BY WALTER RHEIN
SPECIAL TO PACKERLAND PRIDE
When Packer players are discussed as a dark-horse hall of fame candidates, there are a handful of names that are frequently mentioned. LeRoy Butler is pretty high on the list with his 38 career interceptions and 20.5 sacks, not to mention his invention of the Lambeau Leap. Butler actually was among the 27 finalists for the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF) class, so his name is still in play as a guy with a realistic shot of getting in. Another name that comes up is Sterling Sharpe, who certainly played at a hall-of-fame level before suffering a career-ending neck injury. To this day it remains one of the major regrets of all Packer fans everywhere that we were robbed of more seasons of Brett Favre to Sharpe. It’s not unreasonable to assume the Favre-to-Sharpe connection had the potential of becoming the best the league has ever seen.
One name that you don’t often hear as a Packers’ hall-of-fame candidate is Ahman Green. Green is, of course, the all-time rushing leader of the most storied franchise in the NFL, so you think he’d at least get the occasional mention. Oddly, Green seems to occupy a kind of blind spot among Packer fans who don’t necessarily seem to revere the Nebraska running back at a level commensurate with his achievements. There are several quirky occurrences that have resulted in Green being overlooked, but if you take the time to go back and review the game tape, you’ll discover a truly special player.
Originally a third-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks, Green backed up Rickey Watters under head coach Dennis Erickson in his first season. Although Green posted a 6-yard per carry average, Watters was an established star in the league and Green didn’t earn a lot of playing time. Watters remained the bell cow in 1999 under new head coach Mike Holmgren, who soured on Green due to his two fumbles in only 26 carries.
In the 2000 draft, Holmgren used the 19th overall pick on future MVP running back Shaun Alexander. As often happens with new general manager regimes, Holmgren took the opportunity to unload Green by trading him to the Packers for backup cornerback Fred Vinson and a sixth-round pick. The trade was often blamed on Green’s fumbling, but in a later interview, Holmgren admitted he harbored concerns that Green’s exercise-induced asthma became problematic when he stayed on the field for long periods of time. The trade worked out heavily in Green Bay’s favor as Vinson never played a down in Seattle. In fact, the Green trade was the type of swindle that could have been the landmark achievement of a GM, but of course, Ron Wolf had already made a name for himself by exchanging a first-round pick with Atlanta for a quarterback from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Living in the shadow of Favre is a common enough occurrence for Packer players over the last few decades. Even the indisputable brilliance of Aaron Rodgers was dimmed in the perception of fans for a few years as the memory of Favre lingered. But even as great as Favre was, there was a time in Green Bay, during Favre’s tenure as starting quarterback, when the offense centered around Green.
It’s worthwhile to pause for a moment and just consider what a remarkable roster the Packers sent onto the field under head coach Mike Sherman. How many franchises can boast having their all-time leading quarterback and their all-time leading running back on the roster during the same era? That was the case for the Packers for the entirety of Sherman’s tenure from 2000 to 2005. It’s not unreasonable to assume that had the Packers managed to hoist the Lombardi trophy during that time, Green might already be in the HOF.
In addition to playing in the shadow of Favre, Green is also overlooked because he never managed to lead the league in rushing – which is more of a statistical anomaly than an indictment of Green. His best year came in 2003 when he set a Packer single-season record with 1,883 yards, currently tied with Barry Sanders’ 1994 campaign for ninth best of all time. In any other year, that would have probably led the league, but that season Jamal Lewis got 2,066 in Baltimore. It’s interesting to note that the third best back of 2003 was LaDainian Tomlinson with 1,645 yards, with Shaun Alexander coming in at eighth with 1,435. Green was also second in rushing touchdowns with 15 in 2003 and caught 50 passes for 367 yards and five touchdowns.
Green’s ability as a receiver is what really sets him apart as a player. The single best argument in Green’s favor for his potential HOF inclusion is that from 2000 to the end of 2004, Green led the league in rushing yards and in total yards from scrimmage. Green is also one of only two players in NFL history to have scoring runs of 90 or more yards, the other being Bo Jackson.
HOF careers are made through MVP seasons and Super Bowl victories, of which Green has neither. Under Sherman, the Packers made the playoffs in 2001 (lost the divisional round in St. Louis), 2002 (lost wild-card round at home vs. Atlanta), 2003 (lost the divisional round in Philadelphia) and 2004 (lost wild-card round at home vs. Minnesota). Of all of these, the one that stings the most is the “4th and 26” game at Philadelphia. Although the Philadelphia game is remembered for the failings on defense, it should be pointed out that with 2:30 remaining while nursing a 17-14 lead, the Packers faced a 4th and 1 at the Eagles’ 41-yard line and elected to punt after attempting to draw the Eagles offsides. It’s sad to think that the difference between a great career and a potential HOF career might have boiled down to a moment when the player wasn’t even given the ball.
The game has changed throughout the years, and Ahman Green certainly has the type of stats that compare with players already in the HOF. Whether he came in second in terms of trade value, or second as the rushing leader, Green’s best career moments always seemed to take place in the shadow of a flash that was just a little brighter. Perhaps it could be said that much of Green’s statistical dominance came because he had a HOF quarterback, although the counter-argument is that Green’s brilliance probably extended Favre’s career. In all likelihood, Green will probably never receive any serious consideration for the hall. However, it’s great fun to drive to Minneapolis and say that Adrian Peterson was only the second-best running back to play with Favre.
“How can you say that?” the Vikings’ fans will whine.
“Peterson had 1,383 yards in 2009,” you reply. “Ahman Green exceeded that number with Favre in Green Bay twice.”
I know from experience that they won’t be able to muster a retort, and any player that can provoke a round of stunned silence in the face of a Minnesota fan is a HOF’er in my book.