Former Cowboy Woodson talks Kiffin’s defense

OXNARD, Calif. — Heading into the 2004 training camp under head coach Bill Parcells, the Dallas Cowboys still felt like All-Pro safety Darren Woodson could play a couple more seasons. With Woodson making most of the calls in the secondary, third-year player Roy Williams could focus on making big plays near the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately, Woodson couldn’t recover from a back injury that landed him on the physically unable to perform list at the start of the season. In a lot of ways, the Cowboys never recovered. They’ve been held hostage at the safety position for years, attempting to get by with special teamers and retreads. There’s hope that veteran Will Allen and Barry Church will be able to fortify the position in 2013, but it’s far from a lock.

Last Friday, I tracked down Woodson while he was on a camping trip in Northern California. He played actually played linebacker at Arizona State, but his position coach, Lovie Smith, made sure he could cover opposing receivers. When he was selected by the Cowboys in the second round of the ’92 draft, Woodson covered Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper and Jay Novacek in practice. That’s why he eventually became one of the best all-around safeties in the league. Woodson, who now works part-time for ESPN, has some interesting theories on the most important positions in Monte Kiffin’s famed “Tampa 2.” And surprisingly, he didn’t start with safety.

“I think the two cornerbacks are the key to Tampa 2,” he said. “You have to be able to tackle underneath. That defense is all about taking away the deep seams. [Morris] Claiborne and [Brandon] Carr have to re-route the receivers. They have to be good tacklers. Deion Sanders couldn’t play “Tampa 2.” He just wanted to line up and say, ‘I got mine.'” These players won’t be allowed to do that. Does a guy like Orlando Scandrick like to tackle? Hell no!”

This has been a consistent message from Woodson since his retirement. He took a tremendous amount of pride in tackling and it kills him to see how much the Cowboys have struggled in that area. Woodson believes linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter will be tremendous in Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme because of their speed and ability to tackle. And after of years of watching poor play at safety, he believes Church might be the answer.

“Before he got hurt, I saw a lot of confidence from him,” said Woodson. “I just saw a different swagger. I also hear that he’s a gym rat, and that’s important. You hear the same thing about Lee. When Jimmy [Johnson] was here, guys didn’t want to leave the facility. We’d stick around and play ping pong or whatever.”

Woodson’s biggest problem with the current Cowboys is the lack of leadership along the offensive and defensive lines. When he first joined the Cowboys, linebacker Ken Norton warned him that the offensive linemen ran things in the locker room.

“When the O-line rules the roost, that’s best,” Woodson said. “As a defensive back, you were supposed to shut your ass up and stay in your own lane. Erik Williams, Nate Newton and those guys ran the damn locker room. From that day on, I believed the D-line and O-line had to the core of the team. Jerry [Jones] loves the skill guys, but that’s not where the game is won.”

Since the Cowboys are currently trying to sign a starting right guard off the street, it’s probably unrealistic to see the O-line as the core of the team. But starting left tackle Tyron Smith and rookie Travis Frederick both have strong leadership qualities.

The good news for Woodson is the Cowboys are finally taking steps to solidify his old position. And hey, it’s only taken them a decade to move in that direction.