Rod Woodson’s Hall of Fame Games as a Pittsburgh Steeler

Rod Woodson is supposed to be one of the NFL’s best all-around players for the next ten years.” -Curt Gowdy, September, 1988, during the Steelers-Redskins game

Commentators love sweeping statements like these, but this shows that even legends like Curt Gowdy can fall far off target. “Off target” not because Woodson didn’t dominate, but because he dominated for far longer than a decade.

Rod Woodson has earned his spot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio where he joins the select few who not only embodied excellence, but who were privileged enough and talented enough to make the game better because of their play.

Rod Woodson, Pittsburgh Steelers, Hall of Fame, Steelers vs. Browns, 1994 Steelers, Rod Woodson Interception

NFL Hall of Famer picks off a pass as 1994 Steelers triumph over Browns in Cleveland; Photo Credit: eff Glidden/Associated Press

Rod Woodson’s NFL Records

Rod Woodson’s talent was so rare that Chuck Noll told his scouts not even to bother working him. The Steelers picked 10th in the 1987 NFL Draft, and Noll knew that Woodson would never fall that far. Woodson fell…

Woodson arrived at a team with an established legacy of defensive dominance. He did not merely live up to the Steeler’s legacy, Rod Woodson helped redefine it. Consider Woodson’s current NFL records:

  • 11 Pro Bowls, a record for a defensive back
  • Most interception return yardages (1,483)
  • Most interceptions returned for touchdowns (12)
  • The first player to earn Pro Bowl slots at kick returner, cornerback, and safety
  • Tied for most fumble recoveries in a game (3)

In 1994, Rod Woodson was also only one of five NFL players to make the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team.

Moments that Define a Play Maker and Game Changer

Nice numbers, but they never truly measure a player’s excellence. Greatness means stepping up with the game on the line. The truly great ones alter the course of games when the outcome remains in doubt. Rod Woodson did that time and time again as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Here are a few Hall of Fame Worthy games from:

1987 Woodson’s 1st Interception, First TD vs. Cincinnati, (10/22/87)
Woodson got his first interception in his fourth game as a pro, and he made it count with a 45 yard return for a touchdown that put gave the Steelers a 13-3 lead heading into the half in a game they eventually won 30-16.

1988, Rallying for the Emperor vs. Denver, (10/23/88)
The Steelers were 1-7 and Terry Bradshaw had just called for Chuck Noll to step down. The Steelers vanquished the defending AFC Champion Broncos 39-21. Woodson did his part with 10 tackles, with a 29 yard interception return and 1 forced fumble.

1989, Special Teams Spark, vs. San Diego, (11/11/89)
San Diego had just gone up 10-6. It was only the third quarter, but with the league’s 28th ranked offense, the game looked to be slipping away. Rod Woodson sparked a comeback with a 84 yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

1989 AFC Wild Card game
An Exclamation Point to the Emperor’s Last Hurrah vs. Houston at the Astrodome, (12/31/89)
The 1989 Steelers were in the playoffs in hostile territory. Gary Anderson had just sent the game into over time, but the Oilers won the toss. Houston was advancing, and it looked as if Chuck Noll’s nemesis Jerry Glanville might get the better of The Emperor one more time.

Rod Woodson had other plans. Oilers running back Lorenzo White just began to get separation running to the outside when, out of nowhere, Woodson blasted him, forced a fumble, and returned it deep enough to set up Gary Anderson’s game winning field goal.

1990, Sealing the Game with Special Teams vs. Houston, (9/16/90)
Joe Walton inaugurated his first season as offensive coordinator by directing an effort that failed to score a touchdown during the entire first month. Yet the Steelers started 2-2. David Johnson had already returned an interception for a touchdown, and Woodson’s 52 yard fourth quarter punt return for a touchdown sealed the victory.

1990, Rod Woodson Shuts Down Jerry Rice vs. San Francisco, at Candlestick Park (10/25/90)
Steelers fans will always remember this as the game where Barry Foster stood there and watched a kick off return lay on the turf as it were a punt. But it was also the first match up between Rod Woodson and Jerry Rice. Pittsburgh lost the game 27-7, but Rod Woodson completely shut down Jerry Rice, keeping the NFL’s best ever receiver out of the end zone and holding him to 3 catches for 31 yards.

1992, Special Teams First Strike vs. Kansas City, at Arrowhead, (10/25/92)
After starting 3-0, the Steelers had dropped their next two. They’d rebounded with a win over the Bengals, but they still needed to validate contender status with a win over a legitimate AFC big boy. Woodson helped make it happen by scoring the game’s first points with a 80 yard punt return. The Steelers won 23-3, prompting Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola to declare that the Steelers could now be expected to contend with any NFL team at anytime.

1992, Steelers Own the AFC Central vs. the Houston Oilers, (11/1/92)
Woodson had helped Pittsburgh shock the NFL by going down to Houston and defeating the Oilers in the season opener. At mid-season they battled for AFC Central supremacy. As the Steelers were mounting their come back, Woodson nailed Warren Moon on a cornerback blitz, knocking him out of the game. The Steelers held on to win. NFL Films spied Woodson walking off the field, declaring to jubilant fans “We own the division baby!”

1993, Woodson’s Career Game vs. the New Orleans Saints, (10/17/93)
Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. For an encore, showing incredible concentration, Woodson picked off Wilson’s second pass on a sideline pattern. The New Orleans Saints did not get a first down until the 4th quarter as the Steelers thumped them 37 to 14. ESPN’s Tom Jackson reflected on Woodson’s performance this way “that is a career, in one game.”

1993, A Pick in Time, vs. Miami at Joe Robbie Stadium, (12/13/93)
The Steelers struggled to maintain consistency during the second half of the 1993 season, and this game gives you the perfect snap shot. Pittsburgh had built up a 21-6 lead in the fourth quarter, only to watch the Dolphins bring the score back to 21-20. The Steelers failed to run out the clock, giving Steve DeBerg one last chance to rally the team. Woodson intercepted DeBerg’s pass and returned it 54 yards as time expired. As Dan Dierdorff said, “Right now Bill Cowher is very glad that Rod Woodson is a Pittsburgh Steeler.”

1994, Déjà Vu All Over Again vs. Houston at the Astrodome, (11/6/94)
The Steelers and Oilers traded field goals all afternoon. Al Del Greco tied the game late in the fourth quarter, and overtime began with Houston getting the ball. The Oilers were threatening to get into field goal range when Rod Woodson forced Gary Brown to fumble, and set up Gary Anderson’s 40 yard game winner.

Super Bowl XXX
Becoming the First Player to Return from an ACL Injury in a Season, vs. Dallas, at Sun Devil Stadium, (1/28/96)
In the season opener against Detroit, Barry Sanders made a cut, and Rod Woodson planted to pivot and pursue. As Woodson says today, “My foot went in one direction, my knee the other.” A torn ACL cost Woodson the season, but Bill Cowher refused to put him on IR.

In Super Bowl XXX, Woodson became the first player ever to return from an ACL injury in a single season, but no one knew how he’d play. Shortly before kick off NBC Steeler-hater Chris Collinsworth derided Woodson’s feat, claiming that Cowboy coaches had told him “he’s slow, he’s tentative, we don’t expect him to make an impact.”

Tell that to Michael Irvin. Woodson shadowed Irvin on several occasions, and on one occasion knocked the ball out of Irvin’s hands and then got in his face.

1996, Tormenting Vinny on last time vs. Baltimore (9/6/96)
The Steeler’s first game against their two-be rivals also mark’s the last entry on our list. We’ll discuss the irony of that later, but for now consider that the Steelers had opened the week earlier with a 29-9 loss a Jacksonville. They’d began the game with 8 linebackers active and, in addition to losing Greg Lloyd for the season, the linebacker corps was so decimated that Monday after coaches were discussing the possibly of moving to a 3-4.

On the game’s second snap Vinny Testaverde thought he would get cute and test Woodson. Yeah, Right. Rod Woodson punished him by intercepting the pass and returning it 43 yards for a touchdown.

Honor Bittersweet for Steelers Nation

Woodson is the first Steeler from outside of the first Super Bowl Era to enter the Hall of Fame. Although the Hall of Fame is an individual honor, the move is also significant for the Steelers. As one of Steel Curtain Rising’s readers pointed out, the 1987 draft and Woodson’s arrival signaled the resurgence which continues until this day.

But Rod Woodson did not finish his career as a Steeler. He played for the San Francisco 49ers, won a Super Bowl with the Ravens, and lost another with the Oakland Raiders.

Steelers fans like to say, “well, yeah, but it was as a Steeler that Rod made a name for himself.” True. But Woodson added considerably to his reputation elsewhere. In addition to winning a Super Bowl, Woodson netted just under half of his interceptions, and returned more than half of those interceptions for touchdowns wearing another uniform.

To one degree or another, Woodson’s story is merely a sign of the times. Of the few players blessed with longevity, even fewer play their entire career with one team.

The One that [Shouldn’t Have] Gotten Away

Roster turnover is a reality of the modern NFL, and the Steelers have generally managed it well.
But this is one case that Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney wishes he’d handled differently. Woodson left the Steelers in 1996, but less than a year later Rooney was already having buyers remorse, as reported by Steelers.com.

“When Franco Harris went to Seattle, that was the most difficult,” Dan Rooney told The New York Times in 1997. “But this thing with Rod is right up there. I really wish he was finishing his career with us for a lot of reasons. It hurts.”

Woodson Comes Home Again

Like Franco Harris, Rod Woodson and the Steelers made amends, with Woodson returning to Heinz Field to serve as an honorary game captain for the Steelers in the AFC Championship game. Woodson, while rightly proud of his accomplishments elsewhere, has even said that if forced to choose, he would opt to enter Canton as a Steeler.

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James Harrison – NFL Defensive Player of the Year

We’d like to claim credit, but that would be patently insane.

Obviously, the credit for winning NFL Defensive Player of the year goes entirely to number 92. Harrison, of course, insists that other 10 guys on the defense deserve it, and that speaks well of his character.

So we even joke about taking credit…?

Yesterday Steel Curtain Rising wrote an extensive post arguming that James Harrison’s accomplishments are all that much more impressive if you consider them in context — namely the Pittsburgh Steelers made defense what it is in the NFL and that Pittsburgh’s linebacker legacy is second to none and…

  • … James Harrison owns the Steelers single season sack record.

Well, now he’s been voted as AP NFL Defensive Player of the year, truly a just honor in its own right, but all the more so when you consider the company Harrison now keeps.

For James Harrison is not the first Steeler to recieve this accolade, and that makes it all the more special. Other Steelers to be honored as defensive player of the year are:

  • Joe Greene
  • Mel Blount
  • Jack Lambert
  • Rod Woodson

Greene, Blount, and Lambert are in the Hall of Fame. Woodson will likely be elected in a few weeks, in his first year of elegibility.

  • All four were named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team.

James Harrison is truly in class of some elite Steeler defensive players. To read the full article on James Harrison, click here.

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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – Talent Evaluators

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius, introduced this series of posts that compares Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh. Part I, Noll vs. Walsh – By the Numbers, looked at the two men’s records. This section analyses how the two men stack up as talent evaluators.

On the surface this might seem like an easy win for Noll.

After all, Noll had the final word in the draft room, and nine of his players have been enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. In fact Donnie Shell and L.C. Greenwood should but don’t get serious consideration simply because many voters feel there are “too many Steelers,” in Canton.

Bill Walsh has five players to date, counting Jerry Rice.

Six of Noll’s players landed on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team, whereas Walsh is represented by three.

Had Noll retired in 1980, this post would simply declare him the winner end here. Alas, it is not so simple.

Noll of course knew how to evaluate talent, the man picked a Hall of Famer in each of his first four drafts, and one of his Super Bowl teams was comprised of players that had never played for another team.

Chinks in the Emperor’s Armor

But analysis of Noll’s record also reveals some serious flaws.

When Noll joined the Steelers, the NFL draft was held almost immediately after the Super Bowl (in fact, as Dan Rooney recounts, Noll selected Joe Greene two days after taking the job in 1969.)

In his 1993 book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette explains that the Steelers circumvented this short time-frame by having Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley do the scouting and assembling the draft boards with Noll making the picks based on their conclusions.

In 1977, the NFL moved the draft from January to March/April, to give teams more time to prepare. While extra time might have seemed like a blessing for the Steelers, it ultimately gave Noll the opportunity to micro-manage the scouting process.

As Art Rooney, Jr. explains in Ruadnaid, Noll insisted on involving his assistants more deeply in the scouting process, and some of those assistant coaches were not up to the job.

The Steelers drafting took a nose dive as a result. Pittsburgh closed the 70’s taking first round picks such as Ron Johnson and Greg Hawthorne and began the 80’s with picks like Mark Malone, Keith Gray, and Walter Abercrombie.

At first blush, it might appear that the Steelers simply suffered from picking late. But picks like Darryl Sims and John Reinstra show that better draft position did not lead to improved results.

Bill Walsh, Master Talent Evaluator

Bill Walsh, like Chuck Noll, had to build his team from the ground up. And the record shows that he did it faster than Noll, winning a Super Bowl in his third season. It’s also a huge credit Bill Walsh that he continued stocking his teams with Pro Bowl quality talent, despite high draft picks, placing no less that 44 Pro Bowl appearances by his players during his tenure.

One might reasonably argue that just as Shell and Greenwood Hall of Fame prospects suffer from the “too many Steelers syndrome,” perhaps some of the 49’s of the 80’s are unjustly discarded as being “products of the system.”

Picking Assistant Coaches

Any analysis of talent evaluation skills must also consider coaching choices.

Noll stocked his early staffs with top-caliber coaches, like Bud Carson, George Perles, Woody Widenhofer, Dan Radakovich, Tom Moore and Dick Hoak. Of the entire group, only Carson became an NFL head coach, compiling an 11-13-1 mark in Cleveland between 1989 and 1990.

When these men left Pittsburgh for other opportunities, Noll rarely selected replacements of equal mettle.

Dawn of a New Steel Age is again instructive, where Ed Bouchette contrasts Noll’s approach to evaluating players and assistant coaches. Noll he explained, obsessed over a potential draft pick, always seeking additional data, but his method of selecting assistant coaches was almost haphazard in comparison.

The extent and the depth of “the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree” is often exaggerated, but Walsh clearly knew how to pick lieutenants.

Not only did Walsh disciples spread forth and multiply through the NFL coaching ranks, many succeeded in making names for themselves. To take an extremely conservative sample, three Walsh protégées, George Siefret, Dennis Green, and Mike Holmgren, passed the elusive 100 win mark, made 5 Super Bowl appearances, and hold 3 Super Bowl Rings.

When all is said and done, both Noll and Walsh had a keen eye for talent, but Walsh’s was perhaps a little sharper.

Edge: Walsh.

Click here to read Part IV of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh Series, click here to return to the main article.

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