A whisker under 5 feet 9, Darrell Green made his living in the land of relative giants. He measured himself against the likes of 6-2 Jerry Rice, the most prolific wide receiver of them all; engaged in epic confrontations with 6-3 Michael Irvin; and rendered 6-4 Randy Moss incidental during their one-on-one encounter in the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver's rookie season. So don't tell the retired cornerback who played 20 years with the Washington Redskins about mismatches favoring the latest crop of big wide receivers. He's the guy who stared down Harold Carmichael, all 6-8 of him, and won.
"If you were the superstar, I pretty much was your guy all day," said Green, a seven-time Pro Bowl pick. "I played them all."
Having done so, Green takes a matter-of-fact attitude toward the proliferation of big wide receivers in the league. Of the first five wide receivers selected in this year's NFL draft, four are at least 6-2. The 29th pick, Michael Jenkins, is 6-4. The premier group of wide receivers over the past half dozen seasons includes Moss, Terrell Owens (6-3), Amani Toomer (6-3), Eric Moulds (6-2) and David Boston (6-2) when healthy.
"It's more rotating. It's rotating versus evolving because evolving can mean unending. Rotating means small sometimes, big the next," Green said. "One week I'm playing Michael Irvin, who's probably 6-3 or whatever, and the next I'm playing a Gary Clark type of kid. You might have a large group of [Michael] Irvins, Cris Carters, Randy Moss, Mike Quick, Al Toon. So this group could show up all of sudden. Then all of sudden, here come the midgets. The little run-'n'-shoot guys can begin to dominate the game."
That group includes Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Rod Smith more recently, and Mark Duper, Mark Clayton and Steve Largent during Green's early years. "Steve Largent couldn't outrun your mama. But he was quick, his routes were excellent, and he had great hands," Green said. "So do I want to take him, or do I want to take Cliff Branch? Or do I want to take Marvin Harrison, who is quick as a mouse and fast, not big, but quick and fast?"
Meticulous in the film room studying tendencies, strengths and flaws in each wide receiver he would have to cover, Green had opponents all but outsmarted before kickoff. He said the fast guys never bothered him because he could outrun every player in the league. He handled the big guys with guile and played the angle and direction of the pass more than the man.
Green's most demanding opponents instead were wide receivers who did not rest on the field, even if they were not involved in the play. "If you follow the sport in terms of wide receivers, you understand this," Green said. "There are a number of attributes that go with the position. Number one is speed. Number two, quickness. Number three is route running. Number four is hands. Number five is heart.
"I will say this, the number one thing that I thought that if you brought to the game that I had to contend with was your heart. If you were a battler, if you were a competitor. Guys who weren't wimps. Guys who were tough.
"When you ask who's the greatest, I think it was Jerry Rice, because if he didn't have a number one, he's a number two, three or four in most of the categories. So Cliff Branch, number one in terms of speed, number seven or ten in route running. Michael Irvin, number one in heart, number 12 in speed."
So who was Green's fiercest rival?
"I would have to say [Irvin] would be at the top of that list," he said of the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver who is in his first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One of the more memorable Irvin-Green clashes came during the first game of the Daniel Snyder regime in 1999. The Redskins had built a 21-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, and the FedEx Field faithful were on their feet in anticipation of ending a six-game losing streak to their arch rival. Green had done his part in keeping Irvin, the franchise's career leader in touchdowns receptions, out of the end zone to that point. But Irvin caught consecutive late touchdowns to tie the game, and the Cowboys went on to win, 41-35, in overtime.
One season earlier, Green cemented his standing as perhaps the most complete cornerback in league history by holding Moss to five catches for 64 yards in a nationally televised game. Twice in the second half, the Vikings tried to exploit Moss's considerable height advantage, and each time Green was game to the dare. First, Green was not fooled on a hitch-and-go pattern, and the ball sailed out of the end zone. Two plays later, Green appeared beaten on a fly route but made up ground and batted down an underthrown ball. "Let me just say this. Randy Moss was in his rookie year. To his credit, he got the old guy. He'd run right by me right now," Green said. "I didn't really prepare for the height. The reality is, unless you are throwing an alley-oop, you're still going to be able to get up there to play the ball because the ball has got to come down to a catchable level. Unless you're going to go jump a tip-off for a basketball, the height doesn't really play that much, because if you're running an out, what are you going to do, throw it way up there? You have to throw the out to the outside, and I'm going to have just as good a chance, and I can jump, too."
Out of football since the end of the 2002 season, Green keeps himself too busy to follow the minutiae of the NFL. Charitable work with his rapidly expanding Youth Life Foundation requires most of his attention, and instead of kicking back with buddies and watching football, Green spends Sundays at church and with family.
"When I walked off the field, I did not have the ego, testosterone or whatever it is," Green said. "Pretty much my tank was empty on that."
Wide receivers collectively exhaled, too, when Green ended one of football's most decorated careers during which he covered almost every exceptional player at the position over the past three decades: Rice, Irvin, Charlie Joiner, Carter, James Lofton, Andre Reed, Tim Brown. Each one is in the Hall of Fame or likely headed for enshrinement and, what's more, he covered Art Monk and Gary Clark in practice. "I think most of all when I lined up on guys," Green said, "they knew and the world knew that, 'Okay, you're not as fast as Darrell Green.' That was a given, but more importantly, I think they knew they were going to have to battle all day, that I wasn't ever going to go away. I wasn't a guy who played a lot of head games. I was trying to get out there and go 60 minutes. I'm not going to let you do anything. I'm going to be here. A lot of those guys I mentioned were saying that in their minds as well, and that's what made it great."
The Five Who Made Green Work the Hardest
1. Michael Irvin
"He pushed a lot."
2. Jerry Rice
"The Greatest. "
3. Cris Carter
4. Mike Quick
"He's going to do it all day long."
5. Irving Fryar
"I got 60 minutes of a battle."