Hall of Fame Finalist: Darren Woodson

The five-time Pro Bowl safety of the Dallas Cowboys becomes a HOF finalist

Dave Campo didn’t realize it at the time. But his scouting trip to Arizona State back in 1992 was about to change how the NFL viewed the safety position.

Campo was the defensive backfield coach of the Dallas Cowboys and traveled to Tempe to both study and work out potential first-round cornerback Phillippi Sparks. Coach Jimmy Johnson also gave him a list of other Arizona State players to take a peek at, including undersized linebacker Darren Woodson.

Scouts and coaches generally watch film in the morning and then work the players out in the afternoon at these pre-draft campus visits. Campo saw something in Woodson that morning that no one else did.

“I’m listening to the scouts and they’re saying, `I don’t know about this Woodson guy. He makes some tackles but he’s too small for an outside linebacker,’” Campo said.

But that wasn’t what Campo was seeing.

“He’s running like crazy out there,” Campo said. “He makes a tackle here or there but Arizona State was so good on defense he didn’t have to make many tackles. But he was around the football all the time.”

On the field that afternoon, Woodson walked past Campo standing at the finish line of the 40-yard dash. He was 6-2, 218 pounds. That got Campo to thinking.

“Jimmy told us we need to find a big strong safety for the NFC East because it was a power league at that time,” Campo recalled.

Then Woodson exploded for a 4.35 40-yard dash at the campus workout. So Campo put Woodson through some defensive-back drills.

“Footwork-wise, explosion and all those things…he was exactly what you’re looking for at that position,” Campo said. “As a weakside linebacker, he was fast enough to cover man-to-man. The guy was probably going to be a nickel back.”

Campo dutifully reported his findings back to Johnson.

“I promise you he will start on every special teams and will have a chance to be our nickel back,” he told Johnson.

Remember, Johnson as a college coach valued speed over size. It won him a national championship at the University of Miami. And he brought that philosophy with him to the NFL: find speed – and he found it in Woodson.

After Johnson used draft picks on cornerback Kevin Smith and linebacker Robert Jones in the first round of the 1992 draft, he summoned Campo into the draft room.

“Tell me about this Woodson kid again,” Johnson said.

“I gave him the same spiel,” Campo said, “and I’m thinking he’s going to take Woodson in the third or fourth round. He takes him at the top of the second (37th overall pick).”

And the term “cover safety” was born.

In the early 1990s, the safety position in the NFL was populated by thumpers and ballhawks. The thumpers were the Pro Bowlers like Steve Atwater, Bennie Blades, Chuck Cecil, David Fulcher and Dennis Smith whose value was measured more by their tackles than their interceptions. The ballhawks were the deep safeties in zone coverages who were free to roam and chase passes like Pro Bowlers Mark Carrier, Mark Kelso, Louis Oliver and Eugene Robinson whose value was measured by their interceptions.

Photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys

But Woodson changed all that.

Woodson only started two games in his first season in 1992 but made the NFL all-rookie team for his play on special teams (19 tackles) and the cover skills he displayed as a nickel back. The Cowboys won their first Super Bowl of the 1990s that season. So a conversation Johnson had with Campo that offseason surprised him.

“Jimmy tells me, `Woodson is going to start at safety next year,’” Campo recalled. “I hated to have young guys back there because it’s so critical and I said, `I don’t know, Jimmy, if he’s this and that…’ And Jimmy stopped me and said, `Hey, Dave – Darren Woodson is going to start at safety next year. Get him ready.’ And I said, `Jimmy, that’s exactly what I was thinking.’”

Woodson did start that next season, finishing second on the team with 155 tackles and lining up in the slot on third downs as the Cowboys won a second Lombardi Trophy. He would go on to start 11 seasons with the Cowboys and finish as the franchise’s all-time leading tackler with 1,350. He went to five Pro Bowls, was a three-time first-team all-pro and claimed three Super Bowl rings. He also remained on special-teams deep into his career, collecting 134 tackles in the kicking game.

“I would have been happy with that pick if Darren had just played nickel and special teams,” Campo said. “The safety part was almost a bonus.”

Along the way, Woodson lined up against Hall-of-Fame receivers Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Andre Reed, among others, in the slot as the club’s nickel back.

“The nickel position is different,” Campo said. “It’s tougher to play than the outside corner. The receivers in there are usually quicker and use the whole field to run away from you. That’s where Woodson separates himself from everyone else. He could line up and cover man-to-man with his speed and was smart enough because of his safety work to understand zones. You don’t see that combination very often. He could handle anyone inside. There’s nobody he really had a problem with.”

The Cowboys led the NFL in defense three times in the Woodson era. They finished in the Top 5  six times and the Top 10 nine times in his 12-year career. Woodson intercepted a career-best five passes in 1994 but only 23 passes in his career. There was a reason for that low total.

“We were a quarters team, which is basically (four guys) playing vertical routes down the field, seam routes,” Campo said. “Darren wasn’t a roamer. If he was a middle safety in a three-deep or a man free, he might have had a lot more interceptions. But it was virtually a man scheme for him all the time. He got a lot of his interceptions at the nickel position.”

With the explosion of the passing game that has made three-receiver offensive sets staples, every team in the NFL now covets a safety with the cover skills that Woodson brought to the Cowboys back in 1992. He was 30 years ahead of his time.

“Darren Woodson is the guy every team is looking for in today’s game,” said Hall-of-Fame quarterback and Woodson’s Dallas teammate Troy Aikman.

Hall-of-Famer Bill Parcells only coached Woodson one season — his final season in 2003.

“I loved the guy,” Parcells said. “I wish I could have had him his entire career, from beginning to end. He could line up and play any position in the secondary. He definitely belongs in the Hall. He’s so much better than some of the guys already in there. He’s so much more versatile.”

But Woodson had more admirers than just his former coaches and teammates.

“He was the guy who made that defense go,” Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher of the Chicago Bears once told radio station 105.3 the Fan in Dallas. “Darren Woodson, to me, was a beast. My favorite player of all time.”

It’s never too late to recognize what a special talent Woodson was for the NFL’s Team of the 1990s Decade. In his 16th year of eligibility, Woodson was named this week as a finalist for for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024.

  1. coach tj says

    ….another well written article by distinguished writer Rick G. relish reading the scouting details, as that is what helps make exceptional coaching.

    1. Rick Gosselin says

      Thanks, TJ. Still trying to catch up on the backlog of safeties worthy of Canton.

  2. Brian wolf says

    Happy for Woodson, who should be the next safety in line unless senior Meador beats him for election.

    1. Rick Gosselin says

      Meador and Woodson both belong. Deron Cherry also worthy of discussion.

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