Woodson becomes a cornerstone of secondary Longtime star signs 4-year Ravens deal

March 04, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

To those who say he has lost the ability that landed him on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team as one of the top cornerbacks in league history, Rod Woodson offered a smile and welcomed the skepticism.

Has he lost a step? Sure, Woodson said. Can he help the Ravens' young, improving defense become a playoff-caliber unit? You bet, he added.

"I don't think you ever win a championship with all rookies. You need a veteran blend, and [the Ravens] are bringing in the right guys," said Woodson, who yesterday signed a four-year contract believed to be worth nearly $11.5 million, including a $3 million signing bonus.

"It's going to be fun playing with these guys," Woodson added. "I don't know all of the defensive starters yet, but I'm pretty old. When I came into the league, most of those guys were probably in junior high. I'm looking forward to blending in with these guys."

One week shy of his 33rd birthday with 11 seasons, seven Pro Bowls and a major knee injury behind him, Woodson will be counted upon to stabilize the Ravens' young secondary -- a group that could be seriously depleted if four-year veteran and free-agent cornerback Antonio Langham leaves the team to sign with San Francisco.

Woodson made a name for himself as a Pittsburgh Steeler from 1987 to 1996, a period during which he earned seven Pro Bowl trips while tormenting the Cleveland Browns and, then, the Ravens.

A year after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the 1995 season opener -- he came back to play in the Super Bowl against Dallas five months later -- Woodson returned a Vinny Testaverde interception for a touchdown to spark a 31-17 Steelers victory over the Ravens in week two of the 1996 season.

Thinking that Woodson's best days were behind him, the Steelers allowed him to test the free-agent market after that season, and he ended up signing with the 49ers.

Following a season in which he started 14 games, recorded 60 tackles, three interceptions, played in the NFC championship game against Green Bay, but also led the NFL with 13 pass-interference or holding penalties, San Francisco elected to waive him.

"From a personal standpoint and a competitive standpoint, [Woodson] is a tremendous addition for us," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel.

"He's put daggers in our hearts [in the past]. We've all seen him run with the so-called speed receivers in the league last season. He's not as fast as when he was 25, but he's still fast."

"I've watched him play year in and year out, and I've seen him do miraculous things against us. It's a pleasure to have him," team owner Art Modell said of Woodson. "He's probably the greatest cornerback I've ever seen in football. He looks to be in tremendous shape."

The Ravens went to great lengths to make sure Woodson, 6 feet, 200 pounds, was healthy enough to sign. Two days ago, they put him through an eight-hour physical examination that included five magnetic resonance imaging tests.

The team was determined not to repeat the embarrassment of last March. Then, they were about to sign free-agent safety Brock Marion before calling off the deal minutes before a news conference after learning Marion had flunked a physical.

"That's part of the learning experience, isn't it?" Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf said of Woodson's physical. "Didn't somebody once say, if you don't learn from the past, you're stupid?"

Said Woodson: "I won't say I agreed with all of it, but [the Ravens] felt they had to do it. It's their money to spend."

Responding to the perception that age, injuries and a decade of contact have diminished his skills, Woodson said: "I don't know if I ever was a great player, but I think I'm still a very good corner.

"When you lose a step, you gain knowledge. You learn more about angles and opponents' tendencies. If I played like so many of the so-called cover guys do today, I'd never get hurt. But I like being physical. I like hitting people.

"Critics are critics. I'll let them do their job and they should let me do my job. When I can't stop receivers from running by me, that's when I'll know it's time for me to retire. I'm as healthy as I can be after playing for 11 seasons in this league."

Woodson is expected to report in the middle of the month for the Ravens' off-season conditioning program, which begins next week. Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said he plans to play Woodson at right cornerback, assuming that Langham returns to man the left side.

The Ravens are continuing to negotiate with Langham's agent, Pat Dye Jr., over a long-term deal. Dye said Langham probably will choose between the two teams by the end of the week. The 49ers reportedly have offered a deal averaging nearly $3.5 million a season, while the Ravens have countered with a deal averaging closer to $3 million, with more money up front.

San Francisco waived running back Terry Kirby yesterday in order to free up another $667,000 in salary cap funds.

"San Francisco is doing everything it can with its resources to try to sign [Langham]," Dye said. "I'm waiting for both sides' best offers. Antonio has made it clear to me that he would be happy at either place."

NOTES: Ravens center Wally Williams and his agent, Tom Condon, joined representatives of the Ravens, the NFL Players Association and the league's Management Council at a two-hour hearing in Washington yesterday to discuss Williams' status as a free agent. The NFLPA contends that the Ravens missed the Feb. 12 deadline to place a franchise label on Williams. Special master Jack Friedenthal is expected to rule on the matter by next week. If he rules in favor of the NFLPA, Williams would XTC become an unrestricted free agent. The Ravens decided yesterday not to match an offer made to center Quentin Neujahr, a restricted free agent, thus allowing Neujahr to join the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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