For Kevin Greene, this just might be the year.
The former Carolina Panthers outside linebacker hopes so anyway, and so do I. Greene is one of 18 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which will announce its new class of inductees on Saturday.
As one of only three defensive players among the 15-man “modern-era” finalists, Greene may have a better chance than he has ever had to make it. Up to five members from the modern-era list will be voted in on Saturday, with the winners revealed Saturday night on the NFL Honors awards show (9-11 p.m. on CBS).
But Greene has been disappointed before. When I asked him by phone this week if he felt pretty good about his shot this year, Greene said: “I’ve felt pretty good about my shot the last 10 years. … I’ve been confused about the criteria for a long time. But I am hoping this will be the year.”
Greene has been Hall-of-Fame eligible for the past 12 years and has been a finalist for the past five. Regardless of the voting outcome, Greene plans to go to the Super Bowl on Sunday (the Hall of Fame gave every finalist two free tickets) and cheer on the Panthers against Denver. He believes this Panthers team resembles the best one he played on for Carolina – the 1996 Panthers, who advanced to the NFC Championship Game before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay.
“They are doing what we really wanted to do in 1996,” Greene said of the current Panthers. “They are loving each other as brothers, laying it on the line for one another. … They are willing to sacrifice selfish egos for team ambition. They’ve got something special and they’ve been riding that.”
Greene, 53, came to the Panthers late in his career and played three of his 15 NFL years in Charlotte before retiring following the 1999 season. A prototype edge rusher in a 3-4 defensive scheme, Greene scored the last two sacks of his career against Jake Delhomme back when Delhomme was playing for New Orleans.
As his former Carolina coach Dom Capers once told the Observer about Greene: “Coaches can tell when a player has that ‘it’ quality, and Kevin had ‘it’ – that sense of energy that was good for a team.”
Greene’s career actually overlapped with Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who began his own career in 1998. Later Greene became an NFL assistant coach from 2009-13, winning the Super Bowl title that eluded him as a player as an outside linebackers coach for Green Bay.
As for what will happen in this Super Bowl, Greene said: “I don’t quite know that Peyton Manning has same zip on his ball as he once had. I know that Denver has a very fine defense. But I’m not sure they’ll be able to contain what Cam and that offense brings to the table.”
‘A dance every single sack’
Once a walk-on at Auburn, Greene had 160 sacks over his 15-year career and retired as the No. 3 sacker on the NFL’s all-time list. (Sacks did not become an official NFL statistic until 1982; Greene still ranks third on that list behind Reggie White and Bruce Smith). In his three seasons as a Panther – 1996, 1998 and 1999 – Greene collected 41.5 sacks for an average of nearly one sack per game.
He may be helped this year by being one of only three defensive players and the only pass rusher among the 15 modern-era finalists – safeties Steve Atwater and John Lynch are the other two defensive players on that list. His candidacy is likely hurt by the fact that he never won a Super Bowl as a player and that in a heated moment in 1998, he angrily grabbed Panthers assistant coach Kevin Steele by the collar in a sideline altercation. Capers allowed Greene to keep playing in that game but suspended him for the next one.
Mostly, though, Greene’s on-field antics were harmless and demonstrative – in some ways similar to Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who gets criticized for it more than Greene did. Eric Davis, Greene’s former teammate at Carolina and now an NFL Network analyst told me Thursday: “Kevin celebrated and nobody had a problem with it. Kevin Greene did a dance every single sack. Cam does a dance every touchdown, and there’s a problem. We decide one is cocky and one is just exhibiting childish exuberance.”
Greene was one of the best pure pass rushers I’ve ever seen – he led the league in sacks twice, including once with Carolina in 1996. But he was an underrated run-stopper as well. Although his huge sack numbers might suggest otherwise, Greene wasn’t a one-trick pony.
“People called me crazy,” said Greene, who dabbled in professional wrestling and once shared the ring with Ric Flair. “But I loved playing football. When you’re passionate about something, that love is going to show.”
If Greene makes it, he will become the first Panthers player to make it into the Hall of Fame who played multiple seasons at Carolina. The only other Hall of Famer with any Panthers on-field history is the late Reggie White, who played only the final one of his 15 NFL seasons in Carolina.
Wants to return to NFL coaching
Of Greene’s 15 NFL seasons, eight were spent with the L.A. Rams, three with Pittsburgh, one with San Francisco (after a bitter salary dispute with Carolina and eventual Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian before the 1997 season) and three with Carolina.
Concerned that he wasn’t getting to spend enough time with his family, Greene stepped away from his job as an assistant with the Packers in 2014. Instead, he became a full-time dad to his son Gavin, helping to coach his son’s high school football team in 2015. Gavin Greene tentatively plans to walk on to the Division II Jacksonville (Ala.) State football team this fall. Greene and his wife, Tara, also have a 16-year-old daughter, Gabrielle.
Now that his son is soon to be off to college, however, Greene would like to get back into NFL coaching. During his five-year tenure with the Packers, he was credited with helping Green Bay’s Clay Matthews blossom into a Pro Bowler.
“I think I was pretty decent at coaching and I would like to get back into it,” Greene said.
Greene and his family now live in Destin, Fla. Greene and his son came to the Panthers’ final regular-season home game Jan. 3rd against Tampa Bay. Even now, 17 years after Greene finished playing, you still see some No. 91 Panthers jerseys dotting the stands at every game in Bank of America Stadium. Kevin Greene ran into one of those fans before the Tampa Bay game. Greene said the conversation went like this.
Greene (approaching fan): I just want to thank you for wearing my jersey all these years later.
Fan: No way! It’s not you. Kevin?! No!
Greene: Yes, yes, it is me.
Fan: No freakin’ way! No freakin’ way! (Pause) Can I get a picture?
Greene posed for the picture, of course – he was never camera-shy. And later, he told me: “It’s just nice that people remember what I was after all these years.”
Now, on Saturday, Greene just hopes the Hall of Fame’s 46 voters remember him, too.
Hall of Fame voting
The annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee meeting will be held Saturday in San Francisco. There are 15 modern-era finalists, as well as one “contributor finalist” and two “senior finalists.” Of those 18 men, between four and eight will be selected as hall of famers by the 46-member group of selectors. The winners will be announced on the NFL Honors awards show Saturday night.
In alphabetical order, the 18 finalists are Morten Andersen, Steve Atwater, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Tony Dungy, Alan Faneca, Brett Favre, Kevin Greene, Marvin Harrison, Joe Jacoby, Edgerrin James, John Lynch, Terrell Owens, Orlando Pace, Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel and Kurt Warner.