ALAMEDA, Calif. -- They’ve been linked since their college careers came to an unofficial close -- Peyton Manning was on Charles Woodson’s immediate left when Woodson was announced the winner of the 1997 Heisman Trophy -- and the bond was seemingly strengthened four months later when they entered the NFL together. Manning was the top pick of the 1998 draft, going to Indianapolis, and Woodson was taken fourth by the Raiders.
Fifteen professional seasons, three combined changes of address and countless snaps later, though, and the two are relative strangers. They have only played against each other four times in the NFL, and while Woodson is 3-1 against Manning, they will renew acquaintances Monday night in Denver.
Some see it as coming full circle from that December night at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York. Despite the lack of on-field familiarity, there is a mutual respect between the Raiders defensive back and Broncos quarterback.
“Well, he’s the best of the best, you know; he’s seen everything and he probably watches film probably more than anybody else, and he’s going to know what to look for when he walks up to the line,” Woodson said this week. “The thing with him is you try your best to give him different looks and not let him know what [defensive set] you’re in.
“If he knows what you’re in, you see what he’s done the first couple of weeks.”
In two games, the 37-year-old Manning has thrown for a combined 769 yards on 67.1 percent passing with nine touchdowns and no interceptions for a 131.0 passer rating.
This after passing for 4,659 yards with 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and winning the league’s comeback player of the year award in his first season in Denver.
Woodson, meanwhile, turns 37 on Oct. 7 and has shown no signs of slowing down in his first two games back with Oakland following seven seasons in Green Bay. Or did you miss his Superman-esque flying tackle of Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew to save a touchdown Sunday?
“Charles is an excellent player,” Manning said in a conference call with Bay Area reporters Thursday. “He’s had an outstanding career. Sixteen seasons, any position, as a defensive back in this league, that alone is special and you take the fact that how well Charles has played at corner. He’s been excellent in the nickel, he’s been playing some nickel, just kind of shows his versatility, keeps himself in great shape, great condition.
“That’s usually what happens to most guys at that point -- they lose a step. He’s not done that at all. So it’s a real credit to his offseason training and keeping himself in great shape.”
Many thought Woodson and Manning would be teammates in Denver this season. Woodson visited the Broncos this offseason as a free agent and Manning was in the building, but the defensive back left Colorado without a contract. Woodson’s next visit was to Alameda, and the Raiders and a cadre of fans waiting outside the facility did not let him leave until he signed to return to Oakland on May 21.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who saw Woodson turn his Hall of Fame talent into a Canton résumé with the Packers, said Woodson has already exceeded expectations.
“He really did,” McKenzie said, “and probably more.
“Charles is a football player. That’s what he is. He’s not going to be cautious or play like he’s waiting for the next week or waiting for next [year]. When he dresses, when he laces his shoes, he’s out there to play. That’s just him. He’s what you want in a football player. He exudes that swagger he has and all his teammates feel it. Hopefully they can absorb something from it and take a little piece.”
Woodson and Manning seemed to feed off each other in the winter of ’97. Woodson became the first predominantly defensive player to win the Heisman, outdistancing Manning by a point total of 1,815 to 1,543.
Manning and Woodson are destined for Canton, so their draft positions made for a unique situation. Only five times in the history of the common NFL draft have at least two future Hall of Famers been taken in the first four picks: 1969 with O.J. Simpson (first) and Joe Greene (fourth), 1975 with Randy White (second) and Walter Payton (fourth), 1983 with John Elway and Eric Dickerson (second), 1985 with Bruce Smith (first) and Chris Doleman (fourth) and 1989 with Troy Aikman (first), Barry Sanders (third) and Derrick Thomas (fourth).
Besides Manning and Woodson, perhaps Eli Manning (first) and Larry Fitzgerald (third) from the 2004 draft can make it happen, or even Calvin Johnson (second) and Joe Thomas (third) from the 2007 draft.
But it’s just right to get nostalgic for Woodson and Manning and 1998.
“Yeah those two, you knew,” they’d be successful, McKenzie said. “What, they were one and two in the Heisman? I felt that those two guys were great players. They weren’t good players, they were great players. They were graded as those annual perennial Pro Bowl guys.
“Scouting those two guys was easy. It really was easy.”
Almost as easy as the ownership Woodson has had on Manning in the NFL.
It began on Sept. 10, 2000, when the Raiders stormed back from a 21-0 deficit at the RCA Dome, thanks in part to linebacker Greg Biekert deciphering Manning’s signals at the line of scrimmage, to pull out the 38-31 victory.
It continued with Oakland’s 23-18 victory over the Colts in Indianapolis on Oct. 14, 2001, before Manning beat Woodson and the Raiders, 35-14, in Oakland on Oct. 10, 2004.
In Green Bay on Oct. 19, 2008, Woodson’s Packers beat Manning and the Colts, 34-14.
Still, Woodson has yet to pick off Manning, who has thrown for 1,035 yards on 61.2 percent passing with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions in games against Woodson.
Then again, Woodson was a cornerback in those games; he’s a safety now.
Time marches on, even if the two sharing the green room for the draft at Madison Square Garden seems alternately like yesterday and a lifetime ago.
“It was a whirlwind day, obviously an exciting day,” Manning said. “It’s the official end of one phase of your life and the official beginning of a new chapter of your life.”
Then welcome to the story of Manning and Woodson, where past is prologue.