BEREA — Joe Woods has known football and wintry weather since he was a young boy growing up in Pittsburgh Steelers country.
He’s also familiar with the propensity of snow to pack a wallop in Northeast Ohio, where his younger brother, Marcus Woods, estimates at least 75 of their relatives live.
However, Joe Woods couldn’t have predicted how a blizzard in Northeast Ohio would impact his job last season as a first-year Browns defensive coordinator.
With COVID-19 protocols in place, the coaching staff conducted its game-planning meetings on Zoom. In the buildup to a home game late in the regular season, Woods’ house near Crocker Park in Westlake had been pounded with a heavy snowfall, and the power went kaput.
Woods scrambled. He called coach Kevin Stefanski and chief of staff Callie Brownson. Someone reserved room at a nearby hotel, where Woods set up shop and resumed meetings.
“We ended up winning the game — I know that,” Woods told the Beacon Journal last week during an interview at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.
Woods doesn’t remember which game, and who can blame him? Life has been a blur amid the pandemic. Forgetting the details of some obstacles is more fitting than not.
“Oh, my God. It’s endless,” Woods said. “At the end of the season, for the Steelers game, we only had two practices and two walk throughs. I had guys who started for us that walked through in the parking lot the morning of the game.
“There were so many things. But it was amazing how the coaches and players just responded to it, and we never blinked, we never made excuses, it was just, ‘How can we find a way to win the game?’ That’s what I remember the most about last year.”
The defense struggled last season with injuries and personnel issues long before its two best players — All-Pro end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward — contracted COVID-19 and missed four games combined. For example, Woods wanted to deploy a three-safety dime package, but Grant Delpit suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon on Aug. 24, 2020, forcing those plans to be almost entirely scrapped.
If Woods ever allowed the adversity to demoralize him, he deserves an Academy Award for best actor because even behind the scenes, in conversations with his brother, he remained undaunted.
“You can’t squeeze any negativity out of him,” Marcus Woods said last week in a phone interview. “I remember last year when Myles Garrett was [out with COVID-19], I said, ‘Joe, man, I know you’ve got to be a little uptight. I mean, you’ve got no Myles Garrett.’ He was like, ‘I’m not uptight. Injuries happen every week. Everyone’s got to deal with it. It’s nothing new. You’ve just got to move on.’”
Now Woods sits at the controls of a defense boasting much more star power than it possessed in the NFL’s first COVID-19 season. So how does a first real test drive on the road against Patrick Mahomes sound? The defense revamped by General Manager Andrew Berry in the offseason will attempt to slow the all-world quarterback when the Browns open the season Sunday against the defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Even with Mahomes entering concussion protocol and missing most of the second half, the Chiefs eliminated the Browns 22-17 on Jan. 17 in a divisional-round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Woods has thoroughly studied the fateful plays in which Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne scrambled for 13 yards and then connected with wide receiver Tyreek Hill for 5 yards and the game-clinching first down.
This is a new chapter, though, and the Browns are hoping to build off a record of 12-6, including 1-1 in the playoffs, which amounted to their most successful season in 26 years. The franchise has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
“The fans around here, they are hungry for some winning,” Marcus Woods said. “They have persevered, and they are hungry.”
Marcus Woods, 43, would know. He has been surrounded by Browns fans for more than two decades.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods loves the passion of Cleveland Browns fans
About a month after Marcus Woods graduated from Kiski Area High School, his mother, Sharon, died. His father, Joseph, had passed away about five years earlier.
Eight years older than his brother, Woods convinced Marcus to leave their hometown of North Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, and attend Grand Valley State University, where Joe was the defensive backs coach from 1995-96. After Kent State University hired Woods in the same capacity in 1997, he lured Marcus to KSU.
Marcus Woods said he viewed his brother as a parental figure. When they were kids, Woods ensured Marcus followed in his footsteps by rooting for the Steelers. Marcus watched Woods become a star defensive back at Kiski Area and Illinois State University, then parlay his playing days into a coaching career. Marcus has not stopped envisioning Woods as a future NFL head coach.
“Some people, you can tell they’re destined for things, and Joe was just destined to be a football player and a football coach,” Marcus Woods said. “He’s literally been involved in football probably since he’s been 9 years old. He eats and breathes football.”
Woods’ coaching career took him from Kent State to Hofstra University after one season, but Marcus stayed put. He lived in Kent until he moved to Akron seven or eight years ago.
The Woods brothers — and their older sister, Melissa — had two aunts, their mother’s sisters, who settled in Northeast Ohio. Their late aunt Judy put down roots in Euclid, aunt Daisy in Cleveland. Great-aunt Sarah Rigby, who died two years ago, lived in Akron.
A manager at Olive Garden in Parma, Marcus Woods said a reunion among relatives, mostly cousins, living in Northeast Ohio would probably consist of close to 100 people — “at least 75 for sure.”
Woods, 51, can fully appreciate what a reversal of fortunes means to the Browns faithful. He doesn’t need to look any further than his extended family.
“I grew up on the other side of it [as a Steelers fan], and I think the difference with AFC North football, it’s blue collar, and people live and die by what happens on Sundays,” Woods said. “You’re either happy the whole next week or you’re upset waiting for the next game. That’s just the mentality of this area, and I love it. That’s how I grew up. I’m just glad I’m a part of it — trying to turn this thing around.”
The turnaround happened last season, but Woods isn’t finished. He wants a trip to his third Super Bowl. He coached defensive backs for the Denver Broncos when they won the Super Bowl to end the 2015 season. He held the same role with the San Francisco 49ers when they lost to the Mahomes-led Chiefs in the Super Bowl to end the 2019 season.
“The main thing with both of those teams was I felt like we were extremely close,” Woods said, “and I felt like guys competed on the field, but they had each other’s backs — offense and defense.”
Woods is the type of coach who can galvanize his players, Browns defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said.
“I don’t think I’ve met anybody that has a bad word to say about Joe,” Kiffin, who also worked with Woods in San Francisco, told the Beacon Journal last month. “Everybody that works for him, comes in contact with him, they speak so highly of him. He really cares about his players, cares about his coaches, takes care of everybody all the way down to quality control coaches. The way he treats people in the building, everyone sees that. Obviously, they want to play for a guy and also work for a guy like that.”
The Broncos’ defensive coordinator from 2017-18, Woods credited Stefanski for establishing a culture with the Browns that fosters camaraderie. Team-building exercises such as the “4 H’s” — history, heartbreak, heroes and hopes — promoted bonding among players last year, even when the pandemic limited in-person interactions.
With all the new faces on defense this year — there will be either eight or nine new defensive starters in Kanas City compared with Week 1 in 2020 — Woods said clearly communicating expectations is important. He needs players to buy in for the unit to jell. It won’t happen instantly, and it could be delayed because the defense dealt with a rash of injuries throughout training camp.
“It’s ongoing,” Woods said. “You’re not going to be at your peak Week 1. That’s every team in the NFL. Everything you do in the offseason, you’re striving to try to be at your best game one, but the truth of the matter is with experience, with game reps, you’re just going to continue to get better each and every week ’cause you get exposed to more things and then you fix more things.”
Joe Woods on a mission for Cleveland Browns to field a top-five defense
Stefanski spent 14 seasons working for the Minnesota Vikings before he joined the Browns and ultimately became NFL Coach of the Year in February. Woods was the defensive backs coach of the Vikings for eight of those seasons (2006-13). The two coaches are familiar with each other’s ability to connect with people, most importantly their players.
“When I went to Minnesota to visit, one of the very first guys [Joe] had introduced me to was Kevin Stefanski,” Marcus Woods said. “I’ll be honest, my first impression, I remember telling Joe, ‘I like that Kevin guy.’ He was real nice. It wasn’t fake nice. He was a really genuine guy.
“That was probably in 2009 when I first met him. So when they all came here [last year], I kind of had a feeling something good was going to happen.”
For the Browns to reach their potential in 2021, quarterback Baker Mayfield and the offense need to take the next step under Stefanski, and Woods must ensure the recent investments on defense pay off a year after large leads in games never felt totally safe.
The Browns had the NFL’s 17th-ranked defense last season with 358.4 yards surrendered per game.
“There was definitely an evolution of the defense throughout last season — some different faces in and some different guys out,” Stefanski said last week. “We added more in terms of the front and added more in terms of the coverage, even late into the season. We expect defensively to be different. We obviously need to be better, and we know that as a unit. We’ve outlined ways that we’re going to do that.”
Woods is aiming for a top-five defense, especially in points allowed, third down, red zone and takeaways.
Last season, the Browns finished 21st among the league’s 32 teams in fewest points surrendered a game (26.2), 23rd in third-down conversion percentage allowed (43.9) and 14th in red-zone efficiency against (60.7). They tied for 18th in takeaways (21).
“Anybody going through last year, especially in a new system, is very, very challenging,” Kiffin said. “We had no offseason. You’re talking about thousands of reps lost for a new system to be implemented with players. We went through some injuries.
“Joe did a great job being the leader of the defense, coaching the coaches, getting guys to understand the standard, so it could lead over into this year. Now with some new starters, some new players, and we had an offseason and training camp, he’s really got his system in, he’s got the standard set on how we want to play and we’re excited to let it show.”
There are a couple of lenses through which to view Woods this year.
On one hand, there is inherent pressure on him to take advantage of upgraded personnel. On the other, there is a tremendous opportunity for him to demonstrate what he can do with better talent.
“I just feel like it’s my job regardless of who we have on defense to get them to play at their best, so I don’t feel the pressure of they have to perform at a certain level,” Woods said. “I just want them to execute our defense.
“The process of doing that should bring the results that we need. We always set our goals every year defensively where we want to be, but it’s really the process that gets you those goals.”
The goals are lofty, and Woods wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at [email protected].