CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There were whispers in Pittsburgh and throughout the NFL during the offseason that Kevin Greene's days as a sackmaster were over.
At 34, many deemed him too old and slow to chase quarterbacks at anywhere near the effectiveness he'd achieved in his first 11 seasons. The Steelers decided not to re-sign him, choosing instead to promote a young backup.
A national preseason magazine ranked him the No. 27 outside linebacker in the league.
What a mistake that was.
As Greene and his new team, the Carolina Panthers (11-4), get ready to face the Steelers (10-5) Sunday at Ericsson Stadium (1 p.m., Channel 26) with the NFC West Division championship at stake, he leads the NFL in sacks with 14«.
It's his best statistical season in seven years, since he had 16« sacks for the Los Angeles Rams in 1989, when he was 27. Greene has already been selected to the Pro Bowl and has a good chance of making the all-pro team, which will be announced by The Associated Press on Tuesday.
He's also a strong candidate for the league's defensive player of the year award.
"I guess I'm making a statement in some aspects," Greene said Thursday. "I guess the statement is that I'm probably one of the best outside backers to ever play this game."
And he's not finished proving his point.
He has another year left on his contract with the Panthers and wants to break Lawrence Taylor's NFL record for sacks by an outside linebacker. Taylor had 132« with the New York Giants. Green has 122« with the Rams, Steelers and Panthers.
"I'm getting pretty close," he said. "It would be nice to go out No. 1."
He'll be fighting for this season's top spot Sunday against teammate Lamar Lathon, whose 13« sacks rank second in the league.
Their season-long "Salt & Pepper" competition for the team lead suddenly has even higher stakes heading into the final game of the regular season.
"I like the situation we're in right now," Greene said with a smile.
"I've got some tricks up my sleeve," Lathon said, vowing to finish on top.
Greene will have the added motivation of facing his former team, which he helped to reach the Super Bowl last season.
Earlier this year, he said he felt hurt and rejected by the Steelers and coach Bill Cowher when they didn't try harder to keep him.
But Greene isn't talking this week about his departure from Pittsburgh. He declined to take part in a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters and screened other interview requests, agreeing to talk only if there were no questions about the Steelers.
Cowher acknowledged he hasn't talked to Greene in months, but said there should be no lingering bitterness as a result of the Steelers' decision to promote Jason Gildon, 24, (seven sacks) to replace Greene.
"I have nothing but the utmost respect for Kevin," Cowher said. "It's unfortunate in this business that you're going to lose players. I would like to have kept everybody. It wasn't that we didn't think Kevin could play. We couldn't meet his demands.
"I don't know if he harbors ill feelings, and I can't control that. He had three great years here. I think he had some memories that he'll always have with him, whether he wants to admit it or not. ... He gave Pittsburgh a lot, but I think Pittsburgh gave him a lot as well."
Repeat those quotes to Greene and he doesn't blink - or speak. After the Steelers decided not to re-sign him last February, interest in him elsewhere was scarce because he's a tailor-made outside linebacker for a 3-4 defensive scheme in a league made up of mostly 4-3 teams. The only other good fits for him were the Panthers and Baltimore.
Carolina is coached by Dom Capers, his former defensive coordinator with Pittsburgh. The Ravens' defensive coordinator is former Steelers linebackers coach Marvin Lewis.
"My job opportunities were limited," Greene said. "I'm a pure outside backer in the 3-4, but I know what I can accomplish in that situation, which is exactly what I've done this year."
His presence has helped the Panthers become the first NFL expansion team to reach the playoffs in its second season.
His coaches and teammates say he has succeeded by adjusting to the physical limitations of his age.
"I can remember when he first came to Pittsburgh (in 1993) and, in my opinion, he was much quicker than he is now," said Carolina defensive end Gerald Williams, a teammate of Greene's in college at Auburn and with the Steelers.
"He's definitely slower, but he doesn't just do it physically. He does it in the classroom and the practice field. Half the battle when you're a professional is knowing how to get it done and placing yourself in a situation to succeed.
"Kevin knows the nature of this business is you get old, and they replace you with new parts. But he feels he has a couple of more years left and he's out to prove that he still can play. I think it's been very evident this year that he can."
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio credits Greene's intelligence and all-out aggressiveness.
"He's at a stage of his career where there's going to be a natural deterioration in some of his physical skills," Fangio said. "But he's a great technician. He's still got some quickness, but he sees things so fast and he reacts faster than a younger guy, so he gets there just as soon as they do anyway."
Panthers inside linebacker Carlton Bailey puts it this way:
"Kevin is like an old hunting dog. He lets the young players run down and chase the fox all through the woods. He knows right where to go. He goes right to the tree where it's going to be."
Greene remains one of the league's best finishers - and one of its most spirited players.
He's expected to be at an emotional peak for Sunday's reunion game against the Steelers. Two of his best performances of the season came against another former team, the Rams, against which he had four sacks and a 66-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
"If I had to use one word to describe how he'll be, it would be animated," said Williams.
Ask Greene if that's so and all he says is: "I'm taking this game like I always do. I've played hard, physical and all-out for every single game."
But Bailey said there's no getting around the fact that Greene will be on a mission facing a team he'd planned to retire with, which he feels shunned him.
"There's a certain way you're supposed to treat a man," Bailey said.
Pittsburgh's loss has been Carolina's gain, and Fangio said the Panthers will warmly welcome Greene back next year at age 35.
"When you've got a guy with Kevin's intangibles who's played the way he's played," he said, "you'd better make sure he can't do it anymore before you think about not having him on your team."
Lest you risk the alternative the Steelers face Sunday.