Originally Published 3, March 2011 w/ Postscript 10, August 2016
There are players that come along and break the mold and there are those that totally destroy it. Enter Kevin Greene, one of my personal favorite players and one of the reason I love football (all sports) in the first place. He broke molds, stereotypes, changed perceptions as much as any player over the last 25 years. What am I talking about? Do you realize that of all the outside linebackers, the player with the most sacks in a career is Kevin Greene? Do you realize that Kevin Greene had double digit sacks for FOUR different pro football teams? Yet I digress…
As the 1980s beckoned, the 3-4 defense became the choice of many teams as the best way to attack NFL offenses. All that changed with the 1985 Chicago Bears march to the Super Bowl. As teams started to revert back to the 4-3 defense as a staple, a lessor known talent started to lay his foundation out west with the Los Angeles Rams in 1986.
Kevin Greene started to rush as an outside linebacker in 1986 and recorded 7 sacks that year. Yet he didn’t gain notoriety until 1988 when he bested Lawrence Taylor with 16 1/2 sacks to 15 1/2 for the NFC lead at linebacker. Whereas the majority of the modern age athletic linebackers were black, Kevin Greene was a white defensive player who broke that mold and with his crazy “War Eagle” Auburn attitude he was a great pass rusher from that season on. A player that other Rams looked to on game day to lead them on and off the field.
However by the time we move to 1993, very few teams employed the 3-4 defense. Then the Steelers went looking for a linebacker to match Greg Lloyd that would be more effective than Jerrol Williams. Kevin Greene signed, and Pittsburgh became Blitzburgh.
The Steelers had two outstanding linebackers to crash the pocket. The last bastion of 3-4 defense at the time and Greene was the impetus of a chaotic defense. Who should blitz? Who should drop? Dick Lebeau, Dom Capers, and Bill Cowher tinkered with different zone blitzing schemes that became the scourge of the league. He helped the ’94 and ’95 teams to the AFC Championship and Super Bowl XXX respectively. During his 3 years in Pittsburgh he recorded 12.5 sacks in ’93, 14 sacks in ’94, and 9 sacks in ’95. It was Kevin Greene’s arrival that made the Steelers defense lethal.
Even after outplaying the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX and poised to return to the title game from a personnel standpoint, the Steelers let Greene go for a younger Jason Gildon. He rejoined Dom Capers who moved on to become head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers. There he tag teamed with Lamar Lathon, formerly of the Houston Oilers, to form a 1-2 linebacker punch equal to that of Blitzbugh.
He recorded his second highest career sack total, at the time, with 14.5 in Carolina. He led the league with Lathon coming in second in sacks with 13.5. Again he was the impetus of a veteran laden defense that dethroned the champion Dallas Cowboys in a divisional playoff and made it to the 1996 NFC Championship Game where they lost to Green Bay. The Carolina Panthers made it to the NFC Championship Game in only their second season. Wow.
After a falling out with Carolina brass following that 1996 season, for which owner Jerry Richardson later apologized, he signed a 1 year deal in San Francisco where he was a pass rushing specialist and only started four games. Yet amazingly he still compiled 10.5 sacks and helped the 49ers to the 1997 NFC Championship game where they fell to the Packers 23-10. See a pattern here? After the apology from Richardson, Greene re-signed with Carolina and played on for two more years for them recording 15 sacks in 1998 and 12 in 1999.
Kevin Greene was a street fighter tough player who brought that attitude to any team he played for. He was a blood and guts player that teamed with Greg Lloyd and Lamar Lathon, each had their best years across from Greene.
What was the most puzzling aspect of Kevin Greene’s career was how teams kept thinking they’d replace him even though he was super productive and I wonder would he have moved around so much had he been a black outside linebacker. I don’t think he would have. You can’t tell me race had nothing to do with it either. He was athletic, strong, tenacious and for the life of me can’t figure why teams thought they’d replace him. Do you realize that for 4 straight years, Kevin Greene was a defensive stalwart on 3 different teams that made it to the conference championship game? Twice is a coincidence, four is a pattern. He was a winner.
How do you gauge impact? The most sacks in NFL history for a linebacker with 160 and third all time behind Reggie White and Bruce Smith. He was a 5 time Pro Bowl participant and made the All Pro team twice. He led the league in sacks twice during his career. If that’s not enough… Add the fact Greg Lloyd and Lamar Lathon’s best sack totals of their careers came when they teamed with Greene. Lloyd had 10 sacks in 1994 and the aforementioned Lathon’s 1996 total of 13.5 in Carolina.
Each team he left had a defensive dropoff in production and wins. The ’96 Steelers barely made the playoffs and were run out of town in New England when they got there, thanks to Curtis Martin’s 166 yards rushing, losing 28-3. The 97 & 2000 Panthers didn’t make the playoffs. The 98 49ers were scored upon heavily even though they made it to the divisional round. Even then they needed Steve Young’s miracle throw to T.O. to beat the Packers in the Wildcard Game to get there.
So if the greatest defensive player in NFL history is Lawrence Taylor, rightfully so, who finished with 132 sacks in his career, where does that put Kevin Greene and his 160?? Happened in the same era, so that can’t be argued. Quite simply he belongs.
For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you, Kevin Greene.
EPILOGUE: I am getting the greatest kick out of watching the growth of Clay Matthews III. Its like watching some weird Frankenstein thats part Clay Matthews the father (Browns) and Kevin Greene. The style of play and to watch them interact.
I was fortunate enough to be on the Ravens sideline pregame and front row seats behind the Baltimore Ravens bench when they played the Arizona Cardinals in 2003. I watched how Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis interacted and see much the same in Greene and Matthews. When the television mic caught Greene conveying to Matthews during the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XLV that it was time for him to put his imprint on the game. Then to watch him force the Mendenhall fumble two plays later gave me goosebumps. To watch him so in tune with his protege’ is cool and can’t wait to watch their encore.
Greene and protege’ Clay Matthews III
Postscript August 10, 2016: Fast forward 5 years and here we are a couple days removed from Kevin’s enshrinement into The Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had the great opportunity to be there at both the Gold Jacket Ceremony and The Enshrinement as his guest. For the small role I had in advocating his candidacy may have been the sole reason for Taylor Blitz Times in the first place. It was an honor to do it and I am grateful to Kevin and his wife Tara for inviting me.
However they set a football fanatic loose on the unsuspecting city of Canton. I had the chance to meet with former teammates and coaches that have known him over his football life. His coaches from high school all the way through to the NFL. I jumped in and made sure to get down into where the fans were and wound up becoming the 1st person to pay for his authenticated by the Pro Football Hall of Fame autograph.
To watch him receive his Gold Jacket was an emotional moment as a big time fan. To hear his impassioned speech gave credence to all that I knew and heard over the last few days from his Auburn, Rams, and Steelers’ teammates, his father at the airport with Coach Vermeil, his high school freshman coach Nick Petrillo, to meeting Lamar Lathon at the after party who was recalling this very article with Thurman Thomas.
It was great to see Kevin take his rightful place and become one of the giants of the game and one of it’s great ambassadors. It’s been an unbelievable 5 year ride as you’ve taken your place as one of pro football’s immortals. Congratulations Pro Football Hall of Famer Kevin Greene!!
As for that ticket… he signed a white Steelers #91 Greene jersey. The whereabouts of the ticket?? I gave it to Kevin who put it in his Hall of Fame Gold Jacket interior pocket… Mission accomplished.
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