Charles Woodson and Tory James each hobbled into Qualcomm Stadium with a metal plate in his leg and walked off the field with a knot in his stomach. Needless to say, last Jan. 26 was a not-so-Super Sunday for the Raiders' cornerbacks, who learned the hard way that trying to cover the Buccaneers' wideouts with broken fibulas is futile. "I had that early interception," Woodson recalls, "and I was thinking, MVP, win the game, all that good stuff. But as the game dragged on, it was like one long, bad dream that never seemed to end."
Oakland's crushing 48-21 loss to the Bucs and former Raiders coach Jon Gruden can be explained by many factors—Tampa's edge in team speed; superior coaching by Gruden against his former assistant Bill Callahan; a dreadful performance by MVP quarterback Rich Gannon; the suspension of All-Pro center Barret Robbins after he went on a drinking binge, brought on by his bipolar disorder—but its struggling secondary was a primary culprit. It certainly didn't help that Phillip Buchanon, the Raiders' electrifying cover corner, watched helplessly from the sideline, his rookie season having ended after he broke his left wrist in Week 7.
Now, as Callahan attempts to coax one more title run from his long-in-the-tooth squad (the current roster, average age 28.5, is the third oldest in the NFL), a trio of young cornerbacks could be the key. With James having bolted to the Bengals as a free agent, Woodson, 26, and Buchanon, 22, form a spectacular starting tandem. Rookie Nnamdi Asomugha, a first-round draft pick from Cal, will likely be the nickelback, with holdover Terrance Shaw also in the mix. "I think it's going to start with our defense—and it's got to start with our corners," says 38-year-old free safety Rod Woodson (no relation to Charles), who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions last season with eight.
While the selection of the big (6'3", 215 pounds), speedy Asomugha with the 31st pick might have been confusing to some-including commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who transposed and butchered Asomugha's name at the podium on draft day—Charles Woodson knew the deal: Since he's set to make $2.4 million in the final season of the six-year contract he signed as a rookie, Woodson's future in Oakland may depend on how, and how much, he plays in 2003. "I feel like I'm starting over," says the former Heisman winner, whose streak of four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances ended last season.
Slowed by turf toe throughout much of 2001, the 6'1", 205-pound Woodson began last season with a flourish, forcing three fumbles and intercepting a pass in the Raiders' first two games. But he broke his right humerus bone during Oakland's 30-17 victory over the Steelers in Week 2 and had to sit out the next five games. Shortly after his return he cracked his right fibula, missing a total of three games before returning to play with the plate in his leg.
Woodson understands that by sucking it up for his team and then getting burned repeatedly in the Super Bowl, he may have damaged his reputation as a star. Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain recently told The Miami Herald that Woodson was the NFL's most overhyped player, and several of his peers questioned Woodson about his decision to play hurt. Shortly after the Super Bowl one prominent player approached him and said, 'Yo, I wouldn't have done that.' "
Buchanon, an explosive player who returned an interception for a touchdown and busted a punt return for a score during his abbreviated rookie year, relishes the notion of playing opposite a revived Woodson. "It's not going to be a pretty sight for offensive coordinators," says Buchanon, a first-round pick from Miami in 2002. "A lot of people are going to try me, and I can't wait."
Woodson, too, remains confident. Asked about the possibility of forming one of the alltime cornerback combinations with Buchanon, he says, "I feel any tandem I'm part of has a chance to be one of the best."
The Raiders would like nothing more than for their brash corners to back up their words.
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