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Once a Cornerback, Always a Cornerback: A quintet of legendary Raiders defensive backs reflect on their careers in the Silver and Black

By Levi Edwards | Digital Team Reporter

It can be hard to get a collection of generational talents in the same room.

With the rich history and tradition that comes with the Raiders organization, one doesn't have to look further than the defensive backs that played in the Silver and Black. History has shown that being a part of the Raiders secondary comes with a lot of honor and responsibility.

Recently, five All-Pro cornerbacks gathered in Las Vegas to reminisce on cherished memories of who they played for and with, ranging from Oakland to Los Angeles. The panel of cornerbacks included:

Nnamdi Asomugha (two-time First-Team All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler, 15 career interceptions)

Lester Hayes (1980 Defensive Player of the Year, five-time Pro Bowler, 1980 First-Team All-Pro, 39 career interceptions)

Mike Haynes (two-time First-Team All-Pro, nine-time Pro Bowler, 46 career interceptions, Pro Football Hall of Famer)

Terry McDaniel (five-time Pro Bowler, 35 career interceptions)

Charles Woodson (2009 Defensive Player of the Year, three-time First-Team All-Pro, nine-time Pro Bowler, 65 career interceptions, Pro Football Hall of Famer)

"We just had to keep winning"

January 22, 1984, was a huge day for Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes.

Hayes, the 1980 Defensive Player of the Year, had won a Super Bowl three years prior, going into that game as underdogs against Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach Dick Vermeil and the Philadelphia Eagles. As for Haynes, it was his first season with the Los Angeles Raiders after spending seven seasons with the New England Patriots.

The newly formed duo was going into battle against the defending Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins.

Hayes, who was a Second-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowler that season, was locked in. Super Bowl XVIII was just another Sunday for him. Up to that point, he'd seen everyone his team had played as faceless opponents.

No fear, no regrets, no time to smell the roses. In Bill Goldberg fashion, it was always, "Who's next?"

"We just had to keep winning," Hayes said passionately. "There was no highlight, we just had to keep winning. I don't focus on just one, you got to stack them up. That's what we were taught. Focus on the next Sunday, and the next Sunday – but you've got to keep winning."

Hayes remembers the attention to detail that was put into the gameplan against Washington. A huge emphasis was placed on making "no false steps" and being physical with their trademark "bump and run" coverage against receivers.

Haynes recalls the cornerback room having a lot of confidence going into that game based off what they saw on film. The Raiders were heavy underdogs despite narrowly losing to Washington by two points in a Week 5 matchup earlier that season.

Nevertheless, the Hall of Fame cornerback understood his opposition hadn't had success against a team as physical as the Silver and Black leading up to the championship.

"To me, it was easy, because Washington had never played anybody who played man-to-man coverage," Haynes reflected. "They played against zone. The NFC was all zone. When the Raiders had played them earlier that year, they played man to man – but they ended up winning that game. So, they came into [the Super Bowl] with a positive attitude thinking they were going to blow the Raiders away.

"The difference was, me and Lester were at cornerback, instead of Lester and Ted Watts [from Week 5]. I played a little different than Ted Watts. … And we had a good pass rush. They were un-freaking-believable. I had never had a pass rush like that with the Patriots."

The Raiders went on to defeat Washington 38-9 to win their third Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. It stands as the sixth-largest margin of victory in Super Bowl history. Haynes had one of two interceptions for the Silver and Black defense that held NFL MVP Joe Theismann to a sub-50 completion percentage.

Washington had also led the league in most points scored that season with 541. Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk and Charlie Brown combined for nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 13 receiving touchdowns in 1983. In the Super Bowl, Hayes and Haynes held them to four catches and no touchdowns.

And to put the icing on the cake, it was Hayes' 29th birthday.

The Rise of C-Wood

In an alternate universe, Charles Woodson could've been a Hall of Fame running back.

As an Ohio high school football standout, he not only started at cornerback, but at running back as well. At Ross High School, he broke their career rushing yards and scoring records before committing to the University of Michigan.

Woodson decided to become a full-time cornerback upon arriving in Ann Arbor. As Woodson went into detail about his successful high school career as a running back, Haynes turned to him and asked why he made the switch.

"I used to tear my knee up playing running back in high school," responded Woodson. "I was like, 'There's no future in me playing running back.' I'm good on [the defensive] side too. I was looking at long-term playing defense when I got to college."

He credited Head Coach Lloyd Carr in helping his development as a cornerback that could not only cover receivers but be physical at the line of scrimmage.

"Lloyd Carr told me, 'You're a hell of an athlete. We know what you can do, but you won't play a down on this football field if you won't tackle.' I loved playing defense in high school, and I always tackled, but he made it a point of emphasis."

In three seasons at Michigan, Woodson totaled 120 solo tackles, 25 pass deflections and 18 interceptions. Additionally, he was a two-time All-American, Big Ten Player of the Year, Jim Thorpe Award winner and remains the only primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.

With the level of talent he had displayed, of course Al Davis had his eye on the young CB at No. 4 in the 1998 NFL Draft.

Woodson doesn't consider himself an overnight success in the NFL. To bring himself to the pro level and reach new heights in his game, he began to methodically break down the game to a science.

Through muscle memory, he was able to always know the time ticking down on the game clock, what hash mark he was standing on the field and the down of the play in his head. He also credited better practice habits and studious film sessions to his success, all things he helped instill in Nnamdi Asomugha in the three seasons they were teammates in Oakland.

"Charles didn't say much of anything to me when I first got there. I got the impression very quickly that he was a guy that wanted you to earn it on the field," Asomugha said of his first impressions of Woodson. "But once I started making plays during my rookie year in practices and in the games, I started to see Charles open up a lot more.

"And from then until now, we've just become closer and closer to the point now I go visit his family in Florida, and he comes to Los Angeles a lot. There was a journey there of proving it and really not just being here for the show, but stepping up on the field."

It's fun to contemplate Woodson becoming an elite running back in an alternate universe.

But we'll never know.

What we do know is that Woodson accumulated 65 interceptions, 33 forced fumbles and 20 sacks playing 18 seasons in the NFL, on his way to becoming a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Seems like he made the right decision.

Iron sharpens iron

Each of these cornerbacks were pushed to their limits by their teammates along the way – especially the ones they directly faced on the line of scrimmage daily.

When asked about the best receivers they faced in practice, three generations of Pro Football Hall of Famers came to mind.

For Haynes and Hayes, they named a man who was long due for a bust in Canton before posthumously being recognized in the Class of 2022: speedster Cliff Branch, who had 8,685 receiving yards and 67 touchdowns in his 14 seasons as a Raider.

For Woodson and Terry McDaniel, they both named Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown. When it comes to receivers that've donned the Silver and Black, no one has established a legacy quite like his. He is the franchise record holder for career receptions (1,070), receiving yards (14,734) and receiving touchdowns (99).

Woodson believes having Brown as a teammate was essential early in his career.

"Tim Brown was very crafty, and I was coming in straight out of college and didn't see the type of caliber of guys I would see in the NFL," said Woodson. "They liked to move Brown in motion a lot. We were going to be man-to-man, you'd have to follow that cross-step formation, and now he's kind of got you off of him. He got you in motion and then he would come off and kind of put you to sleep a little bit. He had real quick, tappy feet."

McDaniel noted that while Brown might not have been the fastest receiver he had to face in practice, he was the most complete player he'd have to cover who "could do a little bit of everything."

The one receiver Asomugha had his battles with was Hall of Famer Randy Moss, who totaled 102 catches, 11 touchdown receptions and nearly 1,600 receiving yards in two seasons as a Raider. The size, strength and speed of Moss are what made him so difficult to cover.

"He changed his approach every time we came up to the ball," Asomugha said. "It was hard to figure him out."

Al Davis picks

One thing all five of these cornerbacks have taken pride of in their careers is having played under the late, great Al Davis.

A true legend and a maverick, Davis established himself as the resounding voice for his beloved team since his arrival as head coach and general manager in 1963. That included making some gutsy decisions using his heart and football intellect.

There is sometimes a caveat to being an owner's draft selection: The responsibility of proving that the owner of your organization made the right decision in acquiring you even when others might not feel the same.

"Going into the draft, the highest I was projected was maybe the third round. But a lot of people were projecting me to go toward the end of the draft," said Asomugha. "I got drafted in the first round by the Raiders and I remember in my first year I kept hearing, 'You were an Al Davis pick.'"

Asomugha quickly learned what that phrase really meant.

"I didn't quite understand what that meant until I was told that throughout the draft, there's always a pick that Al Davis made that goes against tradition or is a surprise pick," he added. "And it's because he was the main one that fought for you. So, once I found that out, I felt the responsibility to really prove him right."

McDaniel was another professed "Al Davis pick" as the Raiders' 1988 first-round selection out of Tennessee. The late owner had an affinity for athletes with exceptional speed and athletic ability on and off the football field. McDaniel won the 1985 SEC Championship in the 4x100-meter relay alongside former Raider and Olympian Sam Graddy. He also set school records in the 300-meter and 300-yard dashes.

A huge motivator for the cornerback was living up to the standard his owner set for him, as well as pay Raider Nation back for the welcome reception he received in his tenure.

"I was praising God just having the opportunity, because you always dream of going different places, but the Raiders was my spot," said McDaniel. "Being chosen by the Raiders was right up my alley. And to be a part of it now looking back on [its] legacy, I'm glad I'm a part of it."

The five cornerbacks spent much of their time together reflecting on Al Davis and how unique of a person and football mind he was. The success of these former Raiders and the organization stems from a simplistic sentiment from the top down.

Al Davis demanded respect, and he gave it to his players and staff in return.

"He made you feel loved," said Hayes. "He was a smart man and he loved football. There's a lot of guys that will tell you, 'I love you,' [but] he showed us love, and you felt the love from him."

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