Former Cardinals coach Dennis Green, whose time in Arizona was marked by his infamous “who we thought they were” speech and his part in collecting the key players for the 2008 Super Bowl team, died Friday morning of a heart attack.
Green was 67.
“All of us at the Cardinals are incredibly saddened by the news of Dennis Green’s passing,” Cardinals team president Michael Bidwill said in a statement. “Coach Green will rightly be remembered as a true innovator, leader and pioneer among football coaches. We express our deepest sympathy to his family and his many friends.” In a statement from the Green family, they said “His family was by his side and he fought hard.” In lieu of flowers, the family added, contributions can be made to the Boys and Girls Club of San Diego.
Green finished with 113 wins and 94 losses in his head coaching career with the Vikings and the Cardinals, leading Minnesota to a 15-1 record in 1998. He had been out of coaching two seasons before the Cards hired him to replace Dave McGinnis in 2004. The hope was that Green could bring victories to a franchise that, in what was Green’s third season, was moving into brand-new University of Phoenix Stadium. Green couldn’t do that, posting a combined 16-32 record in his three years before getting fired following the 2006 season.
But Green didn’t leave the cupboard bare for successor Ken Whisenhunt. Beginning with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald – whom Green knew from Fitzgerald’s days as a ballboy for Green’s Vikings, when Green and Fitzgerald’s father did a radio show together – Green helped collect a bounty of important players in the 2004 draft. Fitzgerald was the first-round pick, linebacker Karlos Dansby was the second-round pick and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was the third-round pick. Defensive end Antonio Smith was chosen in the fifth round.
Adding in the first-round pick of safety Antrel Rolle in 2005 and the free-agent signing of quarterback Kurt Warner in 2005, the Cardinals had a core of players that eventually became the backbone of the 2008 NFC champions.
Green was gone by that time, however, unable to put the pieces together with victories. Quarterback Matt Leinart was the team’s first-round pick in 2006, and Warner in fact lost his starting job early that season after 10 fumbles in four games. Green had significant turnover – and drama — on his coaching staff during those years. He also had a flair for the quotable soundbites, often blunt in his assessments. That was on display on Oct. 16, 2006, after the Cards’ Monday night meltdown against the Bears. The Cardinals lost to the undefeated Bears, 24-23, after building a 23-3 lead and forcing six Rex Grossman turnovers.
It was a question about the Grossman turnovers and the defensive play of his team that eventually lead to Green’s epic rant: “The Bears are who we thought they were,” Green said, voice slowly rising. “The Bears are who we thought they were. We played them in the preseason. Who the hell plays the third game of the preseason like it’s (expletive). (Expletive)! We played them in the third game, everybody played three quarters. The Bears are who we thought they were! That’s why we took the damn field! Now, if you want to crown them, then crown their ass! But they are who we thought they were! And we let ’em off the hook!”
After leaving the Cardinals, Green eventually did some radio and television work covering the NFL. He is the second former Cardinals head coach to pass away in the past month – Buddy Ryan died in late June.
“My heart goes out to family of my former coach Denny Green,” Warner wrote in a tweet Friday. “We lost a good man way too soon!”
Former Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry, who was Green’s first big free-agent signing in 2004 and who had his best season that year with 14.5 sacks, tweeted “Coach I’m crushed to hear of your passing! God bless your wife and children! Thank you for what you did for me.”
Green was also one of the pioneers as an African-American head coach in the NFL, noting before the infamous Bears game in 2006 – when he was facing fellow African-American head coach Lovie Smith, a rare NFL occurrence – that “you are hoping you would be given the same opportunity as anyone else.”