Safety has missed '04 season with back inrjury

Five-time Pro Bowl safety Darren Woodson, the leading tackler in Dallas Cowboys franchise history, is set to retire later this week after missing the entire 2004 season because of a back injury.

Sources close to Woodson said the 13-year veteran has all but decided to leave the game and informed club officials of his decision but wants another few days before officially announcing the retirement.

Woodson, 35, underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back on July 27, just three days before the Cowboys reported to training camp, and the original prognosis was that he might be recovered by the start of the regular season. But he made only modest progress in his rehabilitation, began the year on the physically unable to perform list and never got onto the field.

One complication was that the back surgery impacted the sciatic nerve, which connects the spinal cord with the legs, and Woodson never regained full lower body strength. When he was eligible to be removed from the physically unable to perform list, in October, he was still limping and unable to practice.

During his Monday radio show, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was asked if Woodson was going to retire. There had been hints in recent weeks that Woodson would not play again -- at least not with the Cowboys, and probably not at all.

"Yes," Jones said. "You know, I think we've got to recognize that. I'm not sure when he will make it official."

The former Arizona State star, a second-round pick in the 1992 draft, still had two years remaining on his contract, at base salaries of $3.5 million for 2005 and $4 million for '06. Even if he were healthy, Woodson almost certainly would have been asked to reduce the base salaries -- and his salary cap figure -- to remain with the team.

Coach Bill Parcells refused to pin the decline of the Dallas defense this season directly on Woodon's absence -- the Cowboys led the league in total defense in '03 but are currently 21st -- but clearly it was a factor. The secondary has not played well and third-year safety Roy Williams has slumped. Certainly the team missed Woodson's leadership.

For his career, Woodson recorded 1,350 tackles, 23 interceptions, 83 passes defensed, 13 forced fumbles and 11 sacks. One of his strengths, especially early in his career, was the ability to cover a wide receiver in the slot, meaning that Dallas did not have to make as many situational substitutions as other clubs.

Woodson was a major contributor to three Super Bowl titles.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.