They call him “First Ballot,” for obvious reasons, because whenever Charles Woodson decides his 39-year-old bones aren’t conducive to controlled violence and concussion risks, he’ll be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame quicker than you can say no-brainer. Better yet, he appears to still have his brains.
“Unbelievable what he’s doing,” said his coach, Jack Del Rio. “Just to be playing at 39 is incredible, but to be such a productive player, making big plays in the game …”
Every. Damned. Week.
It’s an inspiration, we all agree. Now, if only the Raiders would start producing on the same otherworldly level of their cornerback, who has become one of the special stories of this or any NFL season. He wrangled two more interceptions Sunday, finally ending his 0-for-18-years drought against Peyton Manning, and yet, staring at Woodson as he trudged off the Coliseum field was a score that robbed all his personal joy: DENVER 16, RAIDERS 10. Much as his body ached, mostly a right shoulder that feels like it might fall off, the result hurt significantly more. He knows, like the rest of us, that the Raiders lost a game they could have won, that Derek Carr and receiver Seth Roberts collaborated on a ghastly pick-six that sabotaged their team, that Latavius Murray is not developing as a franchise running back, and that a solid performance by a maligned defense was wasted.
And it probably makes Woodson wonder in quiet moments, though he’ll never say so publicly, why he continues to punish himself at this age when playing for the Oakland Raiders never provides the satisfying ending he wants: winning. As reporters surrounded his locker afterward, sensing a piece of football history that transcends another October loss, he couldn’t even bring himself to discuss his picks of Manning, who might wind up in his Hall class for all we know.
“I really don’t even want to talk about the interceptions, just because of the fact we did lose the game,” Woodson said. “It’s all about winning the game. I know [the Manning angle] was a big deal all week, but those things are the shiny things, the shiny toys, when it’s all about wins and losses, man. Our mission is to win the division, and the only way we can do that is to beat the team that’s won it the last few years. Today, we dropped the ball on that.”
Actually, it was a ball they didn’t catch that killed the Raiders, who are a sour 2-3 heading into the bye week when their season carried so much promise last month. Despite pressure from a league-best Broncos defense that would have discouraged most teams — Von Miller literally strip-searched the ball from Carr for a third-quarter turnover — the Raiders still were alive after Woodson climbed high over Demaryius Thomas for an astonishing heist. The fans, in all their we-despise-the-Broncos glory and not even thinking about L.A.-bound moving vans, watched the offense move downfield midway through the fourth quarter. On 3rd-and-5 at the Denver 31, Carr lined up without a huddle in the shotgun. The idea was to hit Roberts over the middle and maybe bust a scoring play, which would have turned a 9-7 deficit into a possible Raiders victory.
“He was wide open,” Del Rio said. “It had a chance to be a catch-and-run, an explosive play.”
It was … for Denver. Carr was blitzed but not so much that he didn’t have time to find his receiver. Roberts saw the pass coming but didn’t react to it as quickly as one of the league’s best defensive backs, Chris Harris Jr., who stepped in and transported the ball 74 yards for the fatal score. What happened?
“I don’t know if we missed him or he didn’t look for the ball,” Del Rio said.
Said Carr: “They brought pressure. I was throwing hot. We just didn’t execute it. It just didn’t work out.”
Amari Cooper, whose considerable skills are utilized at times and then strangely ignored longer times, said the same thing. “We just didn’t execute it correctly.” Next time, target Cooper in the crunch, not Roberts.
Woodson wasn’t in the mood to point fingers. “We won’t get into the name game,” he said. But he was visibly saddened that one bad play changed a game and, possibly, the complexion of a season. The Raiders seem to have progressed enough under Del Rio, their first serious head coach in years, that a 3-2 record could have led to a second half of playoff-contending Sundays. Now?
“What it boils down to is, at the end of the game, you’ve got to make the play,” Woodson said. “Today, it was their team that made the play. That pick to the house, that was tough. It hurts, because we did have some momentum. We were driving the ball down the field. It hurt for sure.”
It hurt because they hung in against a potential Super Bowl team — and a defense with 22 sacks, 14 turnovers and three defensive touchdowns — and crippled their own cause with two missed field-goal attempts and wackadoodle playcalling. How often can we say Sebastian Janikowski, another likely Hall of Famer who talked the other day of kicking six or seven more years, missed a 40-yard field goal and had a 38-yarder blocked? And what was offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave thinking with 2:38 left when the Raiders, down 16-7, threw a screen pass on 4th-and-19? When the flip to Roy Helu Jr. gained four yards, the fans booed and fled.
“I really don’t have an answer for that,” Del Rio said.
“We had a screen. That was the call we went with,” Carr said. “I’ve seen a lot of those work in situations like that.”
Not when a marching band wasn’t involved.
In one sense, it’s a positive development when the Raiders are all ticked off because they felt they should have beaten the Broncos, when they realized Manning is 39 and not generating half his usual production behind a shaky line, when head coach Gary Kubiak barked afterward, “We have to play a hell of a lot better. It starts with me, the offensive coach.” It’s uplifting to hear Carr take blame — “When something like this happens, look to me. I always take all the accountability,” he said — and then vent his frustrations.
“It’s hard because we feel like we left something on the field. We’ve left wins out there,” the second-year quarterback said of successive excruciating losses, including the previous weekend in Chicago. “As we’re learning, we realize this league is so close. You can’t let missed opportunities happen.”
If you looked closely enough, Del Rio’s eyes were damp. “I feel great about my team. I feel disappointed for the men in that locker room who don’t get to enjoy the fruits of victory,” he said. “There is no consolation in this league for playing hard and keeping it close. I thought we had a chance to win the football game.”
So did Charles Woodson. When the offense can’t score, he figures he’ll just have to make a pick in the end zone and start running.
“No question, no question,” he said, managing a small smile above his salt-and-pepper chin fuzz. “Just get a block.”
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.