Joe Greene is inarguably the most important football player in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is the virtual personification of everything that made and makes the team great, including on-field dominance. He is one of just two people whose number the Steelers have ever retired. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is about to join another Hall of Fame at his alma mater at North Texas.
During a phone interview for Forbes, Green was asked, in a number of different ways, if he would be able to play in the National Football League today based on the way that the game has changed, specifically with regard to how defensive play is officiated.
While he initially ran down a list of things that he did that he wouldn’t be able to do anymore (head-slapping, hitting quarterbacks below the knees or in the head), he first offered and “I don’t really know”. But he added that Chuck Noll always coached within the rules, and “I still would give it my best to play up to his teaching and his coaching”. He did not know, however, if he could still be a Hall of Famer.
It goes without saying that a lot of rules have changed, or been created, since Joe Green last played a football game. He and is teammates even had a hand in some of those rules being created while they were still on the field, most notably the ‘Mel Blount rule’ that limits contact between defensive backs and wide receivers.
“If the defense I was playing with played the game today, we might have two guys on the field by halftime”, Greene said. “I’m not saying we were doing things illegal. We were a very physical team, and some of the things they are calling today, we’d get ejected for it”.
The same could be said for every team. Things that were accepted then are not accepted now, so it really goes without saying. But ‘Mean Joe’ wasn’t necessarily offering that as a criticism for what the NFL has become.
“I have to give the NFL some credit here”, he offered. “We’re in transition. We’re going from where we were to where we like to be to make the game safer, and that place now is not it. So there’s going to be some rough spots, and we’re in it right now”.
The league is in a delicate position right now in a culture in which the former violence of the game has become less accepted as we learn more about the long-term physical and mental health ramifications that come with playing the game.
They have already paid out millions and millions of dollars in lawsuits. The game literally could not exist today as it once did and remain in business. That doesn’t mean that they have handled all of the transition flawlessly, but even the most old-school fan should be able to concede that they had to try.