Dennis Green: More than we thought he was

WASHINGTON — Many football fans know Dennis Green for his famous “The Bears are who we thought they were” rant after his Arizona Cardinals suffered a crushing come from ahead loss to Chicago on Monday Night Football.

While I still get a kick out of that nearly decade-old rant, Green meant so much more to the game of football.

Denny Green passed away suddenly on Friday, gone too soon at the age of 67. Green is just the second black NFL head coach of the modern era, coming just three years after Art Shell broke through the league’s glass ceiling in 1989.

In his first NFL head coaching stint, Green rewarded the Minnesota Vikings for their faith in him: His 97-62 record was second only to the great Bud Grant. His 36 victories from 1998-2000 were the most in the NFL during that span. His masterpiece came in 1998, when his highlight-filled offensive juggernaut scored a then-record 556 points en route to a 15-win regular season, but had to settle for a spot on the list of greatest teams to never win a championship.

That 1998 team hammered home a point though: Green could get the most out of his quarterbacks like few others. Green may have been a Bill Walsh disciple, but he had a Joe Gibbs-like effect on QBs, especially those thought to be past their prime. At a time when we’re still waiting for a black coach to get the label “offensive genius,” Green may have been one of the first to earn it.

Though that magic didn’t seem to apply in Arizona (to be fair, nobody got production out of Matt Leinart), Green’s three-year tenure helped lay the foundation for the 2008 Cardinals that advanced to the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance. That team doesn’t go toe-to-toe with a great Steelers team in Super Bowl XLIII if not for players like Larry Fitzgerald — formerly a ball boy for Green’s Vikings — and Darnell Dockett.

Though he never won the big game himself, Green’s coaching tree includes Super Bowl winners Brian Billick and Tony Dungy. Both men’s winning staffs featured coaches that were on Green’s Vikings of the 90s.

If Dungy — who is set to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame next weekend — is thought to be the father of the modern black NFL coach, then Green has to be mentioned alongside Shell as the grandfather. Minority coaches have long been left out of the head coaching ranks by cronyism and nepotism, so it means everything for men like Green and Dungy to not only hire minority coaches, but put them in position to excel and make a name for themselves.

Green may not have the hardware we look for in an all-time great coach, but he was innovative and brilliant, and men like Mike Tomlin, Marvin Lewis and Todd Bowles owe him a debt of gratitude.

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Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on

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