We continue with our roundups of the next players in the Football 101. Thanks for reading, and for those who aren’t subscribers, I hope you’ll consider joining!
No. 68: Charles Woodson
Charles Woodson’s position was “playmaker.” I do realize that’s one of those football clichés that doesn’t particularly impress anybody — sort of like when someone thinks the ultimate compliment is, “Now, that is a football player” — but there’s no way to describe Woodson’s game without saying that whether he was a right corner, left corner, free safety, strong safety, receiver, returner, in coverage or on the blitz, Charles Woodson was always looking to completely change the game.
Woodson entered the NFL in an entirely different class from any player before him because he was the first predominantly defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. It is true that he probably would not have won the Heisman without his exploits as a returner and a wide receiver at Michigan, but he still broke through in a way that other great college defenders like Hugh Green, Rich Glover, Brian Bosworth, Steve Emtman and Marvin Jones could not.*
*Before Woodson, those were the only five defensive players who finished top four in the Heisman voting in the previous 40 years. Since Woodson, only Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, when he finished second to Johnny Manziel in 2012, came close to winning the Heisman as a defensive player, and even he wasn’t that close.
Woodson was the fourth overall pick in the 1998 draft — the Peyton Manning draft — and he was one of four players in that incredible first round to be elected to the Hall of Fame: Manning, Woodson, Randy Moss and Alan Faneca.
Woodson established himself as a big-play defender with the Oakland Raiders right away, picking off five balls in his rookie year (one of them a pick-six) and forcing two fumbles. He was first-team All-Pro the next year as he scored his second touchdown. You might remember that in the 2001 season, Woodson was the guy who hit Tom Brady and forced the fumble that was later ruled a forward pass on the infamous “tuck play” — that was the year that Woodson started being used more on the blitz.
In all, Woodson would finish his career with 65 interceptions and 20 sacks, which is an uncommon combination. Nobody else with even 60 interceptions had even 15 sacks. And nobody else with 20 sacks had even 55 interceptions.
Only his namesake Rod Woodson (not related) returned more interceptions for touchdowns than Charles’ 11. And Charles added two fumble returns for scores.
It is a funny quirk that two of the most versatile and excellent defensive backs in NFL history were named Woodson. I sometimes wonder if that made Charles a bit underrated.
Charles Woodson was admittedly adrift in the middle of his career — from 2002 to 2005 — he had trouble staying healthy, he didn’t score any touchdowns, didn’t make any Pro Bowls, and the Oakland Raiders decided to let him go as he turned 30. He seriously considered retirement. He was thoroughly uninterested when Green Bay reached out to sign him. But, in the end, he did want to prove the doubters wrong, and he played on for another decade, taking his game to an entirely new level.
In his first five years with the Packers, he played cornerback and he was utterly fantastic. In his first year, he intercepted eight passes. In 2009, he was named Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league with nine interceptions, three of them for touchdowns. He led the league in interceptions again in 2011. Then he moved to safety, fully unleashed his blitzing capability, and forced and recovered a bunch of fumbles.
It was his ability to do everything that separates him from so many other greats — Woodson was every bit as scary in coverage as he was on the blitz. He was a gambler, one willing to give up plays in order to make bigger ones, and he was so good at reading the play and reacting that he got away with it more often than not. Nobody in the history of pro football tried to jump a route more often than Charles Woodson.
He has the touchdowns to prove it.
No. 67: Mike Singletary
Everybody talked about those eyes. When talking about Singletary, the other stuff — speed, size, blitzing ability, pass coverage, all of it — was secondary. It was always about those eyes, which were always frighteningly wide open like those of a cartoon character who has just seen an oncoming train.
Those eyes saw all. We don’t have the numbers to catalog his career the way we do with, say, Charles Woodson. Singletary played before the NFL officially counted tackles or passes defensed. He intercepted only seven passes in his NFL career, logged only 19 sacks, never scored a touchdown.
But if the mid-1980s Bears defense was as good as any in the history of the NFL — and it was — Mike Singletary was the heart of it, the coach on the field, the guy who made sure that whatever madness defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan was cooking up would not backfire. You probably know that Ryan was all about one thing: Taking out quarterbacks. It was what he lived for.
“Quarterbacks,” he would write in his playbooks, “are overpaid, overrated, pompous bastards and must be punished.”
This led Ryan to spend much of his time inventing blitzes, each riskier than the last, and somebody had to clean up the mess. Singletary was that somebody. He wasn’t tall (6-foot at most), wasn’t especially big (230 pounds), wouldn’t impress anyone with his 40-time.
But those eyes saw all.
And that engine was always running — there probably hasn’t been a surer tackler in the history of the league.
“When I got to the NFL,” Ron Rivera told me, “ I thought I knew what it was to be intense. I thought I was intense. But then I watched Mike, and it was just a whole different level. He brought that intensity to every practice. He brought that intensity into his game preparation. He brought that intensity into his leadership.”
There were no plays off for the Samurai, as Singletary was called. At some point here, I should list my favorite NFL Films moments, you know those NFL scenes that capture a player or coach doing something that conveys their larger purpose. You will remember Vince Lombardi’s “What we’re trying to get is a seal here and a seal here and we’re going to run this play in the alley” description of his famed power sweep. You will remember Gale Sayers asking for just 18 inches of daylight. “That’s all I need,” he said.
Well, Singletary had one of those NFL Films moments too.
“Hey baby!” he shouted at the opposing offense. “We’re going to be here all day! We’re going to be here all day! I like this kind of party!”
He really did like that kind of party. He was first-team All-Pro seven times, NFL defensive player of the year twice, and nobody wanted to tangle with him or the Bears defenses he led.
No. 66: Jack Lambert
It seems to me that people have always gotten Jack Lambert a little bit wrong. The Lambert persona is one of intimidation, Count Dracula, Darth Vader, Mad Man Jack. The image that survives is a Sports Illustrated cover, July 30, 1984, Lambert in his helmet, scowling toothlessly at the camera, his mustache looking as if it was ready to crawl off his face and kick your butt.
And I think because of that, people didn’t realize that while, yes, Lambert was ferocious, he was also one of the most intelligent and versatile middle linebackers to ever play.
“All that stuff about Jack, it’s a bad read,” his teammate Andy Russell said. “He’s a great player, and he’ll be remembered for a long time … but for all the wrong reasons.”
The real Jack Lambert was undersized — he was listed at 220 but almost certainly was never even that heavy. He was barely 200 pounds when he came out of Kent State (where he was teammates with Alabama coach Nick Saban and former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel). And he never could put on the weight.
The real Jack Lambert was quiet and private; he was a devoted bird watcher.
And the real Jack Lambert was at his very best in pass coverage. This is not to take anything away from his ability to stuff the run; Lambert was a sure tackler who stood up the greatest running backs of his day. But he wasn’t a bone breaker like Butkus or Singletary. No, his true genius was his ability to blanket running backs, tight ends or receivers and create big plays. His instincts were impeccable. “His first step,” Russell said, “is never wrong.”
It’s always difficult to separate players in a defense like the 1970s Steel Curtain. Five players on that defense — Lambert, Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell — are in the Hall of Fame, and there are compelling arguments to be made for others such as Russell and L.C. Greenwood. Could they all have been THAT great? If a defense has four or five or six of the greatest defensive players in the history of the NFL, how did ANYBODY score on them?
And more to the point, how do you figure out who did what?
It’s an impossible task because it’s impossible to separate Lambert from Mean Joe, Ham from Blount, their genius intersected. By taking up multiple blockers, Greene freed Lambert to make tackles. By covering the middle of the field the way he did, Lambert allowed Ham to freelance on the outside and make big plays. By making big plays, Ham freed Blount to take some chances and get right into receivers’ faces.
In his career, Lambert intercepted 28 passes — at least one every year from 1974 to ’83 — he recovered 17 fumbles (including a league-leading EIGHT in 1976), and he had 23.5 sacks, which is quite a number for a middle linebacker.
At first, he was uncomfortable with his Count Dracula reputation, but over time he grew to like it, grew to appreciate what it could do for him. He liked taking a look at the quarterback before the snap and smiling his toothless smile. But, he used to say, he wasn’t even close to the toughest member of his family. No, that was his mother, Joyce Brehm.
One time for a Monday Night Football game intro, he said: “Jack Lambert, Buzzard Breath, Wyoming,” rather than his actual hometown of Mantua, Ohio.
“I heard about it,” Jack Lambert’s mother told Sports Illustrated. “The people I talked to didn’t see the humor in it. I didn’t either.”
No. 65: John Mackey
“There was literally nothing that John Mackey couldn’t do,” Bill Curry says. “If he had taken off and started flying, all of us would have just nodded.”
My favorite John Mackey play came in Detroit on Nov. 20, 1966. It was the fourth quarter, and the Lions, against all odds, were beating the Don Shula Baltimore Colts 17-0. Shula had benched the great John Unitas, who threw, get this, FIVE interceptions in the first half. In retrospect, Unitas’ shoulder was probably wrecked.
Anyway, in came backup Gary Cuozzo, and he flipped a little pass to Mackey in the flat. Mackey caught the ball and immediately the Lions linebacker Wally Hilgenberg came charging at him. Mackey made a quick sidestep move and left Hilgenberg grabbing at air.
Mackey was then presented with a team photograph of the Detroit Lions. From behind him, Mike Lucci, Roger Brown, Alex Karras and Wayne Walker closed in. Safety Bruce Maher dove at his knees. Mackey smashed through the tackle. Cornerback Bobby Thompson made the tragic error of standing in front of Mackey, and he was run over. The other safety, Wayne Rasmussen literally tried to jump on Mackey’s back — he was left behind.
“When I saw all those defenders coming,” Mackey would famously say, “I made up my mind that I was going to punish somebody. They had about seven or eight guys there to make the tackle. I closed my eyes and said I’m just going to ram into them. I came right through it.”
He came right through it, indeed. But here’s my favorite part — he obviously DID close his eyes, because you know who took the biggest bit of punishment? Mackey’s legendary teammate Lenny Moore. After breaking away from eight Lions defenders*, he simply ran straight ahead and plowed right through poor Moore, who was just trying to come back and help out with a block.
*He would juke yet a NINTH defender, a Hall of Fame defensive back who would become even more famous as a coach — Dick LeBeau.
In any case, everything that made John Mackey Superman was there in that run — the speed, the moves, the power, the sheer will. His numbers obviously look modest by today’s standards. He caught 331 balls for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns in his career; Kansas City’s Travis Kelce has topped all three of those numbers in just the last four and a half seasons.
But it’s clear just looking at some of Mackey’s highlights that if he played in today’s game, he would put up numbers that would blow minds. He was wide receiver fast, he had running back moves, and he was probably the hardest person in the NFL to tackle who wasn’t named Jim Brown. He completely transformed the tight end position, taking it from “a biplane into the space shuttle,” in the memorable words of NFL Films.
Interestingly, Mackey did not have good hands. Even Unitas said so. He preferred catching passes with his arms and chest … but Ernie Accorsi, who joined the Colts as a public relations director and wrote for The Baltimore Sun, said he never saw Mackey drop an important pass.
Shamefully, Mackey was not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame until 1992—20 years after he retired. This almost certainly was because of his role as the first President of the NFL Players Association.