Former Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson is one of the 102 modern-era nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019.
He also is one of nine players who went to Pro Bowls with the Cowboys on the ballot. Joining him are tight end Jay Novacek (5 Pro Bowls with the Cowboys), defensive tackle La’Roi Glover (4 Pro Bowls), fullback Daryl Johnston (2), halfback Herschel Walker (2), center Ray Donaldson (2), special teams ace Bill Bates, defensive tackle Russell Maryland (1) and safety Thomas Everett (1). Two-time Super Bowl champion coach Jimmy Johnson also is on the ballot.
Woodson probably stands the best chance of the Dallas nominees and for good reason. He’s the all-time leading tackler in franchise history with 1,350 in his 12 seasons. A college linebacker at Arizona State, the Cowboys moved Woodson to the secondary and he was in the NFL’s first wave of coverage safeties in the early 1990s, often lining up across from the opposition’s slot receiver. He intercepted 23 passes in his career. So he was a factor in both run and pass defense on championship teams.
But there is a major obstacle in Woodson’s path to Canton. Despite playing on three Super Bowl champions, Woodson was a glaring omission from the NFL’s all-decade team for the 1990s. Selected ahead of him were Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, Carnell Lake and Ronnie Lott.
Why is that important? Because of the 275 players currently enshrined in Canton, 76 percent of them were all-decade selections. Of the 65 players in the Hall who were not selected to an all-decade team, 43 of them played offense.
So if you didn’t play offense and you didn’t make all-decade, you are a longshot for Canton. Charles Haley was not an all-decade selection. He’s a member of the 100-sack club and became the first (and now one of only two players) with five Super Bowl rings. Tom Brady is the other. Yet it took Haley 11 years and six trips to the finals before he was finally voted in. Brady won’t have to wait as long.
Of the 22 defenders in Canton who did not make all-decade, 11 of them were voted into the Hall of Fame as senior candidates after their 25-year windows of eligibility ended.
There are logical reasons Woodson was left off the all-decade team. His team success came during the first half of the 1990 decade. He was done winning Super Bowls by the 1995 season. Butler won a Super Bowl and Atwater won two in the final five years of the decade. So their team accomplishments and Pro Bowls were fresher in the minds of voters than those of Woodson when they put pen to paper in 2000 to select the 1990s all-decade team.
Woodson also had to contend with the reputation of Lott, who is considered by some the greatest safety ever. Lott also was voted to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1980s and, no question, he deserved it. He was the driving defensive force of a San Francisco team that won four Super Bowls.
But Lott wasn’t the same player in his 30s in the 1990s as he was in his 20s in the 1980s. He played only five seasons in the 1990s with three different teams – the 49ers (1990), Raiders (1991-92) and the Jets (1993-94). He was voted first-team all-pro in 1990 and 1991 and went to the Pro Bowl both of those seasons as well. But his days as an all-pro and Pro Bowler ended after that 1991 season. Woodson’s career started in 1992.
Lott intercepted 15 passes in the 1990s for teams that won just one playoff game. Woodson went to five Pro Bowls in the 1990s and was a three-time first-team all-pro selection.
But even if Woodson had been voted to the 1990s all-decade team ahead of Lott, himself a first-ballot Hall of Famer, there would be no guarantees of a bust in his future. Atwater and Butler were the first-team all-decade selections for 1990s and neither has been enshrined.
Atwater is in his 14th year of eligibility and has been a finalist just once. Butler is in his 12th year of eligibility and is still waiting his first turn as a finalist. Lake also is in his 12th year of eligibility and has never been in the room as a finalist, either.
Woodson enjoyed a Hall of Fame-caliber career. But without that all-decade acclaim, his individual and team accomplishment seem to have been forgotten. He’s in his 10th year of eligibility and has been voted one of the 25 semifinalists just once. Like Butler and Lake, he’s never been a finalist.
Woodson deserves better. His career deserves to be debated and discussed. But the clock continues to tick on his candidacy.