Sometimes – despite all of the miles traveled and all of the videotape studied and all of the money spent – it all comes down to luck. Sometimes it’s pure luck that a team gets a chance to draft a guy who turns out to be an All-Pro cornerback, one of only four active players voted to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2009.
That’s the only way to explain the story of how Rod Woodson came to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was 1987, and the Steelers owned the 10th overall pick in the upcoming draft because of their 6-10 record in 1986, and one of the contributing factors to that finish was the play of the secondary.
Dwayne Woodruff, the team’s oldest and best cornerback, blew out a knee in the third preseason game in 1986 and went on the injured reserve list, and the Steelers never did find a way to stabilize the position despite exploring a lot of avenues and trying a bunch of combinations.
At cornerback for the Steelers in 1986 were Harvey Clayton, John Swain, Chris Sheffield, Lupe Sanchez and Donnie Elder. Swain, Sheffield, Sanchez and Elder all were street free agents when signed by the Steelers, and Clayton had made the team as an undrafted rookie in 1983.
In 1986, the Steelers defense finished 21st in the 28-team league in completion percentage allowed, 21st in passing touchdowns allowed, 19th in opposing passer rating and 17th in points allowed. Ten years earlier, Chuck Noll’s Steelers defense posted five shutouts over the last eight weeks of a 14-game season and was so dominant that the NFL changed rules to do something about that. But come the mid-1980s it had deteriorated into a unit being described by former defensive end Dwight White as “soft and cheesy.” The Steelers had a lot of needs going into the 1987 NFL Draft, but Chuck Noll believed in defense, and he understood better than anyone that his wasn’t what it needed to be.
Still, being able to draft Rod Woodson to help the unit seemed to be nothing but a pipedream. Woodson was the best of a thin crop of cornerbacks, and not only had he been a great player in college at Purdue, but his workout at the NFL Scouting Combine quickly became the stuff of legend.
Here’s just a bit of Woodson’s college athletic bio: He was a four-year starter (44 straight games) and he played cornerback, safety, running back and wide receiver, while also returning punts and kickoffs. He broke 13 Purdue records, including 320 solo tackles, 11 interceptions, three touchdowns on interceptions, 276 interception return yards, 71 kickoff returns and 1,535 kickoff return yards. In his final regular season college football game, Woodson played both ways, he started at tailback and was on the field for 137 plays where he gained 93 yards rushing, caught three passes for 67 yards, returned two kickoffs for 46 yards, returned three punts for 30 yards, made 10 tackles and forced a fumble. Off the football field, Woodson qualified for the 1984 Olympic Trials in the 100-meter hurdles, and at Purdue he was the Big Ten champion in the 55-meter hurdles for four straight years.
Ray Charles could see that Rod Woodson was going to be a great player in the NFL, but it soon became apparent after the draft began that some teams picking ahead of the Steelers would have been better off with Ray Charles than with some of the scouts they had.
Woodson was so good that Chuck Noll had told defensive coordinator Tony Dungy not to bother doing a detailed report on him, so sure was Noll that the Steelers would have NO chance to pick the Purdue cornerback.
Tampa Bay led off the 1987 NFL Draft by doing the expected, which was to pick quarterback Vinny Testaverde, and the next three choices also went according to form – Indianapolis chose linebacker Cornelius Bennett, the Houston Oilers took fullback Alonzo Highsmith, and the Green Bay Packers picked tailback Brent Fullwood.
Then came the weirdness, and it came back-to-back.
The 1986 Cleveland Browns had finished 12-4 only to lose the AFC Championship, 23-20 in overtime, to the Denver Broncos in the game made famous by The Drive, and come the following offseason they had grown weary of their Pro Bowl linebacker, Chip Banks. So on the day of the draft, the Browns traded Banks to the San Diego Chargers for the fifth pick of the first round.
Since Banks was an outside linebacker, once the trade was announced it was assumed the Browns would use the pick on Penn State’s Shane Conlan, who was the highest-rated linebacker in this draft. But Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer out-thought himself, and Cleveland used the fifth overall pick on a linebacker from Duke named Mike Junkin.
That pushed Conlan down, and then the St. Louis Cardinals, who apparently had tired of Neil Lomax as their quarterback, reached and selected Kelly Stouffer from Colorado State. As soon as that pick was announced, the Steelers were assured of having their choice between the two players believed to be the best of the available linebackers (Shane Conlan) or cornerbacks (Rod Woodson).
That was because the Detroit Lions had been linked to Washington defensive end Reggie Rogers, determined to be the best pass-rushing prospect, and the Philadelphia Eagles had the ninth overall pick and they were intent on using it on Miami defensive tackle Jerome Brown.
The Lions did as expected with their pick, and the Eagles would do the same with their ninth pick. The Buffalo Bills, picking eighth, then became the only team standing between the Steelers and the chance to draft Rod Woodson. The Bills decided on Conlan, and the Steelers acted quickly and chose Woodson.
Said Chuck Noll about his first-round pick: “I love him.” It was only because of Cleveland and St. Louis that Noll got a chance to fall in love in the first place.