Kevin Greene’s departure from the Green Bay Packers two years ago was a stunner.
He’d been their outside linebackers coach since Dom Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009, and judging by his demeanor on the practice field, Greene had as much passion for that job as he did for rushing quarterbacks as a player.
Yet, just a few days after the team’s 23-20 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs in January 2014, Greene informed coach Mike McCarthy that he was resigning.
“I know I caught coach McCarthy off guard a bit and it was tough, we’d just lost that game,” Greene said Saturday in San Francisco, only a few hours after he’d been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I went in and said, ‘I’m just going to step away.’ He had no idea it was coming, it was out of left field. My heart felt for him. I felt for the entire organization.”
Greene said a primary reason he stepped down was that his son, Gavin, had been begging for instruction in football as a young player early in high school. When Greene would get home from work, Gavin would ask him what he’d been teaching Clay Matthews, Erik Walden and Frank Zombo that day.
So in 2012, Greene bought a striking sled for the basement of the family’s De Pere home and worked with his son there. The next season, 2013, turned out to be Greene’s last with the Packers. He and the family moved to a home in Florida in ’14, and last fall he helped coach Gavin’s high school team. Now Gavin is considering accepting a football scholarship at a lower-level college or walking on at a higher level.
“(Gavin) started getting up in age and growing,” Greene said, “and I knew I needed to step away to pour myself into my son and to put my hands on him like I did with Clay and all my (players) in Green Bay.”
Greene, fresh off his Hall of Fame honor, now wants to get back into coaching in the NFL. He even said he’d love to return to the Packers.
When Greene left, McCarthy and Capers consolidated the outside linebackers and inside linebackers jobs into one position group, with Winston Moss as coach and Scott McCurley his assistant. During individual drills at practice, Moss works with the inside linebackers and McCurley with the outside.
Whether Greene burned his bridge with McCarthy because of his unexpected departure, only McCarthy knows. The Packers, though, had no openings on their defensive staff this offseason.
“I’m sure you’ll see Kevin at some point in time back in the league coaching,” said Capers, who coached Greene with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers. “There’s nothing available (with the Packers). That’s always (a big factor) in this business in terms of availability. But he’s a passionate guy. He did a good job for us in the five years he was here.”
Greene spoke of his hope to return to NFL coaching last Saturday while basking in the joy, or maybe it was more relief, of being named to the Hall of Fame that afternoon. He was among the 15 finalists of modern-era players for the fifth straight year, so he’d already endured four years of increasingly bitter disappointment at not being chosen in the final vote.
Greene was inducted mainly on the strength of his prolonged productivity: He finished his 15-year career as the NFL’s third all-time sack producer (160) and had double-digit sacks in 10 seasons, including his final four.
“I’ve always felt I belonged (in the Hall),” he said.
That Greene would have anything even approaching a Hall of Fame career looked like a long-shot early on. The Los Angeles Rams selected him in the fifth round of the 1985 draft, and in his first three seasons he had a total of 13½ sacks.
When coach John Robinson summoned him to bring his playbook to his office late in the 1987 season, Greene thought he was getting cut.
“He brings me in and sits me down, goes, ‘Open up your playbook,’” Greene said. “I am shaking, I’m peeing my pants. I mean, I’m freaking.”
Robinson didn’t cut Greene. Far from it. Instead, he told Greene that the Rams wanted to him on the field more the next season, and that innovative defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who would later run the Packers’ defense for Mike Holmgren, had come up with a defense to do it.
Shurmur devised a scheme that bore some similarities to the Chicago Bears’ 46 defense. It deployed five linebackers and two defensive tackles in the front seven. One linebacker stood up over center, two others aligned as standing defensive ends, and two others were more traditional linebackers off the ball.
Shurmur named the defense the “Eagle 5” because Greene played in college at Auburn, where the rally cry is “War Eagle.” Greene, who played mostly as the standup linebacker on the left end of the line, had 16½ sacks in ’88 and ’89, and 13 in ’90.
“It was pin your ears back and attack,” Green said. “My career was goin'."
Greene’s sack numbers dipped after Robinson fired Shurmur and hired Jeff Fisher as defensive coordinator in 1991. Greene was a natural 3-4 outside linebacker and was in no-man’s land moving between a traditional defensive end and traditional outside linebacker in Fisher’s 4-3 scheme.
But his career reignited when Capers as defensive coordinator with Pittsburgh had the Steelers sign him for their 3-4 scheme in 1993. Capers later was expansion Carolina’s head coach and signed Greene in free agency in ’96, the year the Packers beat the Panthers in the NFC championship game. Greene led the NFL in sacks in ’94 (14) and ’96 (14½).
Greene always was among the craziest competitors in the NFL — Capers remembers him as the player who went around the locker room firing up teammates before games. That’s not hard to envision if you ever watched Greene coaching on the Packers’ practice field during training camp. In his five seasons with the team, he was the staff’s most animated figure on the field.
He was similarly wild-eyed in interviews and even pulled one reporter into a one-on-one film session when he thought the reporter had slighted Zombo. Rolling through the video of several plays, Greene exclaimed, “Zombo! Zombo! Zombo!” with such gusto that a Packers public-relations assistant poked her head in the room to make sure everything was OK.
“Kevin’s an emotional guy and he’s a passionate guy,” Capers said. “When you’re around him people sense that and it impacts them. He had an infectious personality.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.