Cook: It's time for LaMarr Woodley to focus on football
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Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley wasn't much of a football player last season, but he is getting rave reviews for his portrayal of legendary rapper Jam Master Jay. Woodley, Trent Richardson of the Cleveland Browns and Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks are featured in a pictorial in the Feb. 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine, recreating an album cover of the iconic hip-hop group Run DMC. Woodley is wonderful in the photographs that have been released and has talked about the painstaking preparation that went into the project.
It's nice to think Woodley will devote the same energy this offseason to his day job.
The Steelers haven't made much news since the NFL season ended, but it's the calm before the storm. General manager Kevin Colbert promised significant changes, which could begin this week. A team that finishes with a disappointing 8-8 record has to make changes. "We'd be silly to expect a better result [with] the same group of guys," Colbert said.
Much of the speculation has centered around linebacker James Harrison. Will he agree to a pay cut or a restructuring of his contract? If he doesn't, will the Steelers release him to save precious money under the NFL salary cap?
The Steelers need Harrison. He missed the first three games last season after knee surgery and took a long time to get into playing shape. But by the end of the season, he was playing good football. He was the same disruptive force he used to be on a defense that, despite impressive statistics, badly needed one.
Harrison will turn 35 in May, but that's not as much of an issue with him as it is with other players. He is the Steelers' hardest worker. He trains maniacally. Unlike last year, he will get in all of the off-season work. He will be ready to go when training camp opens in July. He should have a big season.
It's not as if Jason Worilds can step in and take Harrison's place. He's a good pass rusher and had five sacks as a part-time starter last season, but there is more to the outside linebacker position than that. Steelers linebacker Larry Foote often talked of how Harrison "pushed back the line of scrimmage" on running plays, especially later in the season. Worilds doesn't appear to have the size or power to do that.
Memo to Colbert:
But Harrison isn't the key to the Steelers defense.
That's the other outside linebacker.
The team needs him to pick up his game and become a dominant player again opposite Harrison.
"He was awful," one teammate said of Woodley's performance last season.
"He tells us he works out, but we didn't see it. He wasn't in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt."
Colbert defended Woodley when asked about that assessment, saying Woodley always has carried a lot of weight. That might be true, but Woodley was a much different player, a much worse player. He looked heavy and slow. He had just four sacks after getting nine in the first half of the 2011 season before a serious hamstring injury ruined that season for him.
Injuries have become an issue with Woodley. Before his hamstring injury against the New England Patriots in the eighth game of 2011, he had played in 58 consecutive games, including 46 consecutive starts. But he missed six of the final nine games in 2011 and was ineffective in the three he played, including the playoff loss to the Denver Broncos. No sacks. He missed one game last season with another hamstring problem and two more games because of an ankle injury.
"He tells us he works out, but we didn't see it ... "
It's easy to say Woodley got fat -- literally and figuratively -- after he agreed to a six-year, $61.5 million contract before the 2011 season, including a $22.5 million signing bonus. But that would mean ignoring those nine sacks in the first eight games of 2011. He was in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation before his hamstring injury.
No one begrudged Woodley his money. He had played out his original four-year contract and made just $550,000 in the 2010 season because of a technicality. He never complained. He just produced. He had 13 sacks in 2010, including three in the postseason. He had 13 1/2 sacks in 2009 and 17 1/2 in 2008, including six in the postseason.
It wasn't long after Woodley sacked Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner to end the Steelers' 27-23 win in Super Bowl XLIII after the 2008 season that Woodley talked about his motivation.
"Ain't no price tag on winning. Winning and making history is something you can't buy. Me? I'm a guy who loves history. When I'm 60 or 70, I don't want to be remembered for the money I make. I want to be in the history books."
There was no mistaking Woodley's point. He wanted to be remembered as one of the NFL's great linebackers.
Woodley was well down that path before his hamstring injury against the Patriots in 2011. He needs to get back on it if the Steelers are going to be successful in 2013.
First Published February 17, 2013 12:00 am