, and hitting ability. Woodson routinely shut down slot receivers and elite TEs like Ben Coates (0 catches in the 1996 game) one on one in coverage while also being one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. He was a huge part of that SB dynasty and was the best player on the Dallas defense out of those who were there for most of the decade. Haley was seen as the most important guy for the first few years, then Deion, but Woodson was right up there with them and unlike those two was there for the long haul. He was a Cowboy his entire career and was a big part of keeping that defense ranked in the top 10 every year in the late 90s in either yards, points, or both, despite eroding talent around him.

    Even in his last few years in the 2000s Woodson was the best player on the defense. Simply playing next to Woodson with his football smarts was enough to cover up Roy Williams’ coverage deficiencies and make him a Pro Bowler. I remember Madden saying during a broadcast that Woodson wasn’t in the Pro Bowl but he didn’t understand why because there wasn’t any safety in the NFL better than him. When Woodson retired Dallas lost a lot in the secondary and they’ve been missing him at safety ever since.

    In 2003, Woodson’s final season, he started every game and the team ranked #1 in defense and #1 in passing defense. Next year without him the defense fell to 16th overall and 21st(!) in pass defense. Dallas didn’t rank in the top 10 in pass defense again until 2015, over a decade later. Woodson should have made another Pro Bowl or two but 5 Pro Bowls and 3 first team All Pro selections combined with 3 Super Bowl rings should be qualification enough to make him a HoF finalist.

    Woodson was royally robbed of All Decade status by the anti-Cowboys bias that was as big as ever at the end of the 90s. Historian John Turney agreed with me on the Pro Football Journal website that Woodson should have been All Decade.

    John Turney: “I do agree, Woodson should have been on 1990s.”

    I’m hoping that at some point the current HoF selection board can make up for the mistake the board made in the late 90s. Woodson was the greatest 90s safety in my opinion.

    • Rasputin
      July 3, 2018
      Reply

      BTW, that 1996 game against the eventual Super Bowl Patriots I mentioned off the top of my head was the only one that season the Pro Bowl TE Ben Coates was held without a catch (including the playoffs), but it wasn’t for lack of trying. According to PFR he was targeted 6 times with 0 completions. Darren Woodson shut him down, getting 2 interceptions in the process in the Cowboys’ win.

    • July 4, 2018
      Reply

      Not so sure it happens. Board keeps getting younger. To me, at least deserves to have his case heard. Have heard too many people I trust backing him to think he’s HOF worthy.

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