Is Rod Woodson the Greatest DB Ever?

AP Photo/Jeff Glidden, File

AP Photo/Jeff Glidden, File

With Rod Woodson’s Hall of Fame Enshrinement fast approaching, Maryrose over at Behind the Steel Curtain, wrote an excellent post reviewing Rod Woodson’s career and accomplishments, with, of course, a focus on his time as a Steeler. I will not try to parallel or top his post. My plan is to review Woodson’s career interception numbers against some of the other all time great DBs and see if a compelling case can be made that he was the greatest DB of all time. My “inspiration” for this idea was hearing that he had the most Pro Bowl starts of any DB in NFL history, which was mentioned on NFL Total Access last night.

So, let’s take a look at the numbers. From www.pro-football-reference.com, I pulled the numbers for the leaders in Career Interceptions (INT), Career Interception Return Yards (INT Ret Yds), and Career Interceptions Returned for TDs (INT Ret TD). For Career Interceptions, I decided that the cutoff should be players with more than 60 interceptions. It was an arbitrary decision because the next person had 58 and there were several with 57, including Mel Blount (sorry Mel). For Interception Return Yards, my cutoff was players with greater than 1000 yards. This seemed like a good cutoff, since 1000 yards is considered significant in the NFL and the next player was ranked 10th. So, I got the top 9. Then, for INTs Returned for TDs, my cutoff was 7 TDs because that tied for 7th place in history with 6 players having 7 interceptions returned for TDs.

First, the list of players with more than 60 career INTs.

Rank Player Career INT INT/ Year Years Played Pro Bowls 1st Team All-Pro
1 Paul Krause+ 81 5.06 16 8 3
2 Emlen Tunnell+ 79 5.64 14 9 4
3 Rod Woodson 71 4.18 17 11 6
4 Night Train Lane+ 68 4.86 14 7 3
5 Ken Riley 65 4.33 15 0 1
6 Ronnie Lott+ 63 4.5 14 10 6
7 Dave Brown 62 4.13 15 1 0
7 Dick LeBeau 62 4.43 14 3 0

Next, the players with greater than 1000 yards in interception returns.

Rank Player INT Ret Yds Ret Yds/Yr Years Played Pro Bowls 1st Team All-Pro
1 Rod Woodson 1483 87.24 17 11 6
2 Deion Sanders 1331 78.29 17 8 6
3 Emlen Tunnell+ 1282 91.57 14 9 4
4 Night Train Lane+ 1207 86.21 14 7 3
5 Paul Krause+ 1185 74.06 16 8 3
6 Ed Reed 1144 163.43 7 5 4
7 Lem Barney+ 1077 97.91 11 7 2
8 Herb Adderley+ 1046 87.17 12 5 4
9 Darren Sharper 1036 86.33 12 4 1

And finally, the players with 7 or more INTs for TDs.

Rank Player INT Ret TD Ret TD/Yr Years Played Pro Bowls 1st Team All-Pro
1 Rod Woodson 12 0.71 17 11 6
2 Aeneas Williams 9 0.64 14 8 3
2 Deion Sanders 9 0.53 17 8 6
2 Ken Houston+ 9 0.64 14 12 2
5 Darren Sharper 8 0.67 12 4 1
5 Eric Allen 8 0.57 14 6 1
7 Herb Adderley+ 7 0.58 12 5 4
7 Ronde Barber 7 0.58 12 5 3
7 Erich Barnes 7 0.5 14 6 1
7 Lem Barney+ 7 0.64 11 7 2
7 Ty Law 7 0.5 14 5 2
7 Otis Smith 7 0.54 13 0 0

The first thing that jumps out at me is that Rod Woodson is ranked 1st in two of the three lists and he’s third on the other. The second thing is that he is the ONLY player on all three lists. But, these are just rankings of raw data. I also calculated each player’s statistics on a per year basis. As you can see, Rod compared favorably with these players on a per year basis as well. He is first in INTs for TDs and 4th in return yards/year. He did come in 7th in INTs/year, but there was not a large deviation in these averages.  In addition, as already noted, the other players on this list are absent from one or both of the other two lists.

In addition to statistics, which I think show very favorably for Woodson, I also pulled the number of times that each player was elected to the Pro Bowl or was voted first team All Pro. In this case, Woodson was one of only two players considered here that went to 10 or more Pro Bowls and was voted first team All Pro 6 times. The other was Ronnie Lott. Rod had one more Pro Bowl than Lott, and Lott did not make the cut in the return yards or return TDs lists.

That covers the interception statistics, but let’s not forget Rod’s KR and PR numbers. As Devin Hester has learned, pulling double duty can adversely impact a players numbers in one or both roles. Checking here will show you that Woodson has over 1300 more KR yards than Deion Sanders, who is next closest among these DBs. Although, checking here will show you that Deion does have 33% more KR TDs than Rod (Deion – 3, Rod – 2). Here you can see that Woodson is ranked tops in PR yardage, with the next closest DB considered here being just over 150 yards behind him. Deion does have him in the PR TD category, though, with 6 to Rod’s 2. But, overall, one would have to say that Rod comes out ahead in terms of total KR and PR numbers.

Based on this data, I am prepared to say that Rod Woodson is the greatest DB of all time. He went the Pro Bowl as both a CB and a Safety. He is the only player to rank in the top 3 in Interceptions, INT return yards, and INT TDs, ranking first in the latter two categories. He was the only CB to go to the Pro Bowl 11 times and be voted first team All Pro 6 times. He was also one of three players considered in this post who was voted the AP Defensive Player of the Year, as well as being the first. On top of that, he was a Pro Bowl caliber KR and PR for the first 8 years of his career. At the very least, one could argue that there is a compelling case to say that Woodson is the greatest DB ever.

What do you think?

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22 Responses to “Is Rod Woodson the Greatest DB Ever?”

  1. Hance Harmon Says:

    ‘Nuff said. Although I hate the fact that he won his Superbowl with the Mavens, He still with out question the greatest DB ever, hey the numbers don’t lie. Absent are the other numbers like tackles, sacks, FF and FR. Any DB can cover a WR, but what does he do if the WR makes the catch or how he stop the QB from even throwing a pass. Bettis said it best, the Blitzburg defense is designed for the front seven to succeed. If the front seven fails, it leave the DB’s is left out on an island alone. Bravo to my favorite player and my favorite Steeler when he was there for his HOF nomination!

    • wolfpacksteelersfan Says:

      Yeah, I thought about including other stats like sacks, FF and FR, but they weren’t available for the older players. So, I wanted to keep a consistent approach for all players being looked at. Also, I read somewhere that tackles are records kept by the teams, which may be over-inflated, so I avoided that as well.

      • Geoffrey B Says:

        Yeah Woodson doubles up Sanders in FF and FR, but those old guys were lighting people up too, I’d love to see someone go through and see how many Blount forced.

  2. 60 minute man Says:

    Rod not only is better than Sanders in INT’s and what not. But Rod would also lay you out! I remember when he singlehandily beat the Bills on a Monday night game! He crushed Jim Kelly and caused a fumble, then picked him off and went for 6. He is by far the best ever.

  3. Geoffrey B Says:

    I don’t know if I would go best ever, because of players like Mel Blount. Mel didn’t grab interceptions like Rod or the others because of how he played the game. He shut down his receiver often taking him out of the play like you just can’t do now.

    Also liked seeing Ed Reed on the lists, he and troy are arguably on the best safeties of all time list. Ed is better with the ball than Deion was. Deion had flash, but Reed follows blocks and makes the right moves to get yards and break runs open.

    Also Rod vs Deion, Rod played in 50 more games than Deion. If you take three seasons off Deions years played his average would go up to right near Rod’s level. Per game it’s .28 int. per game Deion, .30 for Rod; .048 int for TD per game Deion, .050 Rod.

    Considering Deion was the “better” cover man, and supposedly the bigger int. and TD threat, Rod still beat him.

    To really evaluate it you would want access to the number of times they were thrown at. The only argument is Deion saw less passes, but I doubt it would be much different.

    Where Deion earned his reputation was punt returns where he bests Rod’s 2 returns for TD’s with 6. Rod had 48 more punt returns than Deion and Deion has 1.3 yards per return on Rod.

    Deion was the more dangerous return man, but Rod was the best corner by far.

    As for Ed Reed, who deserves mention here through 7 years he’s posting .41 interceptions per game, and .047 int for TD a game. More interceptions, fewer TD’s. However:

    yards per int.
    Woodson 20.89
    Sanders 25.11
    Reed 26.60
    interesting. I also checked Troy, but he is nowhere near the league of these men in interceptions or returns.

    Per game LeBeau, Riley, Lott, Lane, Tunnell and Krause all move ahead of Woodson, with Tunnell at a ridiculous .473 Int per game.

    Rod just kept it going longer than they did.

    So Rod wasn’t the elite all time interception king the stats might paint him as, but he is in the company of the best no doubt, and better than Deion for sure. And he was a much better player than Deion outside of coverage and returns.

    • wolfpacksteelersfan Says:

      Good stuff. I would have liked to look at things like times thrown his way, passes defenced, etc., but unfortunately they didn’t keep those stats back in the old days.

      Looking at a per game basis, you can make an argument for the older guys having better interception numbers, but, again, none of them were close in terms of INTs for TD.

      • Geoffrey B Says:

        I think that is because of the way the game has changed. More chances taken, and less focused offenses, meaning every route wasn’t designed with the idea of opening a defense a particular way. So you get more interceptions but you do less with them.

        Then again I could be full of crap.

        This would be a great thing to talk to Dick Lebeau about.

        • wolfpacksteelersfan Says:

          Yeah, let’s get Dick on here! Who knows him? :) Seriously, though, he would be a fantastic person to as about the evolution of that aspect.

  4. Varmint Says:

    When you consider the length of a player’s career, guys like Reed really start to shine. Sure, he’s short on TDs, but I figure that number is more a function of where on the field an INT takes place. The longer he is in the league, the more opportunities he’ll have to pick the ball within 50 yards of the goal line. True for any of the players who are still active.

    On the flip side of that coin, any player with 17 years in the NFL has accomplished something special right there.

    • wolfpacksteelersfan Says:

      Yeah, Reed’s career is still young compared to these others, but, if he sticks around long enough, expect that interception return yards per season to start dropping, I think. He’ll still probably finish at the top by a wide margin, but not the nearly 2 to 1 margin of today.

  5. zeekdm Says:

    There’s a lot to consider as y’all made numerous valid points. I have to agree with Varmint regarding the body of work…17 years. Cant forget he was one of 3 active players to make the NFLs 75th Anniversary All-Time Team (1994). What other defensive player can say that? Sure I’m bias as he too is my favorite Steeler with Bettis, Polamalu in 2nd (I’m a ’90s Steelers product). Anyhoot; Reed, Dieon, Aeneas, Lott, etc are all tops in their fields but I think Mr. Woodson is overall #1 thus far!

  6. Mark Says:

    Rod is the 2nd best corner in Steelers History, Mel Blount could play right now at age 61, he’s 6’3″ and 225 lbs and absolutely shut out receivers to the tune of 4 Superbowls.

  7. stvtptn Says:

    It’s a proven fact by the statistics that rod is the best ever.Maybe he didn’t win as many superbowls as ronnie but it takes a team to win a superbowl not an idividual.I grew up in the seventies watching my favorite team the steelers beat people up and send them to retirement.That fact has nothing to do with my decision.I know rod was never a raider but his commitment to excellence certainly proves he’s the greatest-congrats Rod!

  8. Rudedog Says:

    Very good argument, supported with relevant facts.
    I’m a Chargers fan but I gotta agree with your analysis and conclusion: Rod Woodson is BEST DB to play football.
    And, if tackling, passes defended, intimidation, and lack of pass interference calls per passes defended were available stats, then I’d guess Rod Woodson would rank high in those stats.

  9. df1 Says:

    Rod Woodson is a more complete player than deion. He could sack QBs, tackle running backs and that, Deion never did that stuff. As far as CBs in recent history I think he is the best.

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