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Charles Woodson changed the way the NFL thinks about defensive backs

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After 18 seasons, Charles Woodson is hanging up his cleats. The NFL will never be the same.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was over and Charles Woodson was ready to ride the game bus for the final time. He exited Arrowhead Stadium and found his family, chatted with them, gave hearty hugs, took warm pictures and then turned and looked for his final Oakland Raiders ride. It was over and on this final day, everything that he had routinely done for nearly two decades in professional football became moments to instantly memorialize. OK, got to the stadium ... completed warm-ups ... absorbed everything at halftime ... played the rest of the game ... shook hands ... surveyed the crowd ...

All of it a snapshot, yet a blur for Charles Woodson.

"I played my first NFL game here in Kansas City in 1998 and now here we are for my last one," Woodson, 39, said. He was appreciative of his 18-season NFL career and disappointed in the final outcome, a 23-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs (11-5) are in the playoffs. The Raiders (7-9) are not.

It is over for Woodson.

"When I made the decision to retire a few weeks ago, the games kept coming faster," Woodson said. "This final game and week kept coming closer and closer. You know, they say the NFL means not for long. It especially seems that way when your days are numbered."

They are for every player. They all enter dreaming about their first NFL play. Seldom do they consider the last one.

It always comes. It did for Woodson on Sunday after being drafted by the Raiders with the fourth overall pick of the 1998 draft, after leaving to spend the 2006-2012 seasons with Green Bay and after returning for the 2013 season until now to Oakland. He arrived in the NFL as a Heisman Trophy and national championship winner at Michigan. He won Super Bowl 45 in 2011 with the Packers. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl player. He is Hall of Fame bound.

But he leaves the NFL with more.

Chiefs safety Eric Berry knew how to best explain it.

"One of the greatest players of all time who was artistic in the secondary," Berry said of Woodson. "He changed the game. He is one of those rare players who could do it all back there. He could cover at corner and roam at safety. He could shut down a great receiver and he could tackle a great running back. He could play the nickel back. He could blitz and bring down your quarterback. He made coaches a lot more open to using defensive backs in a variety of roles. He changed the way defensive coaches think nowadays. He opened the door for all of us in that way."

A player has to be notably gifted, superior beyond even NFL standards to do that.

Woodson was.

He knew it. And he never tried to play the game with more thought than instinct. He said he never wanted to know too much about an opponent or know too much even about his own scheme. He played football, he said, relying on his skill and instincts. He let them guide him, lead him. That took him to great places. Great heights. Low places, too, like the Tom Brady-sack-that-wasn't-Tuck-Rule 2001 AFC championship game and play that helped define Woodson.

He is satisfied that he played 18 NFL seasons and remained a productive player. He was not just hanging on until the end but still producing. Early in his career his teammates included Hall of Fame players Rod Woodson and Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. He played with superior cornerbacks Eric Allen and Albert Lewis. They never had long conversations about the game. They just watched each other and learned from each other.

They were "real" and "raw", Woodson said of those players. He was so young then, but he was also so good then that as he took mental notes from their play, they also took them from his.

"I've never been a real big, huge talker," Woodson said. "But I watch. I pay attention."

Curiously, Raiders dynamic rookie receiver Amari Cooper did the same thing with Woodson this year.  Cooper and Woodson did not talk much. But Cooper closely watched.

"Charles is a man of few words, I'm sort of like that, but you can see the greatness, feel it, and so you watch it and learn from it just by the way he does things," Cooper said. "It's not what he says but what you see. I've learned a lot this year about my craft just by watching and studying him."

Great players do this, in this quiet, reflective manner. And special players who are at peace know when they are done. It is over for Woodson. He said mentally that he knows it is over. He said, finally, he can just breathe. He says he is good.

He took a couple of more steps toward the bus. Someone asked for one last photo with him. He obliged. He got on it. The bus rolled away.

Charles Woodson simply knew how good he was. That he was real and raw. He said he gained plenty of wisdom from the NFL game. He is proud he gave it back.