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Looking ahead at future Hall of Fame classes

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The seven members of the 2014 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame have received their busts in Canton, Ohio, and now that enshrinement weekend is behind us, let’s look ahead at the players, coaches and contributors who could comprise the next five Hall of Fame classes.

2015

Junior Seau will be eligible for the first time next year, and he’s the one man who looks like a lock for the class of 2015. Seau’s enshrinement will bring up stories about his suicide and questions about whether brain damage on the football field could have led to his depression, but his enshrinement should also be a celebration of one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game.

Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, may be the biggest beneficiary of the Hall of Fame’s new policy of voting on contributors separately from players and coaches. In past Hall of Fame votes, Tagliabue has lost out, but now that he’s no longer competing with players and coaches, there’s a good chance that he’ll be enshrined next year.

Steve Sabol would also be a good choice in 2015, when there will be two Hall of Fame finalists from the separate contributors category. Sabol’s father Ed is already in the Hall of Fame, but both Sabols deserve busts in Canton for building NFL Films.

Kurt Warner is, after Seau, the player with the best chance of being enshrined in his first year of eligibility next year. Some may say Warner’s greatness was too short-lived to merit Hall of Fame induction, but a player with two regular-season MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP award is probably going to end up in Canton.

Orlando Pace protected Warner’s blind side in St. Louis and was one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL for a decade, and he’ll also be eligible for the first time next year.

Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were the top two receivers on the Greatest Show on Turf, and they both retired after the 2009 season, making them eligible in 2015. (You can be forgiven if you’ve forgotten that Holt was in Jacksonville and Bruce was in San Francisco in 2009.) It would really be something if they were both inducted along with Warner and Pace. That, however, is awfully unlikely. Wide receivers have had a hard time getting into Canton in recent years, and Holt and Bruce may end up competing against each other and therefore hurting each other’s chances in much the same way that Steelers greats John Stallworth and Lynn Swann did for many years.

Jerry Kramer, the great Packers offensive lineman, would be a strong choice as a senior candidate. Next year will be a harder year for seniors to get in, as only one senior finalist will be nominated. But Kramer may be the most deserving senior candidate eligible.

2016

Brett Favre is a sure thing to be inducted in 2016, and the Packers have already begun the process of turning the year before his induction into a long ceremony honoring Favre, who will have his number retired in 2015.

Terrell Owens also becomes eligible in 2016, but he’s a long shot. Owens is second only to Jerry Rice on the all-time receiving yards list and third behind Rice and Randy Moss in receiving touchdowns, but Owens acted like such a jerk, so often, that he’s remembered as much for becoming a disruptive force in the locker room as he is for being a dominant force on the field.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the former 49ers owner, may benefit from the new contributors category and be enshrined soon. The question is whether Hall of Fame voters will reward DeBartolo for his role in building the great 49ers teams of the 1980s and 1990s, and overlook the circumstances that led DeBartolo to be forced out of the NFL.

Jerome Bettis may finally get his bust in Canton in 2016, as a relatively weak crop of first-year eligible players will make room for those who have previously been passed over.

Will Shields, the great guard for the Chiefs, would also seem likely to benefit from a lack of first-year eligible players, although there have been so many great offensive linemen enshrined in Canton in recent years that it’s hard for any one to gain recognition over all the others.

Marvin Harrison was voted down this year, but he had so many great seasons as a receiver for the Colts that it seems like just a matter of time before he gets in, and 2016 may be the year.

Randy Gradishar and Ken Stabler are a couple of good senior candidates who may be enshrined in 2016, when two seniors will be eligible. (Only one senior is eligible in 2015, 2017 and 2019.)

2017

LaDainian Tomlinson becomes eligible for the first time in 2017, and with 13,684 career rushing yards, Tomlinson looks like a good bet to make it. Only four players have more yards than Tomlinson (Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin) and all four are already in the Hall.

Jason Taylor becomes eligible in 2017 as well, and he has a good case, although he may be joining a crowded field of pass rushers, as we’ll detail momentarily.

Kevin Greene was voted down as a Hall of Fame finalist last year, but with 160 sacks in his career, he seems sure to get in eventually: The only players with more career sacks than Greene were Bruce Smith and Reggie White, two of the greatest players in NFL history. The 2017 class may be the one that finally makes room for Greene.

Charles Haley also might finally get his Hall call in 2017. He’s been voted down five times already, but his contributions to Super Bowl winners in both San Francisco and Dallas should be enough to earn him a bust at some point.

Hines Ward was a great wide receiver and a Super Bowl MVP winner, and he’ll be eligible for the first time in 2017. But Ward’s career numbers (1,000 catches for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns) are dwarfed by those of some other recent receivers, and Ward may suffer by comparison.

Brian Dawkins was a nine-time Pro Bowl safety who also becomes eligible in 2017, but he seems unlikely to be selected in his first year of eligibility. Dawkins was a beloved player both on and off the field, and at some point the voters may put him in Canton, but that point probably won’t be until he’s on the ballot for at least a few years.

George Young, the former Giants general manager, is just the kind of person that the new “contributors” category is designed to recognize, and the 2017 class may be the year that the late Young gets his due.

Don Coryell would appear to be a likely choice as a senior candidate some day, and 2017 may be when that day comes. Coryell never won a championship as a coach, but he was such an innovator of the passing game that he’s a significant figure in the history of football.

2018

Ray Lewis will be an easy choice as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. There’s no room for debate on that.

Randy Moss may leave some room for debate, as his numbers are comparable to those of Terrell Owens, who looks like a long shot. But Moss at his best was such a game-changer that he just feels like exactly the kind of player who belongs in Canton.

Brian Urlacher, who like Lewis and Moss becomes eligible in 2018, has a very good case for enshrinement as well. Although he’ll suffer in comparison to Lewis, there will probably be enough support for Urlacher to get him enshrined in his first year of eligibility.

Steve Hutchinson was a great guard and also becomes eligible in 2018, but he won’t get in on his first year of eligibility. Hutchinson may be a finalist many times, but getting the necessary 80 percent of the vote will be tough.

Tim Brown is a longtime finalist who feels like he accomplished enough in the NFL (usually while serving as the only decent threat in his teams’ passing games) that he should be recognized eventually. The 2018 class may be the year.

Art Modell has been voted down several times, and the opposition to his candidacy is strong from some who say that taking the Browns out of Cleveland was an unforgivable sin. But the new contributors category gives Modell a much better chance, and 2018 could be his year.

Bob Kuechenberg and Cliff Harris are among the best senior candidates who haven’t been selected yet.

2019

Tony Gonzalez becomes eligible for the first time in 2019, and he’s just about a sure thing as one of the greatest tight ends ever to play the game.

Ed Reed also becomes eligible for the first time in 2019, and he also looks like a sure thing as one of the greatest safeties ever to play the game.

Tony Dungy was voted down in his first year of eligibility last year and may be voted down a few more times, but he’s likely to get in eventually, and 2019 could be the year.

Morten Andersen was also voted down this year in his first year as a Hall of Fame finalist, but he also has a good case to make it eventually. Andersen, the NFL’s all-time leader in points scored, would join Jan Stenerud and Ray Guy as the only kicking specialists in the Hall of Fame.

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Gabbert seen as better fit than Kaepernick in Kelly’s offense

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 08:  Blaine Gabbert #2 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after being tackled close to the goal line during the first half of their game against the Atlanta Falcons at Levi's Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. The ball was ruled down on the 1-yard line and the 49ers scored on the next play.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Blaine GabbertColin Kaepernick quarterback competition has an early leader, and it’s the guy who was once viewed as a draft bust, not the guy who was once viewed as a future superstar.

That’s the word from ESPN, which reports that Gabbert has picked up new coach Chip Kelly’s offense, is seen inside the organization as a better fit than Kaepernick, and has the edge heading into training camp.

Although Kelly and 49ers General Manager Trent Baalke have said publicly that they like Kaepernick and still think he can succeed, virtually all the talk coming out of San Francisco this offseason has indicated that Gabbert is leading in the quarterback competition. In fact, it’s fair to wonder if the only reason Kaepernick is even on the roster is that the 49ers misjudged the trade market and thought when they picked up his guaranteed $11.9 million salary this season that they’d be able to unload him for a draft pick.

When Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season and to the NFC Championship Game after the 2013 season, he was widely viewed as one of the league’s up-and-coming stars. At the same time, Gabbert was struggling mightily in Jacksonville as a No. 10 overall pick who appeared to be a massive mistake in the draft. At the time, it would have been unthinkable that Gabbert and Kaepernick could compete for a job and Gabbert would win. But from all indications, that’s what’s expected to happen in San Francisco this summer.

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Ameer Abdullah: NFL can’t take the kickoff away

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Lions running back Ameer Abdullah led the league in kickoff return yards as a rookie last year. But he’s worried that by the time his career ends, there will be no such thing as a kickoff.

Abdullah told MLive.com he knows the NFL has talked about eliminating the kickoff, but he doesn’t believe there’s any real evidence that it’s too dangerous, and he doesn’t want to change a play that has been so fundamental to the sport of football for as long as the sport has existed.

They can’t take the kickoff away . . . I have to see the numbers to believe it’s too dangerous,” Abdullah said. “I return kicks. I watch the film. What I see is what I see, and I think there are more dangerous plays out there. You can only have two-man wedges now too, so it’s basically just one-on-one blocks. I just don’t think it’s dangerous enough to eliminate.”

Abdullah likes kickoffs not only because returning them is part of his job but because they’re exciting. And he correctly points out that eliminating the possibility of an onside kick would fundamentally change football.

“It’s one of the most exciting plays in football,” Abdullah said. “It’s a play that changes the game, especially if you have a game where the offenses and defenses are matching each other. The kickoff return makes a difference. And what happens with onside kicks? Do they take that away too?”

The onside kick is probably the strongest reason to keep the kickoff: Without the onside kick, a game with more than a one-possession lead in the fourth quarter becomes a lot less exciting. But if the NFL can figure out a way to ditch the kickoff while preserving the opportunity for a team to get the ball back after scoring, the kickoff may go away. No matter how much Abdullah and other players want to keep it.

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Dez Bryant recently made agent change

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 21:  Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates his touchdown reception against the Indianapolis Colts in the first half at AT&T Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

In the wake of Thursday’s item regarding the potential unintended consequences of Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant’s decision to fight a lawsuit filed against him by Texas state senator Royce West with a lawsuit of his own, some league insiders have expressed confusion about the move, given that Bryant’s representation team includes agent Tom Condon, who surely has the ability to connect the dots from Bryant taking a fight with trusted advisors like Royce West and David Wells public and the havoc those trusted advisors could create if motivated to do so.

It’s a good point. But here’s the problem: Condon no longer is a member of the representation team.

Liz Mullen of SportsBusiness Journal recently reported that Bryant ended the joint arrangement of Condon and Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports by parting ways with Condon and keeping Roc Nation. So, presumably, Condon didn’t have a chance to warn Bryant about the pitfalls of alleging that West and Wells (who is not yet a party to the litigation) misappropriated funds and/or failed to maximize his earning potential through endorsements and other marketing deals.

It’s unclear whether Bryant was warned and ignored the advice, or whether no one bothered to tell him that throwing stones at a couple of guys who were once in his inner circle could create all sorts of problems within the confines of the litigation, and possibly beyond. If the litigation quietly goes away sooner than later, that could be a result of Bryant getting and heeding the message on a better-late-than-never basis.

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NFL insists players named in PED report must give interviews

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The NFL is not backing down on its insistence that the players named in an Al Jazeera documentary about performance-enhancing drugs must agree to interviews as part of the league’s investigation.

The players involved are Packers linebackers Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, Steelers linebacker James Harrison and free agent (and former Packer) Mike Neal. Peyton Manning is also part of the NFL’s investigation, although his retirement means he’s no longer a member of the NFL Players Association and not a part of the ongoing battle between the league and the union over whether players must give interviews to league investigators.

The four players submitted affidavits responding to the allegations made against them in the Al Jazeera documentary, but Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the NFL still insists that affidavits aren’t good enough, and they must give interviews.

The players’ union insists that the NFL has no right to investigate players unless there’s “credible evidence” that they used PEDs. The NFL says the league only needs credible evidence to impose discipline, not to launch an investigation. The league plans to send investigators to Packers camp and Steelers camp to interview the players, but the players are expected to decline to be interviewed.

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Browns add Nick Hayden

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The Browns announced the signing of veteran defensive lineman Nick Hayden Friday.

The team was in the market for defensive line help after defensive end Desmond Bryant suffered a torn pectoral. Bryant is expected to miss the entire 2016 season.

Hayden has played in 76 career games over seven seasons with the Panthers, Bengals and Cowboys. He started 47 of 48 games over the last three seasons with the Cowboys.

Hayden, 30, was a sixth-round pick of the Panthers in 2008. He has two career sacks and two fumble recoveries.

The addition of Hayden puts the Browns at the cap of 90 players on the active roster. The Browns open full training camp July 29.

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Bears cut Omar Bolden

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The Bears released defensive back Omar Bolden Friday, just a few months after signing him in free agency.

Per ESPN’s Adam Caplan, the Bears in March had guaranteed Bolden $80,000 on a one-year contract worth a total of $840,000.

A fourth-round pick of the Broncos in 2012, Bolden played in 56 games in four years in Denver. He had been handling the punt return duties for the Broncos before suffering a knee injury during the playoffs last January.

Bolden had his first career punt return touchdown last season. He only missed one game over his first three seasons before injuries limited him to nine games last season.

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Moss: Dennis Green picked the right words, right beats

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Former Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss shared some memories of former Vikings coach Dennis Green Friday on ESPN’s NFL Live, and Moss remembered one Monday Night Football game during his rookie season for which Green was especially wound up.

“It was a big game, and I remember Coach Green saying throughout the week that he was going to unleash something on the Packers,” Moss said. “Before the game, some of us were playing some beats on the lockers. Now, everybody knew Coach Green liked to play the drums. He played some beats on the lockers, too, but after a minute he started playing the same beat [the players were], not his own. Everybody was geeked up, riled up and ready to go play the Packers.

“He would always say, ‘There’s only one ball. You have to play to one beat.'”

The Vikings won that game, 37-24. Moss had five catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns.

Green died Friday at age 67. He coached the Vikings for 11 seasons, eight of them playoff seasons, and later was head coach of the Cardinals.

Moss was just officially hired by ESPN. He was a rookie in 1998, when the Vikings went 15-1 and Moss caught 17 touchdowns for what was the highest-scoring offense in league history to that point.

“Coach Green gave me a chance,” Moss said. “I remember him on draft day calling and asking if I was ready to become a Viking. The answer was yes.

“Today I’ve been reading a lot of the comments and the positive things people are saying about him…and they’re very true. He meant a lot to me and meant a lot to others. His legacy will live on.”

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Colts’ Arthur Jones suspended four games for PEDs

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Colts defensive lineman Arthur Jones has been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Jones can participate in training camp and the preseason but will have to sit out the first four games of the regular season. He can return to the Colts on Monday, October 3.

This is the second time this month that a member of the Jones family has been suspended for violating a PED policy. Jones’s brother, UFC fighter Jon Jones, was pulled from his light heavyweight championship fight after he tested positive for two substances banned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. (The Joneses also have a third brother, Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones.)

Arthur Jones missed the entire 2015 season after suffering an ankle injury in the preseason.

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Elliott’s father says his son did no wrong, the truth will come out

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 26: Running back Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State runs with the ball during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 26, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

Stacy Elliott, the father of Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, released a statement Friday in which he denied any wrongdoing by his son in regard to recent allegations of domestic violence.

“The reported allegations and Internet postings regarding our son are completely false,” Stacy Elliott’s statement said. “Ezekiel has done nothing wrong. The police have investigated this matter and eyewitnesses have verified the lack of any wrongdoing. The actual evidence in this matter clearly indicates what the real motivation was behind the police being called.

“We are confident that when the truth comes to light it will reveal the falsity of these claims. Ezekiel has been fully cooperative with the police and will continue to do so — along with cooperating with the NFL — moving forward.”

The NFL is investigating the allegations made by a 20-year old woman in Columbus, Ohio, where Ezekiel Elliott starred at Ohio State.

Separate reports that have been published Friday say that the incident stemmed from Elliott and the woman breaking up, and also that the Cowboys don’t believe the allegations are true.

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Eagles cut a wide receiver, leaving them three roster spots to fill

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The Eagles made a roster move in advance of reporting to training camp this weekend, giving them three spots to fill.

The team announced they had released wide receiver Jonathan Krause, who was with the team last season.

They now have 87 on the roster, giving them room for some additions before rookies and selected veterans start reporting Sunday.

Krause, who was undrafted out of Vanderbilt in 2014, has also spent time on the practice squads of the Browns and Patriots as well.

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Bill Belichick has the NFL’s least diverse coaching staff

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Patriots coach Bill Belichick has assembled the least diverse staff of any head coach in the NFL, according to an ESPN study of diversity in NFL coaching.

Belichick’s staff of 14 coaches includes just two minorities, meaning the Patriots have the NFL’s least diverse staff, according to ESPN. Those numbers do not include strength coaches and other non-football personnel.

Only three NFL teams have coaching staffs on which at least half the assistants are minorities, and all three have minority head coaches: Ron Rivera’s Panthers, Todd Bowles’s Jets and Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. The five coaching staffs with the lowest percentage of minority assistants — New England, Jacksonville, San Diego, Dallas and Washington — all have white head coaches.

As one of the most successful coaches in NFL history, Belichick will get the benefit of the doubt in a way other coaches would not: It’s hard to argue, given his success, that Belichick has done anything other than hire the most qualified assistants regardless of skin color.

On the other hand, given that Bill’s son Steve Belichick is the Patriots’ safeties coach and Bill’s other son Brian Belichick is a new Patriots scouting assistant, the Patriots may deserve some criticism for perpetuating the NFL’s old boys network.

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Report: Ezekiel Elliott incident stemmed from breakup of relationship

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Draftee Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State arrives to the 2016 NFL Draft on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images) Getty Images

A he-said/she-said situation seems to be shaping up regarding the assault allegations against Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

According to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a source claims that the incident stemmed from the fact the first-rounder from Ohio State broke off a relationship with the woman.

The source said the “alleged victim said she would ruin him if he did.”

That version of the story seems to be going around quickly, and Elliott already has members of the Cowboys family vouching for him.

In addition to the team choosing to believe his side of the story at the moment, Elliott has also been in communication with Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin.

Irvin said on the “Rich Eisen Show” that he had spoken and texted with Elliott today since the first reports emerged, and that Elliott denied any wrongdoing.

Irvin said Elliott told him “I didn’t put my hands on her.”

Of course, we haven’t heard the accuser’s side of the story, beyond photos of the injuries which were posted online this morning. Interviews with witnesses provided varying reports, and no charges were filed by police, though the case was referred to prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio.

The NFL has said it would investigate the case for possible violations of the personal conduct policy.

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Report: Cowboys don’t believe allegations against Ezekiel Elliott are true

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State holds up a jersey after being picked #4 overall by the Dallas Cowboys during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Cowboys aren’t making any official statement about allegations of domestic violence against rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not skeptical of them.

According to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Cowboys “don’t believe the allegations against Elliott are true.”

Of course, they can’t say that out loud at the moment, having just spent a year scraping the Greg Hardy off their boots.

But at the moment, there are no criminal charges, and the league has said it will investigate the incident.

Until more facts are known, the Cowboys would be wise to say little regarding their first-round pick, who is expected to play a major role for them this year as long as he’s available.

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Vikings mourn Dennis Green

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The man who coached the Vikings for nearly a decade died Friday. The team has issued the following statement regarding Dennis Green.

“We are incredibly saddened by the sudden passing of former Vikings head coach Dennis Green,” the team said in a statement. “Denny made his mark in ways far beyond being an outstanding football coach. He mentored countless players and served as a father figure for the men he coached. Denny founded the Vikings Community Tuesday Program, a critical initiative that is now implemented across the entire NFL. He took great pride in helping assistant coaches advance their careers. His tenure as one of the first African-American head coaches in both college and the NFL was also transformative. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Green family.”

Green coached the Vikings from 1992 into 2001, leading the team to eight playoff appearances and a pair of berths in the NFC title game.

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Michael Bidwill hails Dennis Green as innovator and pioneer

Arizona's head coach Dennis Green during the first half of the Seattle Seahawks vs. Arizona Cardinals NFL game at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington on Sunday, September 17, 2006. (Photo by Kevin Casey/NFLPhotoLibrary) Getty Images

The death of former Vikings and Cardinals coach Dennis Green has sparked many remembrances from around the league on Friday, including one from Cardinals president Michael Bidwill.

“All of us at the Cardinals are incredibly saddened by the news of Dennis Green’s passing,” 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.”

Green coached the Cardinals from 2004-2006 in a tenure that is often remembered for one of the most memorable press conferences of all time. It didn’t feature as much winning as Green experienced during his time in Minnesota, but the seeds of Arizona’s first-ever trip to the Super Bowl were planted under Green as they drafted players like Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, Antonio Smith and Antrel Rolle in his first two years with the team.

Dockett was one of many current and former players to share their sadness on social media Friday. Former Vikings running back Robert Smith wrote on Twitter that he felt like he just lost his father when he heard of Green’s death and Smith’s teammate Jake Reed expressed shock at the loss.

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