Saturday, January 28, 2023

Darren Woodson—Taking His Place in the Hall of Fame Queue

By John Turney 
This year, Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson was voted into the Final 15 list for the Pro Football Hall of Fame after six previous years of being on the semifinalist list of 25. It is a jump into the "room" as the voters like call making the Final 15, though these days it is making it to the "Zoom" call rather than the proverbial room.

He deserves to be there.

Woodson was drafted in the second round of the 1992 NFL draft by Dallas and after spending his rookie season year as a nickelback, usually playing in the slot (where he was All-Rookie), Woodson took over the strong safety position in his second season and was a vital cog in defending the Cowboys' 1992 Super Bowl crown. 

A couple of years later Woodson was part of a secondary that featured Deion Sanders who got most of the limelight but there is little doubt that the contributions Woodson made were invaluable in the Cowboys winning their third Super Bowl in four years.

That secondary was a strength of the Dallas defense that from 1992-97 allowed the fewest points and the fewest total yards in that span. The secondary and linebackers allowed the fewest passing yards in the NFL, the second-fewest passing touchdowns, and the fifth-lowest defensive passer rating.

Even with "Prime Time" drawing much of the national attention from 1995 on, Woodson got plenty of notice himself earning All-Pro honors four times, three of them consensus, and was voted to five Pro Bowls. 

Woodson was 220 pounds and possessed rare speed (sub 4.4 forty time) for a player that size and that made him a unique defensive back. He had the size of a smaller linebacker and the straight-line speed of many cornerbacks and was a very sure tackler, he just rarely missed and was always among the team leaders, even leading the team in tackles in 1995.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt took full advantage of that size-speed combination utilizing him in a variety of ways and playing him in several spots within his scheme. 

In addition to playing strong strong safety in the base defense, when an opponent would line up the flanker in the slot position- the same side as the split end - it would leave the tight end on the opposite side of the formation. In those situations, Woodson would line up over the slot receiver and the cornerback would cover the tight end on the other side rather than take the tight end, which is what most strong safeties would do in that situation.

Then, in Dallas's nickel defense, almost always Bill Bates would come into the game and play the middle linebacker and Woodson would play another linebacker spot and would play a zone or maybe take a running back in man coverage, depending on the call. 

Of course, Woodson was not the first safety to play multiple roles in a secondary on a defense. Prior to him, players like Donnie Shell of the Steelers and the Rams' Nolan Cromwell, and others did similar things but they were smaller athletes, 190 to 200 pounds or so - Woodson had twenty to thirty pounds on them. 

In 1996, Dave Wannstedt's successor as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, Dave Campo, told Sports Illustrated, "Darren is the total package. He has a combination of size, speed, and lateral movement that is rare in a strong safety. In fact, he covers one-on-one so well he could be a corner. He is the kind of guy coaches like to build a team around." 

About that same time Joel Buchbaum, Pro Football Weekly's professional football analyst, ranked Woodson as the NFL's top strong safety, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made Woodson the highest-paid safety in league history. 

There is little doubt Woodson's game was appreciated.

He was a precursor to players that are all over the NFL now. Hybrid types like Minkah Fitzpatrick or Derwin James or even Tyrann Mathieu but again he's bigger than most of those All-Pro safeties and there is little doubt he'd fit right into today's NFL and that cannot always be said of players from a generation ago. 

That skill set matched with his rings and his post-season honors vaulted him in front of some other safeties that have been on the semifinalist list with him the past few years but have not advanced.

It will be interesting to see how quickly Woodson moves up in the Hall of Fame queue. 

One issue Woodson will have to have concerning his eventual election to the Hall of Fame is that there have been a lot of safeties voted in recently and it is possible that voters may feel the safety backlog has been cleared to some degree. 

Since 2017, including senior committee nominees and centennial class selections, there have been eleven safeties inducted into the Hall of Fame—LeRoy Butler, Steve Atwater, John Lynch, Donnie Shell, Cliff Harris, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Brian Dawkins, Johnny Robinson, Bobby Dillon, Ken Easley. 

When comparing Woodson to some of those players and their post-season honors he fits in nicely. He was First-team All-Pro as many times as Butler, Polamalu, Harris, and Easley (four each) and more times than Shell (three times), Lynch, and Atwater (twice each).

He has more Super Bowl rings than all of them except Shell. He does have fewer interceptions than any of them but his total (23) is just one behind Atwater and three behind Lynch so that cannot be any kind of issue.

It does appear that he is on par with the recent eleven safeties. 

Will Woodson's induction make it a Dirty Dozen?

Career stats—

Career post-season honors—


  1. I saw Gosselin wrote a recent article that Woodson wowed scouts with a 4.3x time while still in college, and maybe you saw that too? I never thought he looked -that- fast. To me he looked like a solid 4.50 guy which is perfectly great for the 1990s. For what it's worth, he weighed 219 at the combine and clocked a 4.53 according to NFLcombineresults dot com.

    I think he's got a little tough sledding but will make it before the Senior pool. Probably, opinion subject to change, also take Darren Woodson over Atwater, Lynch, and Dillon from the 2017 and forward safety list in the article.

    1. Probably won't make Final 10 until next year---maybe. Have seen different times on him...combine may have been his slowest. Cowboys have him a 4.4 . . . honestly don't know "true" time...have seen from 4.38 to 4.53

    2. From Brian wolf ...

      For John, Nick, Jeffrey or Alen Bailey ... Didnt Woodson have over 1200 total tackles as the Cowboys all-time leader or were the numbers exaggerated?

    3. We always use tackles from gamebooks whene possible. Teams often publish totals that the coaches tally and they are always different and almost always higher. They award assists very liberally. We've posted on this a few times--look up "Tale of Two Tackles" the Cowboys were like the Ravens, 49ers, Broncos, etc

    4. Thanks John ...

      Then is Woodson still the Cowboy's all-time tackler or do you guys not have that data ... I would assume its Jordan then?

  2. I coached him in high school and knew he was going to be something special!
    He played FB and LB for us, rushing for 1017 yards and 17 TD's (6 in one game) and had over 100 tackles his senior year.
    We also had Phillippi Sparks on that team.
    He was a WB and CB with 469 yards rushing and 6 TD's and 10 INT's that year.

  3. From Brian wolf ...

    Woodson sure had a good background in fundamentals.

    That to me is why Jimmy Johnson made the HOF. One of the few excellent talent evaluators as a HC with huge input in helping Jones sign players, who liked to put undersized players in different positions. Johnson's evaluation and motivation skills reminded me alot of John Madden and Weeb Ewbank ...