On this date 20 years ago in Raiders and NFL history, Charles Woodson made his offensive debut against the San Diego Chargers in a 28-9 victory.
For most NFL players, such an appearance on offense would be an oddity beyond measures or a sign that the team’s overall depth had been shot to pieces. For Woodson and the Raiders, it was an anticipated event dating back to when he was selected No. 4 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft.
Woodson, of course, had starred at the University of Michigan as a defensive back and gadget wide receiver/running back, as well as a returner. Michigan has had dynamic return men before, and historically they’re no stranger to dynamic two-way players.
But none of them, nor anyone else in college football’s 150 years (of course the Heisman Trophy hasn’t existed that entire time), won the Heisman as primarily a defensive player. And yet, much of the reason he won said Heisman was because of what he did with the football in his hands.
And so, it makes sense in hindsight, even if it didn’t in the moment, to at least try Woodson for a few plays on offense. And try they did on this date 20 years ago.
The Raiders, in Jon Gruden’s second season as a head coach, were coming off a bye week and facing their division rival from the south.
Gruden and his staff did not decide to put Woodson on the field on offense merely for a morale boost or to fool a team they played twice a year, though that had to be part of the thinking.
Instead, it was because of Woodson’s dynamic playmaking ability. The future Hall of Famer would score 13 touchdowns in his NFL career. Even with a lengthy career, you don’t just stumble into 13 touchdowns in the NFL as a defensive player if you are not DYNAMIC.
As legendary CBS play-by-play announcer Verne Lundquist noted upon Woodson’s insertion into the game, the second-year star had been pleading “for a year and a half” to play wideout or running back.
The result? A 19-yard reception off a pretty basic five-yard curl route. After making the catch, Woodson gave Chargers cornerback Terrance Shaw a little shimmy that earned him a few additional yards — though technically that would not count as a missed tackle.
Raiders fans at the Coliseum went nuts, as Woodson added a little showmanship at the end.
To say this play was a primary factor in the Raiders’ victory would be an overstatement. After all, it was his only offensive stat of the day.
Yet, it may have been the moment Jon Gruden earned the trust of his team and Raiders fans. Though the Raiders would struggle to an 8-8 finish in 1999, what was to come was truly special.
And though Woodson’s offensive highlights were few and far between, especially when the “dink-and-dunk offense” propelled by Rich Gannon, Tim Brown, and Jerry Rice led to Gannon earning MVP honors in 2002, it was this kind of ingenuity the Raiders and the NFL were desperate for around the turn of the century.
Looking back at this play now, 20 years removed, it is crazy to think how much the NFL has changed. In 2008, Ronnie Brown engineered the Dolphins “Wildcat” and used it to earn an AFC Playoff spot. In 2012, the Jim Harbaugh-coached San Francisco 49ers went to a Pistol-based “Zone-Read” scheme and became a dominant team for the better part of three years. And now in 2019, Lamar Jackson is debatably a better athlete than Woodson, and he plays Quarterback.
Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback for the Chargers on this day 20 years ago. Jim’s brother, John, is the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. It’s probably neither correlation nor causation, but certainly an interesting tidbit to throw into the pot when looking back at this moment.
The idea of getting your most dynamic athletes on the field in space with the ball shouldn’t be considered genius, yet it took Gruden and a dynamic player like Woodson to get the ball rolling for such a movement within the often stagnant and stale NFL.
Gruden’s true genius was the version of the West Coast Offense he brought to Oakland. Just as Bill Walsh needed a dynamic defensive player in Ronnie Lott, Gruden needed one in Woodson to balance out the team. Would the Raiders, even with their magical offense, have been as good as they were in Gruden’s first tenure without Woodson locking down the other team’s best receiver and making plays all over the field? Probably not.
Woodson’s offensive debut coincided with the Raiders scoring the most points they had to that point in the season. Rich Gannon accounted for nearly 300 yards of total offense (254 passing, 43 rushing) and had four touchdown passes.
In fact, it was the third most passing yards the Raiders had all season, and tops for number of offensive first downs. Sometimes, one little wrinkle, even for one play, can kickstart an offense and a team.
Woodson’s Raiders career came full circle on Christmas Eve 2015, when Woodson again surfaced on offense against the Chargers, running a reverse where he had the option to pass. Unfortunately, this result was not as dynamic (he lost three yards), but it was fun nonetheless. In his final home game after re-signing with the team in 2013, it was a reminder of the good times.
The Raiders would win the game 23-20 to sweep their division rivals from the south.
Woodson would ride off into the sunset, elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2018 (and likely first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2021) after a career in which he was elected to the Pro Bowl nine times, had four All-Pro selections, was a Defensive Player of the Year, and of course earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
For his career, he had just two catches for 27 yards, and the one rush for -3 yards.
What separates football from maybe any other sport is that it cannot be contextualized by stats alone. Woodson had plenty of those. But the imagination and execution of what he could do is what made him so great.