Even though when the Raiders re-signed Charles Woodson for this season he told everyone he wasn't treating this like his final season, it was hard to really believe. Not that we didn't think he was being honest, just that it didn't seem likely that approaching 38-years-old he could keep playing. Well, we believe it now.
Woodson was just named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his 9 tackle, 3 tackles for loss (one being a sack) performance in the Raiders first win of the season over the Chiefs on Thursday Night.
That honor was a culmination of a season where the ageless one has been progressively getting better and better. To the extent it almost doesn't seem possible.
The primary reason for his play steadily improving is the coaching staff finding where he best fits in this defense.
He came to the Raiders having just the season before switching form cornerback - where he spent the first 14 seasons of his career - to safety. Free safety to be exact.
Free safety is where he played most of last season with mostly positive results. He was still a freak of nature at 37-years-old, but not the dominant, Defensive Player of the Year level player he was just two seasons prior.
Woodson also had to deal with Tyvon Branch being lost for the season. And with Brandian Ross in his place and a banged up cornerback unit, Woodson's play suffered a bit.
We can say this now looking back because we now see that in the right position, Woodson is even more dominant than we could have foreseen.
Branch went out again this season, but this time the Raiders switched Woodson to strong safety. In the box, Woodson is able to utilize his smarts, hitting abilities, and his Hall of Fame coverage abilities on tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.
"I think I'm playing well. I think, if we're just comparing to other safeties or DBs in the league, I think that I would fare pretty well in that respect, and I'm having fun playing."
As the season has gone on, he has settled more and more into his new role and is thriving. He is showing no signs of slowing down and his talk of this not being his finals season no longer sound like lip service. They sound like a no-brainer.
His head coach believes even next season might not be Woodson's last.
"Nothing he does surprises me. Hard to say that, it really is, but the guy I'm watching play out there with the energy he has and the way he flies around the field... and I know in his body at the end of this, usually they take a little time and they evaluate where they are and all that good stuff, but I know that he's a competitive guy, a really competitive person. So, it would not surprise me if he played into his 40s."
As Sparano said, a veteran player like Woodson who is approaching retirement reassesses how he feels physically in the off-season, that's when he has a better understanding of whether he can keep going.
Woodson said Wednesday that if he feels as good at the end of the season as he does right now "no question" he intends on playing again in 2015.
"I always thought that it would all depend on how my body felt at the end of the season, and with saying I don't know what I'm going to do, we still have five games left. I mean, that's five games in the NFL where you're out there hitting and doing the things that you do. I don't know."
Last off-season he also said he wanted to keep playing but added that if it wasn't going to be for the Raiders, where he spent his first eight seasons in the NFL, he'd probably just retire. Now late in his second season, having not missed a game for the Raiders, and playing at a high level, he could have more options at his disposal. Even so, he maintains he would like his career to continue to be with the Raiders
"It would mean a great deal to play here and to get back into the playoffs and have a chance at going to the Super Bowl. Coming into this season I had all the confidence in the world that we would be a much better team than what we are. With that being said, I still believe in the process, and like I said, I don't know what happens after this year, but if I do decide to play again and it's here, I'm going to have the same confidence because I believe that they will continue to bring in the right people.""
Whoever the Raiders head coach is next season, if they want to bring back Woodson, they might want to bring back assistant defensive backs coach, Marcus Robertson as well. Since training camp, Woodson has credited his improvement as a safety to Robertson.
"I think the greatest thing for me this year is the addition of Marcus Robertson," Woodson continued. "I've said that countless times already, but he's really helped me see the game better from a safety position. Yeah, I can play the game, but having him, having a guy who I feel like is one of the best coaches I've been around in my career, and helping me get better, has been a key for me."
Many NFL greats have trouble letting go of their careers, which is understandable. They also usually have a tendency to hang on long past the time when they should have hung up their cleats.
Charles Woodson is clearly not in that situation. He is still wanted in the NFL because he is still a great player. That greatness has just shifted to a new position, and with him currently leading the team in tackles (81), interceptions (2), and passes defended (6) despite being five years older than the next oldest player on defense.
It might even be wise for the Raiders to start looking into an extension right now. It would certainly solve one key position with needs in several areas.