It was hard to tell if Charles Woodson was aware of the pun or not, but the Green Bay Packers veteran safety wasn’t laughing. He was speaking the truth, and it was unvarnished:
He was scared.
Having missed nine games with a fractured collarbone – the same injury to the same shoulder he’d suffered during the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV victory two years ago – Woodson wasn’t sure how the bone would react to the first collision, first fall to the ground, first awkward position during Saturday night’s 24-10 NFC Wild Card playoff victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field.
"That was the scary part – because you don't know,” admitted Woodson, who was injured Oct. 21 at St. Louis. “I really went into the game scared, not really knowing what was going to happen. I mean, you feel good about your shoulder being healed, but being in that position where you've broken it before, it's a funny feeling.”
Woodson was able to test the shoulder almost immediately. He came up and dove – and missed – at Vikings running back Adrian Peterson on the second play of the game. He dragged Peterson down after an 11-yard gain a few plays later. And when he came up on second-and-5 and met Peterson in the hole, dropping him for a 2-yard loss, Woodson knew: He was going to be OK.
“Getting in there, getting that first tackle, hitting the ground a couple of times, having people fall on top of me on the side where I broke it – and to get up with no pain?” said Woodson, who was credited with six tackles, including one for loss, while playing every one of the Packers’ 63 defensive snaps. “Let me tell you, that was a load off my shoulder."
Pun intended or not, it was also a load off the Packers’ minds. Woodson played safety whenever the Packers were in their base “Okie” defense, then was in his usual spot in the dime, most often covering the slot receiver. On the rare occasions the Packers played their nickel defense, Woodson stayed at safety rather than moving down to the slot, as rookie Casey Hayward had grown into that role while Woodson was sidelined.
“Charles is a rare guy from a physical standpoint. You saw him make some physical plays last night. He had a couple tackles of Peterson that most DBs just don’t make on their own,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers explained Sunday afternoon, as the Packers began preparations for next Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. “I thought he showed up, like he always does, when we blitzed him and I think he’ll be better this week.
“If you think about it, he hadn’t played any football since that Rams game, so it’s been an awful long time. He played all the snaps – he played in all three packages and played different positions in the different packages. It’s nice to have him back. I think there’s a confidence level there. He’s obviously one of our leaders and it’s hard to be a leader if you’re not out on the field playing.”
While Capers had said in the days leading up to the game that he would monitor Woodson, he apparently looked good to his coach from the get-go.
“I certainly didn’t see any reason to bring him off the field. I thought he was doing all the things we’d asked him to do,” Capers said. “I’d been asked how I (thought he’d) respond. You never know how a guy will respond. All you have to go off are practices and as you know our practices last week were basically geared toward more walkthroughs just because we were on a short week and you wanted to have the guys as fresh as they could be for the game.
“It’s good to have him back. I think he is obviously fresh, probably much more fresh than he’d been had he played the whole year. I think as he goes through here, I think you’ll see him work his way back into his form, the more practice he has and the more game time he plays. I thought last night was a good start having him back. I was happy to see him out on the field.”
While Woodson wore bulkier shoulder pads than he’d worn before the injury that he confessed he “hated,” he relished being back in the mix. As he left the field after the victory, he unleashed a guttural yell and wore an ear-to-ear smile that would’ve been visible even under his newfangled cage-like facemask.
“That was pent-up (emotion),” Woodson explained afterward. “Let me tell you something, man: That’s the hardest thing for a guy like myself – to sit on the sideline and watch your team play. Win or lose, it’s hard to watch. I’ve read a lot of things about me these last couple weeks about what I can’t do anymore and those sort of things. I felt like I couldn’t defend myself. To be able to get out on the field and remind people of what it is I do on Sundays, Saturdays or whatever, that felt good.”
While Woodson might only begrudgingly admit it, he’s not the same player he was in 2009, when he was named the NFL’s defensive player of the year. But, at age 36, he’s still a difference-maker who tilts the field. He’s also the most well-respected player in the locker room, as evidenced by the way his teammates voted him as a team captain for the playoffs even though he’d been sidelined for 10 weeks.
“It says a lot for Charles Woodson and says a lot about the respect that he carries in the locker room,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He's here around the clock. He puts a lot more time in than I think people realize. There’s not too many nights where the coaching staff is down in the cafeteria for dinner and he’s (not) still here.”
That said, Woodson isn’t interested in just being an inspirational leader during what he’s hoping is another Super Bowl run. He wants to have a tangible impact, not just an intangible one.
“Locker room leader is great, it’s a great title to have, but that ain’t who I am. I’m a football player. I want guys to feel me on the field between the lines. For guys to speak of me in that way, man, I’ll tell you, it’s very humbling. But I’m a football player and I need to be out there.”
As for those doubting his importance to the defense given the unit’s play without him, Woodson said: “It’s upsetting a little bit because I feel like, especially people who are here locally that have watched me play for the last seven, eight years, know what I bring to the table. They’re trying to push me out the door is what it seems like. When you’re not playing, I think you’re a little more sensitive because you can’t defend yourself out there on the field. You can’t play; you can’t show people what you do. I think people are more willing to talk about what they say I can’t do rather than talk about what it is that I do. I don’t like it.
“To watch your guys suit up in the locker room every Sunday, put the pads on, put their cleats on, everybody’s amped up and ready to go play and you’re sitting there – you want to be a part of it but you just don’t feel a part of it. It’s hard not being able to suit up.
“I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re my motivation. My motivation is football, and that’s what I do. Those things that are written about me are upsetting but they’re not my motivation.
“The Super Bowl is always the ultimate goal. For everybody on this team, that’s what we’re shooting for and that’s motivation enough. We feel like we have a really good team but we want to be considered a great team, so we want to keep on fighting.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.