Lambeau Field was still shaking when Dennis Green stepped to the podium. This was Sept. 26, 1999, and no more than 10 minutes had passed since Green’s Minnesota Vikings lost 23-20 to the Green Bay Packers on a fourth-down touchdown pass from Brett Favre to Corey Bradford.
Reporters squeezed into a tiny interview room to grill Green. How could his defense allow a receiver to get behind it on fourth-and-game? In my second week on the Vikings beat, I eagerly awaited his response.
“Yesterday’s news,” he said, dismissing the entire line of questioning.
Technically, of course, the loss wouldn’t be “yesterday’s news” until the Monday papers hit the doorstep. It seemed a relevant and fair question in the moment, and I wondered why Green refused accountability.
Green never addressed the play, which was part of what I came to realize was a wholly unique method of communicating — focused not on what the public might want but instead on what he believed was best for his players. What would help his players, Green thought, was moving past what could have been a season-defining play and preparing for the next game. Nothing could change the result, anyway, and it was a small part of the reason he engendered fierce loyalty and support from most everyone he coached.
Long before coach Bill Belichick was “on to Cincinnati,” Dennis Green was calling a just-completed game “yesterday’s news” and telling everyone that all he cared about was “Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay” — the Vikings’ next opponent after the Green Bay loss.
Green died Friday morning from complications of cardiac arrest, leaving behind a trove of colloquiums and anecdotes that collectively paint him as your crazy uncle. In reality, however, Green cared not one iota about the public caricature he created.
His sole focus as a coach was to build a cocoon around his program to maximize the team concept. He communicated in short, bite-sized phrases, calling them examples of “Harrisburg wisdom” from his Pennsylvania hometown. They were memorable and, in one way or the other, let players and coaches know he had their back.
“Yesterday’s news” was his way of saying, “It’s going to be OK” to the player and/or coach who screwed up in that 1999 game. Sometimes he told players to keep their “hands on the plow.” Often, he encouraged them to “stay on the high road.”
He told them the Vikings were unbeatable “when we play like we play when we play.” He advocated a life led by the “three F’s:” faith, family and football. The key to winning, he said, was “to plan your work and work your plan.” In Green’s estimation, every player needed to “carry your own water.” Receiver Randy Moss, speaking Friday on ESPN’s NFL Live, said Green always told players to “play to one beat.”
I view Green’s most infamous rant in a similar context. “The Bears are what we thought they were,” infamously uttered in 2006, was Green’s way of telling his Arizona Cardinals that they were more than capable of beating the Chicago Bears, who would go on to play in Super Bowl XLI. (I’ll admit Denny got a bit carried away, but to me that was the essence of his message after the Cardinals’ collapse in that game.)
Players viewed Green as the guardian of their sanctuary, one who in many cases defended them when no one else would. Robert Smith, the running back Green stuck with through four injury-riddled seasons, tweeted Friday that he felt he had lost his father. Matt Birk, Green’s sixth-round draft choice in 1998 and now the NFL’s director of football development, understood the true purpose behind the rhetoric.
“He always said that his job as head coach was to create the atmosphere that we came to work in,” Birk said Friday by phone. “He wanted it to be positive, and to keep out all the distractions. He was willing to make himself the target to protect us.”
Green made a habit of collecting players who were either unwanted or undervalued by other teams, from Birk to Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle to Moss. Twenty teams passed on Moss in the 1998 draft before Green stepped forward at No. 21. On Moss’ NFL Live appearance, he said there was no mystery about his former coach.
“Just hearing about him passing today and just reading a lot of the positive things that people are saying,” Moss said, “Denny Green was just that. Those are not just words that people are saying and the words that people are printing. The things that they are saying about this man are very true. He meant a lot to me. He meant a lot to others.”
I’ll never forget Green’s final, surreal day with the Vikings in January 2001. He announced his own contract buyout in a news conference held in the Vikings’ weight room, beating owner Red McCombs to the punch. The entire team surrounded the scene, and I watched in a wall mirror as players shot looks like daggers at writers they knew had been advocating for Green’s ouster after what turned out to be a 5-11 season.
Into the locker room we went for interviews. Orlando Thomas was waiting on us. Green had benched Thomas earlier in the season for poor play, and the safety was nearing the end of his career. But Thomas was in tears. He believed McCombs had heeded the media’s wishes. Over and over, Thomas asked columnists how they could have pushed for Green’s departure when all of his players still wanted to play for him.
“You can’t be happy now, can you?” Thomas said at one point.
Thomas died in 2014 from ALS, having been diagnosed during a stint as a Cardinals coaching intern during Green’s tenure there. Green visited him often.
“Denny ruffled some feathers in public, no doubt about that,” Birk said. “But that didn’t matter to him. You think of all the things he did in his life. He coached at Stanford and Northwestern and then two jobs as an African-American in the NFL when it was pretty rare. He believed in himself, and that permeated to all of us in Minnesota. That’s what you want in a leader. He wanted to win, make no doubt. But all of that stuff he said, it was on purpose to take the heat off the players. He wanted us to believe in ourselves.
“That’s what he cared about most.”
And that should never be yesterday’s news. Rest in peace, Denny.