Bron­cos de­fen­sive backs coach Joe Woods al­ways look­ing to improve

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nicki Jhab­vala

On the first day of Bron­cos train­ing camp, in late July, Joe Woods dug into his “bag of tricks” and pulled out the No-Fly Zone’s lat­est ac­ces­sory. Weeks later the de­fen­sive backs would don cus­tom blue-and-orange tights that served as col­or­ful re­minders of their place among the NFL’s best sec­on­daries. But first, Woods made them wear some­thing a lit­tle more func­tional: blin­ders.

To Woods, the Den­ver de­fen­sive backs coach since 2015, the blin­ders were a com­mon tool, one he had used since he was a coach at Hof­s­tra in 1998 try­ing to turn a group of raw ath­letes into re­fined de­fen­sive backs.

To his col­lec­tion of Pro Bowlers and other vet­er­ans, the blin­ders were kind of weird. They even drew a few laughs, along with con­fused looks, as play­ers tried to nav­i­gate the field with­out a pe­riph­ery.

“He’s al­ways look­ing for a way for us to get bet­ter and improve, es­pe­cially fun­da­men­tally and our tech­nique ev­ery year,” Den­ver corner­back Chris Har­ris said of Woods, 46. “That was just another way.”

In re­cent years, the Bron­cos’ se­condary has not only em­braced but boasted about their prepa­ra­tion for games, a rou­tine founded on film study and tech­nique. The game-chang­ing take­aways and air­tight pass de­fense keyed the Bron­cos’ Su­per Bowl run last sea­son and have de­fined their at­tempted ti­tle de­fense in 2016.

A lot of it traces back to Woods, the No-Fly Zone’s air-traf­fic con­troller.

Now with nearly 25 years of coach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as well as one flashy Su­per Bowl ti­tle ring, Woods could be next in line for a co­or­di­na­tor job, if not more.

“He’s tremen­dous,” said Bron­cos coach Gary Ku­biak. “When I came here, one of my very close friends in this busi­ness — he’s a de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in Mi­ami (Vance Joseph) and a re­ally good coach — told me, ‘You go get this guy.’ I didn’t know Joe. Boy, was he right. He’s been special.”

End­ing and beginning

The crazy part is Woods’ jour­ney started with a con­ver­sa­tion. It was 1992, and Woods had just fin­ished four years as a de­fen­sive back at Illi­nois State. He was pre­par­ing for a fu­ture with­out foot­ball. For a few min­utes, any­way. “It was af­ter our last game and we had to go in and turn in all our equip­ment and do our check-out stuff,” Woods said. “I walked through the hall­way and our po­si­tion coach, John Bow­ers, said, ‘Hey, did you ever think about coach­ing?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You want to give it a shot?’ ”

He did and he would, start­ing as the de­fen­sive backs coach at Musk­ingum Col­lege in Ohio.

“I al­ways re­mem­ber mak­ing $187 ev­ery two weeks try­ing to fig­ure out how to make my car pay­ments and eat, and I was liv­ing in an old fra­ter­nity house,” Woods said. “The way I made money was I had to clean out all the bunks in there and they paid me, and I used to line the fields be­fore high school games. That’s how it started.”

It would lead him to six more schools as a po­si­tion coach, be­fore he made the leap to the NFL as part of Tampa Bay’s se­condary coach­ing staff.

“It’s just like, ‘Man, I’ve ar­rived,’ ” Woods re­called. “Mak­ing that tran­si­tion to the NFL was just an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

In part be­cause of the play­ers he was able to coach. With the Buc­ca­neers, he was the rookie among cor­ner­backs Brian Kelly and Ronde Bar­ber, a five-time Pro Bowler still re­garded as one of the best slot cor­ners in league his­tory. And in part be­cause of his col­leagues, who in­cluded then-de­fen­sive backs coach Mike Tom­lin and as­sis­tant Ra­heem Mor­ris, both of whom be­came an NFL head coach.

Tampa Bay was the launch­ing pad, but also a stop for re­fine­ment be­fore Woods would go on to Min­nesota and work with Pro Bowlers An­toine Win­field and Dar­ren Sharper and later a rookie corner­back, Xavier Rhodes; to Oak­land, where he would be paired with Hall of Fame­bound safety Charles Wood­son; and to Den­ver, where he has a quin­tet of elite de­fen­sive backs in Har­ris, Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, T.J. Ward and Dar­ian Ste­wart.

“I al­ways was a big film watcher go­ing back to my high school,” Woods said. “But it re­ally took off when I got to Tampa with Mike Tom­lin. Mike taught me a dif­fer­ent way to watch tape, be­cause he used to play of­fense. I re­ally learned how to watch tape from an of­fen­sive per­spec­tive. It started in high school, but that’s when I re­ally got fine-tuned, with Mike Tom­lin.”

At­ten­tion to de­tail

Rhodes’ mem­o­ries of film ses­sions with Woods are vivid but far from unique. He re­mem­bers the ex­tended meet­ings and hours spent watch­ing cut-ups of first downs, sec­ond downs and third downs, red zone, two-minute foot­ball and more.

“Joe would keep you in the meet­ing room for­ever,” Rhodes said. “But it’s a good thing. One mem­ory I have of him: Every­body would be out of meet­ings, get­ting dressed for the prac­tice, and the DBs would still be in meet­ings watch­ing film. He was a dude that loves what he does. He al­ways wanted to cri­tique you and watch film.” More than even his play­ers could imag­ine. “I re­mem­ber Xavier, when we drafted him, he came in and said, ‘Hey, Coach, I hope you don’t get mad at me be­cause I’m go­ing to be in there watch­ing film with y’all all the time,’ ” Woods said. “I used to cut up all his tape and meet with him ev­ery Fri­day at the end of the week dur­ing the off­sea­son. Af­ter about a month he said, ‘Hey, Coach, I know I said I wanted to watch film, but you hold me hostage.’ ”

Rhodes’ story is a mir­ror im­age of oth­ers who have worked with Woods. Les­lie Fra­zier, the Ravens’ se­condary coach and former Vik­ings head coach, re­calls meet­ings in Min­nesota where Woods ref­er­enced dig routes run by a re­ceiver some six years prior.

“I’m like, ‘Man, Joe. I’m just think­ing about what hap­pened last week and you’re go­ing back five, six years,’ ” Fra­zier said. “That was Joe.”

Bron­cos corner­back Kayvon Web­ster said Woods will some­times dig up film decades old. Har­ris has said Woods “laps” him in film study to not only tip off his play­ers to op­po­nents’ for­ma­tions and sit­u­a­tional plays, but also the ten­den­cies and nu­ances of cer­tain re­ceivers.

“A lot of coaches in the league are just like, ‘Hey, this is your guy. You’re go­ing to just line up on him,’ ” Har­ris said. “But Joe is kind of like, ‘Hey, this is your guy. He’s good at this and this, and you might want to do this on him.’ So he gives you a lit­tle more.”

The Bron­cos (8-4) lead the NFL in pass de­fense (al­low­ing an av­er­age of 192.7 yards per game), in­ter­cep­tion re­turn yards (284) and points off take­aways (103) head­ing into Sun­day. Since the start of last sea­son, the Bron­cos have scored 10 de­fen­sive touch­downs, sec­ond­most in the league. Woods’ se­condary has ac­counted for seven.

That bag of tricks car­ries re­sults.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Bron­cos head coach Gary Ku­biak is a big fan of de­fen­sive backs coach Joe Woods, above. “He’s tremen­dous . ... He’s been special,” Ku­biak says.

Joe Woods, sec­ond from left, has come a long way since “mak­ing $187 ev­ery two weeks try­ing to fig­ure out how to make my car pay­ments and eat.” John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

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