Charles Woodson and the Safety Dance
By Jon Meerdink
It seems like there's a prevailing opinion among Packer fans and those that write about the Packers that Charles Woodson needs to be moved to safety. The argument makes sense in some ways. Charles Woodson is mortal (or so we're led to believe) and he therefore will not be able to maintain his otherworldly athleticism indefinitely. Given his supreme ball-hawking instincts and the lesser athleticism required to play safety, it seems like a natural fit. But here's the thing: I don't think it's going to happen, and I've got three reasons why.
1. Charles Woodson is not Nick Collins
The main reason people seem to think Charles Woodson needs to be a safety and not a cornerback is because Nick Collins is no longer a Green Bay Packer. But I find a problem with that logic simply because of the difference between the playing styles of the two All-Pros. What made Nick Collins great as a safety in the Packers' system was his tremendous speed and range. When Collins was making plays at his peak, he was like a giant cloud in the secondary; his speed was such that he could close on and intercept balls that were even slightly off target. Now, think of soon-to-be 36 year-old Charles Woodson. If you believe that his speed is declining in such a way that he can't be an effective cover corner, why would he be able to play safety in a comparable manner to someone who was more athletic than he was to begin with? I realize that schemes can be altered to make up for such shortcomings, but doesn't it seem a tad illogical to say "we lost a supremely athletic safety, we have an aging corner who's losing speed, let's make the aging corner a replacement for the supremely athletic safety"? It does to me.
2. Charles Woodson is Charles Woodson
Woodson's greatest asset is his ability to play the ball. In the six seasons he's been with the Packers, he's recorded an absolutely ridiculous 37 interceptions in addition to forcing 13 fumbles and notching 10 sacks. Clearly the man knows how to get to the ball. Dom Capers uses Charles Woodson in such a way that he's almost always around the ball and the line of scrimmage. When you watch Charles Woodson play corner, look at how often he lines up over the slot receiver instead of one of the outside receivers. This gives him the ability to do a number of things, including blitzing the quarterback and jumping out routes. Essentially, he almost plays like a fifth linebacker or third safety already, but with additional coverage responsibilities. It's as though he has a position all his own, and his ability to cover in a wide variety of ways makes this happen. It may be unfair conjecture, but I don't know if it would be possible to use him in the same way if he was a safety and not a corner. I posed this question to a football coach friend of mine, and in short he agrees, saying using Woodson as a corner plays to his strengths more effectively than playing him at safety. In short, Charles Woodson shouldn't play safety not because he wouldn't be good at safety, but because he's so good at corner.
3. Jerron McMillian is Not Charles Woodson or Nick Collins
It's a lot to ask of a rookie fourth round pick to replace one of the three best safeties in the league (Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are the others), but I believe he'll be asked to do it. If he can be slightly better in coverage than Charlie Peprah (shouldn't be hard) and slightly more aggressive in defending the run than Morgan Burnett (also probably not difficult) then he'll be serviceable as a starter. That's right, serviceable. That's where I'm setting the bar. Think about it this way: the Packers were extremely lucky to have a top-5 cornerback and a top-3 safety on their roster at the same time. What are the odds of that happening again? Probably slim. It may be better to adjust our expectations downward a little. It may also be helpful if the Packers generate a little more pass rush than last year, which can never hurt the performance of a secondary (hello, Mr. Perry). But really, if McMillian can just be average in both pass coverage and run support, I think he'll do just fine. Average, Jerron. That's all I ask. Can he be average? I think so, and if you believe a Sports Illustrated scout, he hits "like a ton of bricks," so there's always that.
In conclusion, Charles Woodson is a not Nick Collins, but he shouldn't have to be, because he's Charles Woodson. Also, Jerron McMillian will hopefully be at least average, and Nick Perry might help him do that. Clear? Good.
[PS - The title of this post in no way had anything to do with this really awesome song. Nothing at all.]