Carolina Panthers

Panther? Steeler? Kevin Greene enters Pro Football Hall of Fame as a pass rusher

Kevin Greene wasn’t the most physically imposing pass rusher, but when the lights came on he knew how to get to the quarterback. He finished with the third-most sacks since that became an official statistic, and the most by a linebacker.
Kevin Greene wasn’t the most physically imposing pass rusher, but when the lights came on he knew how to get to the quarterback. He finished with the third-most sacks since that became an official statistic, and the most by a linebacker.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame does things differently than its baseball counterpart, so Kevin Greene won’t be enshrined with a particular team Saturday when he’s inducted in Canton, Ohio.

Greene, who spent three of his final four seasons with the Carolina Panthers, is probably most closely associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who will hold a Hall of Fame ring ceremony for Greene in October.

But more than a certain team or uniform, Greene will enter the Hall of Fame as a pass rusher.

That’s what helped turn the former Auburn walk-on into a five-time Pro Bowler, and it’s what put him in Canton after 12 years of waiting.

“He became,” former Panthers safety Mike Minter said, “a master at getting after the quarterback.”

Greene’s mastery resulted in 160 career sacks over 15 seasons, more than any linebacker in NFL history (sacks did not become an official statistic until 1982). Greene is third on the all-time sacks list regardless of position, behind only Bruce Smith and the late Reggie White.

Greene will join White, who played his final season in Carolina, as the only former Panthers players in Canton.

I figured out how to put a guy, an offensive tackle that was 3 or 4 inches taller than me, outweighed me 80-100 pounds, in a position of failure.

Former Panthers LB Kevin Greene on the key to his Hall of Fame-worthy success

Dom Capers, the first coach in Panthers history and the man responsible for bringing Greene to Charlotte, will serve as Greene’s presenter during the enshrinement ceremony Saturday evening.

Capers, who coached Greene in Pittsburgh and later coached with him in Green Bay, said Greene represents everything you’d look for in a Hall of Famer.

“He had a great work ethic, he had great passion and love for the game. The consistency, anytime you play 15 years in this league – and in 10 of those years he had 10-plus sacks,” Capers told reporters recently. “He brought that energy and enthusiasm into the locker room and to the field every Sunday.”

It’s that enthusiasm that Minter remembers most from the two years he played with Greene in Charlotte in 1998 and ’99, Greene’s final two seasons.

Greene was 36 when he returned to the Panthers in 1998 after having played the previous season in San Francisco following a contract dispute with general manager Bill Polian, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer.

Minter thought Greene was washed up.

“When I saw him I’m thinking he’s a big guy, just unbelievable (size). He’s not. He’s pretty small,” Minter recalled during a phone interview this week. “And when he’s walking, it looked like everything in his body is hurting. So you’re like, ‘Man, this man is not going to get no sacks. This guy is old. He can’t walk. He can’t move. He can’t practice.’ And then gameday – boom, boom, boom, boom.”

Greene finished with 15 sacks in ’98 and made his final Pro Bowl.

“The first time I saw him in the game I was amazed,” said Minter, now the coach at Campbell University. “I wasn’t amazed in practice. I was like, ‘This old guy can’t play no more.’ And all of a sudden the lights turn on. And I saw the Hall of Famer at that time.”

Crediting Fritz and Capers

Greene, 54, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams in 1985 and didn’t become a starter until his fourth season. Greene credits Rams defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur with taking advantage of his pass-rush skill as an outside linebacker in the Rams’ 3-4 scheme.

Greene spent eight seasons with the Rams before joining Capers in Pittsburgh (where Capers was the defensive coordinator) and then Carolina.

“Dom brought me to Pittsburgh and put me in a position to have an impact in games. When he was a head coach at Carolina, he brought me to the new Panthers and put me in a position to impact games,” Greene said during a conference call.

“He understood my work ethic. He knew I was a student of the game and he wanted that. And I think he wanted a leader to teach this 3-4 fire-zone package that he really enjoyed running in Pittsburgh.”

Greene led the league with 14 sacks in 1994 during his second year with the Steelers.

‘A great technician of the game’

Former Panthers offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley remembers battling Greene and the Steelers when Donnalley was with the Houston Oilers.

“For a guy that was kind of an average-sized football player, wasn’t the most ripped-up guy, wasn’t the most physical, but was someone who could blend some physicality with his speed and then deception,” Donnalley said. “And then just great skills. A great technician of the game. He knew his craft. I’m sure he studied tons of film.”

Donnalley recalled a game when Greene tried to get inside his head after Donnalley had chop-blocked him several times.

Greene initially complimented Donnalley for his aggressiveness but changed his tune as the game wore on, according to Donnalley.

“By the fourth quarter, he’s like, ‘Dude, listen, it’s us against them. It’s players vs. owners. I’m not your enemy. Stop cutting me,’” Donnalley said. “It finally dawned on me ... he figured nothing else was really working. He was trying to break down me mentally and see if he could get me to back off so that he could get by and get that sack in a key moment on Warren Moon.”

A force in his 30s

Greene seemed to get better with age.

At 34, he became the oldest player to lead the league in sacks with 14.5 in 1996 during the Panthers’ second year of existence. Greene amassed 97.5 sacks after turning 30; only Smith had more (108) in his 30s.

Greene said he learned how to pass rush late in his career.

“I figured out how to put a guy, an offensive tackle that was 3 or 4 inches taller than me, outweighed me 80-100 pounds, in a position of failure,” said Greene, who was 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds during his career.

Donnalley said Greene cut a less physically imposing figure than Lamar Lathon, the other half of the Panthers’ Salt and Pepper pass-rushing duo.

No matter.

“Lamar Lathon passed the eyeball test. You were like, ‘Whoa, this dude is someone to be reckoned with,” said Donnalley, who is part of the Panthers’ broadcast team. “Kevin Greene, you could not think of him as an afterthought because he was equally as dangerous and would get after the passer.”

A crazy reputation

Greene had the reputation of being crazy on and off the field.

He once climbed into the ring with pro wrestling legend Ric Flair, and his Panthers’ tenure was marked by a sideline altercation with assistant coach Kevin Steele.

During a speaking appearance at the Charlotte Touchdown Club last week, the first question Greene received from the audience was about his argument with a coach.

“Which one?” Greene deadpanned.

But Minter said Greene was a different person off the field.

“Seeing him from the outside, you thought he was a crazy guy, a partier, somebody who was just a free spirit. And when you meet him he’s totally different. He’s straight conservative,” Minter said, laughing. “All those things that you see on TV when you see him on WWF and all that stuff, it was part of an act that he had on the field, part of his character.”

“People called me crazy,” Greene told the Observer earlier this year. “But I loved playing football. When you’re passionate about something, that love is going to show.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson