ATLANTA — This wasn’t Robert Woods with the Buffalo Bills.
Not the 1,219 yards in receptions. Not the 86 catches. Not the six touchdowns. Nothing about those four seasons in a Bills uniform resembled what Woods did in 2018 with the Los Angeles Rams, and what he has continued to do in the postseason.
It’s as if Woods was rediscovered, as if that second-round draft pick the Bills used to acquire him in 2013 wasn’t the reach it had begun to look like through the 2016 season.
In 2017, when the former USC standout and Southern California native became a free agent, the Rams signed him and brought him home. They’ve also gotten him to a place that never seemed all that possible when he played for a team in the midst of a 17-year playoff drought: the Super Bowl.
Reaching that magical destination was the opening topic of the first text New England Patriots receiver Chris Hogan, Woods’ teammate for three seasons in Buffalo, sent to Woods when he learned their new clubs would be squaring off in Super Bowl LIII Sunday.
“It’s crazy how things unfold,” said Hogan, who has played in the last two Super Bowls. “Now we're playing against each other in a Super Bowl. I texted Robert a couple times. I’m excited for him. I’m really proud of him.”
Hogan isn’t the primary pass-catching threat for the Patriots the way Woods is for the Rams. Woods’ 781 receiving yards on 56 receptions in 2017 were more than he had in any of his previous four seasons with the Bills. His five TDs last year equaled a Bills season high in 2014. Then, Woods took off with career bests of catches, yards and touchdowns to lead the Rams, or have a share of the lead, in all three categories.
He acknowledges that his performance this season was a statement, although it wasn’t directed solely at the Bills.
“Just every opportunity, every team that passed me up even in the draft, free agency,” Woods said. “Just showing them and showcasing what I can do — having the ability to break a thousand yards, 80-plus catches. I think the biggest thing, just coming from Buffalo was just having an opportunity to showcase this with the ball in my hands, whether it’s on the ground or in the air. But it's really nothing against Buffalo, but just showcasing my ability as a receiver.”
Of course, to showcase receiving skills one must actually have passes thrown his way. That was a problem for Woods with the Bills, who, after giving up on first-round draft pick EJ Manuel and settling on free agent Tyrod Taylor, still were in the middle of an endless search for a franchise quarterback.
As a rookie with Manuel, Woods was targeted 85 times, resulting in 40 catches for 587 yards and three scores. In ‘14, with Manuel and Kyle Orton, he was targeted 104 times and had 65 receptions for 699 yards and five touchdowns. After Taylor took over in 2015 and ‘16, Woods’ respective targets were 80, for 47 catches and 552 yards with three TDs, and 76, for 51 receptions and 613 yards with one score.
Woods realized that on a team that ranked at the bottom of the NFL in passing offense, his chances to make any sort of impact were minimal.
“My biggest thing with free agency was at least get in the top half; that and having an opportunity to be a pass catcher and a receiver,” he said.
The Rams looked appealing for a couple of reasons. One was their new coach, Sean McVay, who had been the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins and in three seasons had three 1,000-yard receivers (DeSean Jackson with 1,169 in 2014, Pierre Garcon with 1,041 yards and Jackson with 1,005 yards in ‘16) and a tight end who nearly hit that mark (Jordan Reed, with 952 yards in ‘15).
Another aspect of joining the Rams that Woods found attractive was quarterback Jared Goff, their top overall pick of the 2017 draft.
“So I knew that leaving leaving Buffalo and coming to the Rams’ offense would definitely be a huge change. Whether it was number one attempts or even 16, I knew it would be a change from Buffalo,” Woods said. “And just the scheme as well. Coming in this offense, McVay creates mismatches. He creates plays for his players. And, really, coming over here, he told me, ‘I finally get a dog to play receiver, put the ball in your hands, catch it in stride.
“Really, just being in his offense has been a key to my career and helped me in my game.”
Still, Woods has had to endure the challenges of making himself a go-to component of the Rams’ passing game. Months after joining his new club, he was reunited with another former Bill, Sammy Watkins, who arrived in a trade. But Watkins was gone after one season, signing a huge free-agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Then, last April, the Rams picked up Brandin Cooks, a speedster who had been with the Patriots, and gave him an $80-million contract extension.
Cooks ranked second behind Woods in the regular season with 80 catches for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns. Woods and Cooks also hold the top two spots on the team in receptions and yards in the postseason.
For McVay, however, Woods’ game isn’t simply about numbers. It’s about someone who is a willing blocker, something Woods credits the Bills for asking him to do. He did a whole lot of that thankless work for LeSean McCoy in helping the Bills lead the NFL in rushing in 2015 and ‘16. It’s about someone who never complained when, after Cooper Kupp suffered a season-ending knee injury, moved into the slot to allow Josh Reynolds to start outside.
“There are some great receivers in this league,” McVay was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. “But with what we ask Robert to do -- whether it’s being an outstanding receiver who can run all of the route tree, separate against man-to-man coverage, go down field and catch deep balls, carry the ball on jet sweeps -- I can’t put into words how valuable he is.
“The way he comes into work every single day has been impressive, and we’re so thankful to have him. He’s done such a great job in so many ways that don’t show up, even though he’s had great production with 1,200-plus yards and all that.”
Getting to the Super Bowl takes more than strong quarterback play and highly productive receiving. Woods marvels at being part of a roster that includes a pair of formidable running backs in Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, the NFL’s top defensive player in tackle Aaron Donald, and outstanding cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.
“It’s a loaded team, a lot of weapons,” Woods said. “This team is stacked.”
That includes Woods. Although he’ll be on the other side of Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday, there is one former teammate who couldn’t be happier about that.
“I’ve always loved Robert,” Hogan said. “I love his game. He's worked really hard throughout his career. I’m so happy that he's able to get to this game.”