- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

SAN DIEGO Oakland Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson bombed in the AFC title game like a freshman who hit the bars instead of the books, and he has no problem admitting it.
"I think everybody in the world could see that," Woodson said. "But I'm going to be better Sunday."
The Raiders' chances in Super Bowl XXXVII will rise considerably if he is. Facing dangerous Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius with a scheme built for man-to-man coverage, Oakland needs a solid game from its perennial Pro Bowl corner.
Problem is, just getting onto the field these days is an accomplishment for Woodson. He broke his right fibula in a Dec.2 victory against the New York Jets, had surgery on Christmas Eve and didn't return to the starting lineup until the Raiders' Jan.12 playoff opener against the Jets. He's now playing with a metal plate in his leg.
Coincidentally, Oakland's other starting cornerback, Tory James, had the same injury, has the same plate and is just a few weeks ahead of Woodson in his rehabilitation. Their ailing legs, plus the loss of rookie corner Phillip Buchanon in mid-October, is what led the Raiders to inquire about Deion Sanders last month.
A move for Sanders was blocked by the archrival San Diego Chargers, and coach Bill Callahan knows the determination of Woodson and James played a big role in Oakland getting to this final weekend.
"For both of those guys to come back and play at the level they have is incredible," Callahan said. "Somehow, on game day, they have been able mentally to overcome that injury."
Just not always in the manner they would like, especially Woodson in last weekend's win. He slipped in the first quarter, leaving Tennessee receiver Drew Bennett wide open for a 33-yard touchdown. His day later included three penalties including two pass interferences and several other botches that weren't exploited.
"My legs were just out of it," Woodson said. "I couldn't get my legs up under me. I couldn't get in and out of my breaks."
Fortunately, the Raiders overcame it. Unfortunately, Woodson is being defined more and more by injuries rather than his traditional shut-down coverage. He was plagued by turf toe in 2001, particularly late in the year, and made his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl mostly on reputation. Last September he broke his shoulder, causing him to miss six weeks. He also battled hamstring and groin ailments before breaking his leg.
"Not being able to play at my best is tough, it really is," Woodson said. "I want to be the best. I believe I am when I'm healthy."
Many agree. Even East Coast fans who have lost track of Woodson's NFL career remember his dominance at Michigan. Oakland used the fourth overall selection in 1998 on the three-way Wolverines star, whose 1997 accolades included the Heisman Trophy and a share of the national championship.
Still allowing Woodson to stand out, said defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, are athletic ability, confidence and instincts. And Bresnahan believes that as a 26th birthday came and went in October, Woodson really began to study and discover opponents' tendencies as well.
That tactic should really start paying off next year, when Woodson finally gets healthy. For now, Oakland is compensating with more zone defenses.
"When we're healthy the best thing we can do is get up and press," Bresnahan said. "With Charles and Tory coming off injuries, we've mixed up the coverages a little bit more so they could get back in their rhythm more than anything else. We're not concerned about their injuries. We're ready to play. We just have to be smart."
Indeed, Woodson sounds like nothing could keep him out tomorrow. Officially, he is questionable for the game and was limited to individual work Wednesday. But he has practiced fully the past two days and now is determined to play and perform considerably better than last week.
"This is what you dream about when you first play football," Woodson said. "I played in a national championship game in college, and now I have this one. This is it. This is the highest level of football you can play. This is the biggest game on earth. I know I have one more game left in me."


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