Allen Park — Football has long been compared to a brutal, live-action game of chess. Two sides use the accumulation of many pieces to out-strategize the other, flipping between offense and defense, before the game is ultimately decided by a combination of attrition and smarts.
In any given game of Detroit Lions football, linebacker and special-teams captain Josh Woods is a rook.
Woods moves less than other starters and captains — rooks often wait in the corner while other pieces dictate game flow — but when it’s his turn to move, the implications for both teams are very real. He is not so much a piece marked by strategy as he is a security blanket, a looming presence guiding other pieces for execution. And yet, he is a piece with instant ability to save a game or finish it — a literal transitionary piece from offense to defense — rather than one that develops worth over time.
“He understands the game very well. He knows what needs to be done. He’s got experience, so he understands the ebbs and flows of a game, what’s going on,” Lions special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp said. “Maybe (it’s just), ‘Hey, this is a play where somebody could let their guard down and let’s make sure they don’t — et cetera, et cetera.’ Just a lot of things.”
Woods has eight special-teams tackles on a unit that ranks eighth, according to Football Outsiders — and on the flip side, he is also a big reason why the Lions’ kick return is averaging the second-best starting field position in the league. He can block with the best of ’em, but his value is hardly limited to physical play. A few weeks back, in the Lions’ win over Jacksonville, the Jaguars tried out an “unscripted look” on the kickoff. Woods signaled to the sideline and at the last second, checked into a play that netted Lions returner Justin Jackson 32 yards.
“Woods was saying, ‘Hey, check is coming back the other way,’ and calling it out, which he did a great job of,” Fipp said.
Woods went undrafted out of Maryland in 2018, playing limited snaps for the Chicago Bears before the Lions signed him off their practice squad in September of last season. A few months later, he was named a team captain. Amongst a gritty group that’s been classified as everything from pure football players to downright butt-kickers, you can tell that Woods is in the upper echelon of both distinctions by the way his eyes light up when mentioning his favorite plays to be a part of.
Woods has only three defensive snaps at his natural position of linebacker this season — 116 over his five-year career — and averages 15 special-teams snaps per week. That’s just fine with him. Because every time he does step on the field, he recognizes the chance he has to swing a game — even on the most boring play in football.
“I think that’s really the best part about it. We can just instantly ignite the crowd with a play, and you feel it — even on touchbacks, you know, we run through (the end zone) and the crowd gets hyped. Like, I don’t know,” Woods said, a dreamer’s smile glossing over his face as he thinks about a play that contains about the same excitement of castling a king.
“It’s special — it’s unique — you gotta be crazy to love it,” he said.
Fortunately, for him, he’s the leader of a unit that takes a top-down approach to crazy.
“Fipp’s insane. Fipp’s nuts,” Woods said. “That’s why we get along.”
“Like, he’ll start the meeting with a story, and then he’ll end the story, and there is no full-circle closure on the end of the story or anything. It’s just like, alright, next play, let’s get started.”
Attention to detail
In a world of innovation, crazy can be good. But, it’s worthless without attention to detail, which Fipp’s room has in spades — and that’s in no small part thanks to Woods, who Fipp said he relies on to act as an extended member of the coaching staff.
When Fipp’s special-teams machine is wowing, Woods is hardly front and center. He’s not taking direct snaps inside his own 30-yard line or catching throws from the punter. He will, however, be the first guy downfield on a kickoff. He pays his price with guts, without the hope of individual glory. He is surprised by nothing, so that his teammates can surprise everyone.
“All that little stuff is big, and it’s all behind the scenes, plays that not a lot of people see or notice, but he’s been playing really good football for us,” Fipp said. “… He’s really kind of an emotional leader for us. … You really want the leadership to come from within, and those guys do feel like it’s really theirs.”
“He does a great job of rallying the group and bringing energy to the group, really through four quarters of football there.”
What people tend to forget about team-building is that its importance extends to every inch of the roster, not just 22 starters on offense and defense. Two leaders of a similar stature in the same locker room could have entirely different trickle-down effects on their team, just based on how they handle their day-to-day business.
After starting the season 1-6, the Lions were in hard times. In their 6-1 turnaround, special teams has been on point. In each of the last two wins alone, they’ve had a game-swinging play; first on the fake punt against Minnesota, then on Kalif Raymond’s punt-return touchdown against the Jets.
There are dozens of reasons for the Lions’ turnaround, but as so many people point to the defensive improvement or other breakout areas on the field, there are plenty of unsung heroes who kept this team alive in its darkest hour.
Woods is one of them.
“As of late, we’ve been winning, but that hasn’t always been the case. You go through things with guys. … You go through those things and you build those bonds, you know what I mean?” Woods said.
“We talk every Friday after the games and we just…it’s player-led, and we like go over the coaching points, what we all expect out of each other, how we’re gonna hold each other accountable. Just all that type of stuff. It just builds a brotherhood.”
“Even though we might just get six plays in a game, as long as everybody’s executed and you brought the juice like you needed to, it’s a good game.”
You’re never out of the game when you still have a rook.