FOXBORO — There was a certain amount of rich irony when Bill Belichick spoke this week about what he sees as the continued greatness of 37-year-old defensive back Charles Woodson.
“Woodson really doesn’t look like a 17-year veteran, I’ll tell you that,” Belichick began. “He makes plays all over the field ‘ very aggressive, fast, instinctive, strong tackler, tough. Just couldn’t say enough about how impressed I’ve been watching him on film. The Raiders have real good team speed. They’re a big, physical team. We have a lot to get ready for in terms of their scheme and personnel.
“I think Coach [Dennis] Allen has done a good job there defensively with emphasizing the turnovers. They caused a lot of fumbles last year. I think it was the fourth-most in the league or something like that. They do a good job of turning the ball over.”
Of course, it’s the one turnover that Woodson thought he caused on Jan. 19, 2002 that will haunt him and the Raiders forever. Charles Woodson came on a corner blitz and sacked his former Michigan teammate in the snow of old Foxboro Stadium. Woodson stripped the ball from Tom Brady and Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert recovered. With 1:43 left in the fourth and the Raiders leading, 13-10, in the AFC divisional playoff game, all hope appeared lost for the Patriots.
Brady and Woodson were best of friends at the University of Michigan. They were separated by just two locker stalls. Brady even threw to Woodson a little while the two were with the Wolverines. This Sunday will mark the sixth time the two have met in the NFL but Brady says the two have never discussed the way their first encounter ended.
“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that, but I remember it very well, and I’m sure he does, too,” Brady said Wednesday. “He was making plays back then, and he’s still making plays the same way. He’s got long arms, a really strong tackler. He’s been a ball hawk his entire career.”
Woodson has talked about it in the past, including last January on the NFL Network as the Patriots and Brady were getting ready to take on the Broncos in the AFC championship.
“Let’s just get this out of the way,” Woodson said. “If they make the correct call — which they did at first, then they overturned it — this (10)-game playoff streak that Tom Brady has? It never happened. Tom Brady owes me his house. I’m the reason why he’s married to who he’s married to. I’m a reason for a lot of that. Everything. Because they overturned that call.
“Tom. C’mon now. Fess up. It was a fumble. It’s still a fumble.”
Well, Brady wasn’t willing to offer up one of his manses but he did give Woodson this glowing review this week as he prepares to take on the 0-2 Raiders.
“He looks phenomenal to me,” Brady said. “I’ve known him for a long time. I’ve practiced against Charles when I was in college. We’ve known each other for 20 years. I have a lot of respect for him as a player, as a person, as a friend, and he looks phenomenal back there. He’s a big playmaker for that defense, and he gets his hands on a lot of balls ‘ not only in the pass game but in the run game. He’s trying to strip the ball out on every play. He’s a great tackler. He’s got great anticipation. He’s someone that I really have to know where he’s at on every play.”
Brady’s only loss to Woodson came that next season, when the Patriots were beaten on a Sunday night in Oakland, 27-20. That night, Woodson had four tackles and forced a David Givens fumble. Brady was 18-of-30 that night for 172 yards, one of only five games in his career where he’s thrown for fewer than 175 yards while attempting at least 30 passes. Lifetime, Brady is 5-1 against Woodson, including a 35-0 shutout against Woodson’s Packers in 2006. Woodson has 21 tackles in those six games but just three passes defended, as Brady has stayed away from his old friend.
Brady also reminded everyone that this is the same Charles Woodson who won the Heisman in 1997 and was a pretty good receiver in his own right.
But it was his defense that stood out in college and still does to this day. The defensive back received 282 more Heisman points than runner-up Peyton Manning and remains the only primarily defensive player to win the honor. Woodson is also the last player to win the Heisman Trophy that is not a running back or quarterback. Woodson, with Brady on the sidelines behind Brian Griese, led Michigan to an undefeated season and a share of the national championship that same season. Brady did get a chance to throw to him at Michigan but on a very limited basis.
“Yeah, I did. I didn’t get a lot of those reps,” Brady said. “I wasn’t in there much when he was there. They didn’t give me chances to throw the ball to him. I was kind of with all the backup guys at that time. When I did, he was probably our best receiver when he was there. Whenever we need a big play we put him in, and he always seemed to make it, so that’s why he won the Heisman.”