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The Grumpy, Perfect Twilight of Charles Woodson

As Charles Woodson nears the end of a brilliant career, he's proving that Old Man Game can carry you through the last days.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

If Charles Woodson has proven anything during the Oakland Raiders' dreary 2014 season, it's this: ball skills don't lie, and they don't age much, either. Last Sunday, the 38-year-old Woodson capped another solid game in his late-career return to the Raiders by picking off San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was all of 10 years old when Woodson entered the NFL. It was Woodson's third interception of the season, coming two weeks after he became the first player in league history to collect 50 interceptions and 20 sacks.


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Woodson has been playing so long that this run with the Raiders is really his second redemption tour. He has the NFL version of "Old Man Game"—a mastery of the tricky, sneaky details that make waning athleticism into something of an edge—and on a horrible, otherwise unwatchable Raiders team this year, watching the cranky, crotchety Woodson play safetyhas been a joy.

The first reinvention of Charles Woodson went like this: in 2006, he departed Oakland after eight years as an overpaid, would-be franchise savior who never quite turned out to be the defensive cure-all longtime franchise owner Al Davis envisioned when he drafted the Heisman-winning cornerback in 1998. In free agency, Woodson's only suitor was Green Bay. Packers general manager Ted Thompson, then in his second year on the job, saw Woodson as an affordable reclamation project whose singular talent—ball-hawking—simply wasn't taken advantage of by the Raiders. It took a year or two for the Packers to figure out the best ways to move Woodson closer to the ball—usually by lining him up in the slot, or deceptively moving him around the secondary—but once the team did, his game was reborn.

Woodson spent the 2009 season punching footballs out of of ballcarriers' hands and jumping the passing lanes of every telegraphed pass. At 33, he won the Defensive MVP award. In 2010, he was the top defensive playmaker on a Super Bowl team. (Though, memorably, he broke his collarbone before halftime and later a camera caught him attempting to pump his fist in the second half, forgetting that half his body was immobilized in a sling). Two years later, however, Woodson had clearly lost a step; after a forgettable switch to free safety failed to improve Green Bay's base defense in 2013, the team cut Woodson before having to pay him $10 million this season.

Which brings us to redemption number two. With former Thompson understudy Reggie McKenzie now at the helm of Raiders personnel, Woodson's reconnecting with the team that drafted him isn't totally surprising. Less expected has been his performance: though Woodson doesn't have the speed or agility he once had, he still has the savvy. It's not exactly the world's most dominant performance—see: 2-11 record—but it sends a message to those around him that, you know what, this dude's not done. Seeing a vintage Charles Woodson play is rarer these days—Woodson does not have a forced fumble this season, which is a travesty—but seeing 24 break on the ball transports you to a simpler time.

In addition to Woodson's Old Man Game, there's his complimentary (and delightful) Get Off My Lawn attitude, which even extends to his own teammates. In a November 20 Oakland upset of the Kansas City Chiefs that saw Woodson wreak havoc, the oldest position player in the NFL not named Peyton Manning confronted his own teammate, Sio Moore, after Moore drew a penalty for celebrating.

"That was the first time I had ever seen somebody celebrate for a whole 40-second clock," Woodson said. "That was ridiculous, and they know it. I told Sio he's lucky we got the win because we really probably would've had to fight, and I would've seen exactly what kind of fighter he is."

Woodson won the Heisman when Sio Moore was 6, and in my heart of hearts, I completely believe that he would have kicked Moore's ass if the Chiefs had come back to win that game. And that's as good a reason to watch Woodson this year as any—in an era when many prolonged careers end sadly, Woodson is proving you can still own your twilight.