The last time I saw Kevin Greene, he was menacing the media. He was promising to punch the next guy who provoked him.
This was January 15, 1995, in the anguished aftermath of Pittsburgh's AFC Championship loss to San Diego. When the doors of the Steeler dressing room were opened, Greene was lying face-down on the floor. The long-haired linebacker lay there a long time before agreeing to address reporters. Then some poor sap had the temerity to inquire as to how he was feeling.
"The next guy who asks me a stupid-ass question like that, I'm going to flat-out cold-cock him," Greene vowed. "They can sue me."
Then as now, Kevin Greene was a big talker. Now as then, he should not be taken too literally.
Less than 24 hours after professing how much he'd like playing for the Bengals, the free agent sack specialist agreed to terms Tuesday with the San Francisco 49ers.
Isn't that how it always happens? The Bengals woo some high-profile player with the dollars they've been holding back for salary cap contingencies, and some higher-revenue team rejiggers its payroll to pluck him away at the last moment. Last month it was Rod Woodson, and the 49ers. Tuesday it was Greene, and the 49ers.
Joe Montana has retired, but San Francisco continues to crush Cincinnati at crunch time.
Bengal President Mike Brown has been brilliant at using his negotiating leverage with politicians, but he has had a hard time competing when the other guy has comparable clout. When dealing with Hamilton County on stadium issues, Brown comes off like Michael Corleone. But in competition with Carmen Policy, the 49ers' salary cap sleuth, he becomes Charlie Brown.
The Bengals offered Greene decent dollars. They offered the lure of Dick LeBeau, the defensive coordinator whose 3-4 zone blitz scheme helped make Greene a star in Pittsburgh. Yet Greene chose San Francisco's cachet and its creative financing. He signed what is ostensibly a six-year contract but what is in fact a means of postponing salary cap problems.
Greene is 35 years old. Though he led the NFL in sacks last season, it would be imprudent to plan on him being around six years from now. Yet either way, he will count against the 49ers' cap number until 2002.
"I think that what happens is these teams are mortgaging their future - if it's real money," Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason said. "I think what Mike (Brown) has always wanted to do would be to always continue to build for the future without mortgaging it. "I would imagine that guys like (John) Copeland and (Dan) Wilkinson and (Darnay) Scott are more important to sign long-term than bringing Kevin Greene in if he's not playing two years from now."
Still, the idea had some appeal. Greene's presence would have enabled rookie Reinhard Wilson to progress at his own pace rather than being forced to learn LeBeau's defense on the fly. It might have given the Bengals their best pure pass rusher since Coy Bacon. "He can still bring it," said Joe Walter, the Bengals tackle who broke in, as Greene did, in 1985. "He's the man. I always kind of dreaded playing him. It was always a battle. You never knew what to expect from him, and it made for a real long day."
Open arms before deal closed
Before Greene's deal got done Tuesday, several Bengals spoke enthusiastically of bringing him aboard. Linebacker Ricardo McDonald thought the Bengals would benefit from Greene's leadership. Linebacker James Francis, who might have been looking at less playing time, said he would welcome Greene "with open arms."
"If you get an opportunity to get a guy like that, it can't do nothing but help the team," said Jeff Blake, the starting quarterback. "You've got to splurge once in a while."
Blake's backup was not convinced. But perhaps that was personal. "I hated his guts," Esiason said. "He and I used to fight all the time. I was really wondering how I would approach him if I saw him."
My experience says Greene should be approached carefully. You sure don't want to start with a stupid question.