A not-that-random retrospective: Oct. 14, 2007
This column appeared in the March-April 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It is second-and-five on Green Bay’s 43-yard line. The Washington Redskins are hanging onto the lead after the Packers tied the game at 14 and then didn’t after a holding penalty on Mark Tauscher nullified the score. Mason Crosby kicked a field goal a few plays later, making it 14-10 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Packers are 4-1. Three weeks ago Brett Favre tied Dan Marino’s career record for touchdown passes in a last-minute comeback win over the San Diego Chargers. Two weeks ago Favre broke Marino’s record against the Vikings in Minnesota – a place typically, for Favre and the Packers, where disaster festers just below its concrete-carpet surface, a contagion only needing them to show up to become active and dangerous.
So maybe something good is happening. After an 8-8 finish in 2006 and Favre’s retirement bearing down the tracks like an oncoming train, a 4-1 start is filling Green Bay back up with optimism. Maybe this was the magical year Favre was keeping down near the bottom of his tank that isn’t empty yet. I mean he’s certainly going to retire from football soon, like this season or the next. We can’t see that going any differently at all.
The Packers were 4-0, but a loss last week on Sunday Night Football in Lambeau Field to the Chicago Bears has temporarily left the rank taste only losing to a rival at home can leave, a neglected jug of milk remembered too late and drank too quickly, you regretting the gulp as it goes down your throat, too late to stop its taste from penetrating the senses. Favre’s pair of second half picks tied the all-time interceptions mark with George Blanda (hey: it was a record-breaking season) and Green Bay squandered a 10-point halftime lead to lose, 27-20.
We were there and felt the deflation. A loss in a game you feel your team should have won is bad, having it happen against the Bears is worse, and waiting all day for Sunday night only to be disappointed is a bad capstone for your weekend. We were back the next week with Washington – still coached, somewhat shockingly when looking at it now, by Joe Gibbs – coming to town. They are 3-1, a week removed from decimating the Detroit Lions, 34-3, which is maybe not as impressive as it sounds.
Still, it isn’t who they’ve beaten. It’s how. They have a stout, smash-happy defense, power running game with Clinton Portis, and opportunistic big-play offense handled like a fragile Christmas present by quarterback Jason Campbell. It has the feel of a physical game that will leave maroon paint chips on yellow helmets and vice-versa. Washington may not have Green Bay’s firepower or their quarterback, but they have strong, fast, imposing players who want to hit you very hard and are quite good at doing so. After the game Packers head coach Mike McCarthy would call the Redskins the best team they faced so far this season.
Up 14-10, Campbell hit tight end Todd Yoder for a five-yard gain, advancing the drive. After a time-consuming Green Bay march ended with only three points, it appears the Packers defense, shaky in spurts throughout the contest, is at risk of widening the gap the offense is trudging to close, against a Washington defense making everything difficult today. There’s a bye week next week and that 4-0 start and Favre’s record-breaking throws are thrilling and all, but it’s tense here today because there’s nothing closer than last week.
Charles Woodson wrestled an interception away from Antwaan Randle El in the second quarter, one of three eventual Washington turnovers. Woodson is so exhilarating to watch because if he has a chance he is going to try scoring every single time he gets his hands on the ball. This might sound like a common characteristic for defensive players, but Woodson’s search for a score always feels more urgent. He’ll meander sideways across the field, wait for blocks, all-out sprint, cut, spin, dive, whatever it takes to give him a chance to get six. Woodson wants to make the play, then finish it too. This particular interception, though, was one of those times he didn’t stay upright. It was merely another line added at the bottom of a long list of quarterback victims, the serial killer’s trophies neatly kept in the box.
He certainly claimed a lot of victims while in Green Bay. So many that, unfortunately, some of the plays are harder to remember than others. All those now-obscure games he affected – snaring a pass out of thin air like an eagle cleanly plucking a fish with bad luck from a lake, or punching a ball out of a receiver’s arms, or karate-chopping it out from behind an unsuspecting rusher. Look up a highlight reel online. “Oh yeah! That one!” “I completely forgot about that play.” “Gus Frerotte quarterbacked the Vikings?” These are all things you’ll say, because you can’t remember everything, especially all those random NFC North quarterbacks of recent years. And even when you’ve tried to remember all of these moments, and want to, you cannot. Even when there won’t be any more, and that makes all of them that much more important, Woodson gave us too many for our own good.
So it was second-and-five for Washington on Green Bay’s 43-yard line. Campbell takes the snap and pitches backwards to Portis, who turns to his right towards wide receiver Santana Moss, who is moving towards the backfield while the entire universe screams REVERSE! Portis hands off to Moss. The speedy veteran wideout, coming from right to left, has a head of steam and turns upfield almost instantly. He gets to the corner with three blockers ahead. Two of those blockers are shielding Packers defensive lineman Corey Williams to the outside, so Moss begins to cut in.
But one of them overruns Williams. And the other Redskins player closest to him doesn’t get there in time, and Moss, thinking he had this space, doesn’t cut back far enough to the middle to escape Williams as he slips through the would-be blockers. Williams mauls Moss, knocking the ball free.
In this moment it is difficult to tell from the television replay that the ball is on the ground. But as it happens Charles Woodson is diving at Moss. In mid-dive, Woodson sees the ball on the ground and turns his tackle attempt into a hop over Moss’s sliding body. Woodson dives on the ball and isn’t touched. From my vantage point around the 15-yard line near Lambeau’s north end zone – the one Washington was driving towards – I see a jumble of green and gold-clad bodies diagonally across the field. Then, around the 50-yard line, there is Woodson sprinting out ahead of them all. Then I lose my mind. Woodson is trying to bee-line for the southeast corner of the south end zone, but Campbell has an angle on him. Al Harris catches up and bumps Campbell off his initial path around the 30, giving Woodson space. Washington’s game-managing quarterback has one last shot just inside the 10, but Woodson has the corner, stumbling and falling in for the score. All along his run Lambeau gets louder and louder with anticipation, finally exploding once Woodson reaches his final destination. I am looking up at the sky with arms outstretched in amazement. I don’t know if I’m thanking someone or just asking for proof of authenticity. I look back down and around everywhere in the stadium, and there’s the proof. The collective mind of Lambeau is, like mine, lost. Watch the play here.
The Packers won on that score, 17-14, surviving a sloppy fourth quarter that featured a missed field goal, a turnover, a near-turnover, and a couple more huge defensive stops. The Packers are now 5-1 and heading into the bye week happy.
I still only remember Oct. 14, 2007 as the Charles Woodson Fumble Return Game. It was the first time I watched him run in a touchdown in person, and why, when thinking about a game I wanted to re-remember, this one always comes to mind. Otherwise, it is an overcast Sunday and a mostly chunky game without much rhythm or aesthetic value to speak of. Even Woodson’s return was a mad scramble born from a broken play, then a hop, sprint, and breathless chug to the end zone. There was a desperation to it, but it is the kind Woodson always had when the ball found his hands – the desperate need to make a play like it would never happen again. It was brilliant in the way disruption always is when you’re rooting for it, which is what you’re doing when you’re cheering for the defensive part of a football team. Desperate disruption, elevated: That is Charles Woodson in Green Bay.
The whole Woodson-in-Green Bay experience was always bigger than anyone could have expected. He famously wanted to sign anywhere but here and it went up from there. During that time Woodson would blow up a lot of plays for the Packers. I’d be there to see a few more of them. His desire to inflict on an offense the irrepressible touchdown addiction that fueled him, make them feel the full allotted pain for their error, isn’t over in the NFL. But it is in Green Bay. Even now, I don’t think anything was more exciting than the first split-second or two after it was clear Woodson had the ball, was upright, and immediately looking to make his next move. I still wish there would be more plays to wait for. But in the place of new, there are all the old unmemorable specifics in the overall unforgettable career of a great player. There’s always something to remember again. And that, most importantly, means it already happened.