During his too-brief prime as a Seahawks defensive tackle, Cortez Kennedy was a force to behold – and a candidate to be held by the overwhelmed linemen assigned to contain him.
Despite facing double-team attention, Kennedy produced 14 sacks and forced four fumbles in 1992, the season he was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. When his candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is considered on the eve of the Super Bowl – he’s among 17 semifinalists – the effort Kennedy provided an otherwise futile ’92 team will be his most impressive credential.
But I sense Kennedy is a long shot to join Steve Largent in Canton, Ohio, where the former wide receiver remains the only inductee exclusively associated with the Seahawks.
Limited exposure, for one. Kennedy’s team appeared on Monday Night Football only four times – he retired before the league expanded its television schedule to Thursday and Sunday nights – and in his lone playoff game, in 1999, the Seahawks were upset by Miami.
Kennedy’s position did him no favors on the publicity circuit, either. A dominant defensive tackle changes games by requiring the double-team that frees the ends and linebackers to deliver the sacks and highlight hits. Until a statistic is created to quantify Amount of Respect the Offensive Line Pays an Opposing Player, evidence of a defensive tackle’s superiority is mostly anecdotal.
But the most severe impediment to Kennedy’s Canton quest is his longevity, or lack thereof. His 11-year career was shorter than any of the nine Hall of Famers whose sole position was defensive tackle. And although he was selected for eight Pro Bowls and made three All-Pro squads and was named to the 1990s All-Decade team, Kennedy’s career ended too soon.
On the other hand, maybe the career ended when it should have ended. Maybe it just started too late.
The third overall choice of the 1990 draft, Kennedy’s inability to reach contract terms resulted in a 46-day holdout. He finally agreed to the most lucrative deal ever awarded a defensive rookie – five one-year contracts worth $6.75 million – but the distinction came at a steep cost.
A season was at hand, and Kennedy, who tried to stay in shape by working out in Florida for seven weeks, wasn’t ready for it.
“There is nothing like training-camp condition and game conditioning,” the late Tom Catlin, who was then-defensive coordinator of the Seahawks, told reporters a few weeks into the 1990 season. “I don’t care how much you work out on your own, you just cannot push yourself that hard …
“He hasn’t made many plays because he isn’t playing as much,” continued Catlin, referring to the Kennedy’s struggle to resemble the force who gained national acclaim with the Miami Hurricanes.
Kennedy had bit parts in 16 games, finishing with one sack. It’s not unusual for rookies break in slowly and find their stride in their second season. But Kennedy had the strength and the quickness to dominate from Day One, as did the Rams’ Merlin Olsen (named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie) and the Steelers’ Joe Greene (the league’s 1969 Rookie of the Year). Both are in the Hall of Fame.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the first impression Kennedy made was that he needed time to reach his potential. The next season, he went to the Pro Bowl, and between 1992 and 1994 – his three best years – he was honored as an All-Pro.
I’m wondering what Kennedy’s Hall of Fame portfolio might look like had he reported on time to his first Seahawks camp. I’m wondering how a Defensive Rookie of the Year award might look alongside the rest of his achievements.
Not that the big guy is losing sleep about his slim chance of advancing beyond the semifinals of the Hall vote. He put away his guaranteed bonus money, and in 1993 received a four-year, $12.6 million contract extension. Kennedy earned enough from the Seahawks to devote full time these days to raising his 12-year-old daughter in Arkansas.
He always looked at Robert Fraley – one of the agents who advised him as a rookie – as a dear friend. When Fraley was killed in the same private-plane crash that took the life pro golfer Payne Stewart, nobody grieved more profoundly than his client in Seattle.
Still, the holdout episode is instructive: We presume a first-round draft choice always can catch up on the conditioning lost in training camp, and, sometimes, the season lost as a consequence. What’s the worry? What’s the hurry?
The hurry is that when a 305-pound defensive tackle has only 11 seasons on his athletic body clock – and only five or six of them at the very top of his game – it’s a shame to compromise one of them.
Although his initial impact was minimal, at least Kennedy played in 1990. Todd Bell, a Pro Bowl safety for the 1984 Bears, remained a holdout – along with defensive end Al Harris – from training camp through Chicago’s entire Super Bowl Shuffle season of 1985. Bell returned to the team in 1986, but it would be two decades before the Bears would return to the Super Bowl.
A free agent in 1988, Bell signed with the Eagles, only to suffer a severely broken leg four games into the 1989 season. He never played football again.
Bell had the chance to start for one of the most intimidating defensive units in NFL history. He had the chance to win a Super Bowl ring.
Instead, Bell and his advisors drew a hard line during contract negotiations, and he refused to cross it. In denying himself, he was defying the organization he came to see as a foe. Perhaps he derived some satisfaction from that.
We can only hope he did.