GREEN BAY, Wis. — Respected veteran players like Charles Woodson can have an impact on NFL teams, even if it’s not with their on-field production. It’s impossible to quantify the value that it adds, but many players believe it to be true and sometimes that is more than half the battle while the collective group physically and mentally grinds through a challenging season.
Just how much is that perceived impact worth, though? To the Green Bay Packers, it wasn’t worth $10 million for Woodson next season, nor should it be.
Woodson is 36 years old and coming off a season in which a broken collarbone sidelined him for nine games. It was the second time in less than two years that Woodson broke his collarbone. The Packers were fine without him, too, winning seven of nine games to conclude the regular season with Woodson not in uniform. While Woodson was out, rookie cornerback Casey Hayward seamlessly transitioned into the slot cornerback role and performed like one of the NFL’s best young players.
So, then what was it that could have made Woodson worth anything close to $10 million next season? His experience and leadership? That could be classified as ‘The Ray Lewis Argument.’
When the 37-year-old Lewis announced prior to the playoffs that he was retiring at season’s end, the Baltimore Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl. A well-written Hollywood script might be able to convince viewers that Lewis’ inspiration was the key difference in Baltimore’s Super Bowl run and that the Ravens greatly benefited from trying to win one for their 17-year veteran leader.
That’s a fun idea, but it’s not reality. The fact is Lewis was Baltimore’s worst defensive player in its path to the championship. He danced the most and matched Joe Flacco’s contract for the most non-Harbaugh-related headlines, but Lewis wasn’t why the Ravens won it all.
Woodson is a better player right now than Lewis, but the concept is the same: He is an aging player in the final stages of his career whose biggest remaining value is as a leader.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson learned his lesson in this area when he chose to re-sign wide receiver Donald Driver last offseason. Driver was going to be low on the depth chart but was brought back for another season for those types of unquantifiable intangibles. As Thompson found out, it didn’t work and it wasn’t worth it.
That’s the harsh world of the NFL. Players can go from being one of the league’s best to a cap casualty very quickly. Just three years ago, Woodson was named the league’s best defensive player.
Though there could have been a scenario in which it would have made sense for the Packers to restructure Woodson’s contract at a significantly smaller cap number, it was best for the team to move on.
From a pure production standpoint, Woodson hasn’t been the player he once was for a while. In a league that is becoming increasingly influenced by advanced scouting research leading to further statistical evaluation, a player’s value can be directly boiled down to production now more than ever. Thanks in part to all the high-definition camera angles providing access to every square inch of player movement on the field, veterans with a great track record like Woodson are more easily exposed as their careers wind down. For example, ProFootballFocus.com’s overall rating of Woodson put him in the negative category for each of the past two seasons and just barely in the positive category in 2010.
Woodson is still an average NFL player from an X’s-and-O’s perspective, and another team will sign him. But whichever team does bring in Woodson will be doing so mostly for his leadership, and it shouldn’t be for anything in the ballpark of the $10 million the Packers were scheduled to owe him.
It’s also understandable that now-former Packers teammates wanted Woodson back. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on his radio show recently that retaining Woodson should be a priority. Players like tight end Tom Crabtree immediately reacted to the news of Woodson’s release on Twitter with the type of response that was expected — describing Woodson’s contributions as a player, teammate and leader.
But Thompson has other concerns, starting with having the proper cap room to work out contract extensions for the team’s best players: Rodgers, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle B.J. Raji. Plus, the Packers have several other areas on the roster that need to be addressed with the $10 million saved by releasing Woodson.
Woodson is a former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Defensive Player of the Year and is almost certainly a future Hall of Famer. But for the Packers, releasing Woodson now was the right move.