Had he never played a down with the Raiders, Rod Woodson was still going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His status as an all-time great was secure by virtue of his 10 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a cornerback and four with the Baltimore Ravens as a safety, and not affected either way by a forgettable 1997 season with the 49ers.

Woodson accomplished more with the Steelers and Ravens than he did with the Raiders, which is saying something considering he owns the single most important play by anyone wearing silver and black since the team returned to Oakland in 1995 and was the defensive catalyst for an AFC champion.

Even for someone seemingly immune from self-promotion, Woodson looks back at his 98-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 11, 2002, and understands it helped change the course of a season.

"That was a big play," Woodson said recently while sitting in a folding chair at Dublin's Valley Christian High. "We were on fire at the beginning of the year. We were 4-0 — and then we were 0-4. We were at the crossroads. We really were."

Oakland opened the season with wins over Seattle, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Buffalo, unveiling a pass-first offense in Week 2 with Rich Gannon piling up big numbers.


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Then came a 28-13 loss to winless St. Louis, followed by losses to San Diego, Kansas City and San Francisco. The defeats against the Chargers and 49ers came in overtime at the Coliseum.

Next up was Denver. The Broncos were 6-2 and coming off a bye. The visiting Raiders were 4-4 and heading into one.

Oakland took a 3-0 lead on its first drive, ending with a 47-yard Sebastian Janikowski field goal.

Brian Griese drove the Broncos deep into Oakland territory on the next possession.

"They were gutting us," recalled defensive tackle John Parrella, the head coach at Valley Christian who counts Woodson as one of his assistant coaches. "We had no answer."

All that was left was 4 yards for the Broncos to erase the lead, beat the Raiders and assume command in the AFC West.

Except Woodson baited Griese into thinking he would follow Shannon Sharpe into the end zone, and then slid back to Clinton Portis, the check-down receiver. Griese threw it directly to Woodson at the 2, and his 37-year-old legs set sail for the end zone.

"He was outrunning younger guys on one good knee," Parrella said.

Instead of trailing 7-3, the Raiders were leading 10-0 with 2:52 left in the first quarter.

It energized the Raiders offense, with Gannon completing 34 of 38 passes for 352 yards. It jump-started the defense, which sacked Griese five times in the Raiders' 34-10 victory.

It started a five-game win streak en route to an AFC title before ending with a resounding thud in Super Bowl XXXVIII from which they've never recovered.

"Probably the biggest play of my career from a team standpoint," Woodson said.

Woodson finished the season with eight interceptions, his last great season as an NFL player before a knee injury ended his 2003 season prematurely.

He'll be featured among the Raiders Hall of Famers in the team's media guide, but don't mistake Woodson for a nonproductive short-timer such as Eric Dickerson (1992) or James Lofton (1987-88).

He was exactly what the Raiders needed at the time, and, painfully, what they they've needed ever since he got hurt and retired — a playmaking safety who could reverse the momentum of not only a game, but an entire season.

Contact Jerry McDonald at jmcdonald@bayareanewsgroup.com.