Without pushing the product or making even a single pitch, Charles Woodson has become the ideal spokesman for a venture commissioner Roger Goodell forbids him from talking about: TwentyFour by Charles Woodson, the Napa Valley wine label that the cornerback-turned-entrepreneur introduced in 2008. For NFL players, endorsing alcohol is a no-no. But Woodson, the 13-year veteran in search of his first Super Bowl ring, is proof that some NFL players, like fine wine, improve with time.
Woodson's dominance defies conventional wisdom on cornerbacks, who make a living by backpedaling two steps faster than receivers can run forward. At a geriatric 34, he's playing as well he did in the prime of his career—arguably better. Swirl this around like a fine cabernet: One season after intercepting a career-high nine passes and being named the '09 Defensive Player of the Year (over the then 24-year-old Darrelle Revis), the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner morphed into a pseudo-linebacker in Green Bay's bruising 3--4 scheme, amassing 76 tackles and forcing five fumbles, both career highs. In his five years with the Pack, Woodson has pulled down nearly twice as many picks (30) as he had in eight distinguished seasons with the Raiders (17). "In this league they bring in younger guys all the time to either replace you or beat you," Woodson says. "For me just to stick around, I have to get better every year."
Woodson is the cornerstone of a secondary that allowed eight fewer touchdowns (16) than it had interceptions (24) this season, the league's best differential and perhaps the Packers' key to victory in Super Bowl XLV. The Steelers are often portrayed as a ground-and-pound offense, but in Super Bowls XL and XLIII, Pittsburgh hoisted the Lombardi Trophy behind MVP performances from wide receivers. Don't assume Ben Roethlisberger & Co. will be able to exploit the Packers in the same way. "The level at which we play, the speed with which we play," Woodson says, "there's not a weakness in our secondary."
Credit Woodson with molding the Packers' young talent through countless hours of film study and infusing in them an unwavering confidence. For Green Bay there was no greater concern coming into the season than the secondary, which Kurt Warner shredded for 379 yards and five touchdowns in last year's NFC wild-card round. Three weeks earlier Roethlisberger had thrown for 503 yards on the Pack, the 10th 500-yard game in NFL history. The difference this year? The emergence of fifth-year corner Tramon Williams (six picks, plus three in the postseason) and rookie Sam Shields (two picks, plus two more against Chicago in the NFC title game), which enabled Woodson to patrol closer to the line of scrimmage, blitz more often, spy QBs and line up at corner, safety, nickelback and even linebacker—the perfect threat to keep Roethlisberger's head on a swivel come Sunday. And in the second year under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the secondary never allowed more than two touchdowns in a single game; all but one opponent was held to fewer than 27 points. "A large part of it has to do with the development of the young guys," Woodson says. "I haven't lost a step. I'm able to adapt. I'm playing this way so we can get our best guys on the field."
Just how baby-faced are Woodson's sidekicks? When Shields was 12 he unwrapped Woodson's number 24 Raiders jersey on Christmas morning and "cried because I was so happy." In high school and college Williams had Woodson's poster taped up in his locker. Now they're blossoming into stars under the tutelage of an idol whom they affectionately call "Old Otis"—a nod to the overzealous gray-haired security guard from the sitcom Martin. "He's the wise one, and the young hungry guys are falling in line behind the leader," says safety Nick Collins, 27, himself a three-time Pro Bowl pick. "That's why we've been so successful this year."
Of all the things they've learned from Woodson—how to break down film, how to anticipate where the ball will be thrown based on field position, formation, personnel and receiver splits—they know this best: The sum of his accolades hardly compares to his desire for a ring. "It would really validate my career," says Woodson, who came up short in his only other appearance, the Raiders' 48--21 loss to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII.
And what would a ring mean to Woodson's legacy? Deion Sanders and Ty Law have five Super Bowl titles between them. Sanders went to eight Pro Bowls, one more than Woodson; Law two fewer. Their names belong in a debate that Woodson feels he should be a part of. "My last few years in Oakland, I could play great and nobody would really care," he says. "Your name is left out of the conversation of best ever because your team is terrible."
New team, new role. Can one win change the discussion? Does he already belong?
"He's not slowing down at all," Williams says. "He's getting better and better with age." For connoisseurs of Packers football, there's no finer wine.