Many negative labels have been attached to Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse throughout his career—some deserved, some not. But the fact remains that the man can still flat-out play.
After bursting onto the scene his rookie year, in which he tallied 14.5 sacks and won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, the sky was the limit for the man they called "The Freak." While he continued to not only produce but remain a force, his numbers gradually declined.
Then, on opening day of the 2002 season, he broke a bone in his left foot, causing him to miss 12 weeks and record only two sacks.
The following years, which included a four-season stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, saw him remain productive. The perception, however, was that he would never live up to his amazing potential which he displayed during his first season.
"The Freak," it appeared, was a one-hit-wonder.
But a funny thing happens when you fly under the radar; the element of surprise is on your side.
Just ask the normally hard-to-sack Ben Roethlisberger, who was downed by Kearse during a key stretch of the second half last week. True, one sack doesn't necessarily constitute a return to glory, but the way it occurred is reason for optimism, given that it wasn't a coverage sack.
It was pure speed.
Oftentimes, you'll hear an over-the-hill or retired athlete wistfully muse about "if I knew then what I know now." The implication is that the acquired wisdom in their younger, more able bodies would be an unstoppable combination.
Truth be told, Kearse just might have that chance. Initially nicknamed "The Freak" for his rare combination of speed and power (and his wingspan), the moniker could take on a new meaning if he indeed does produce this year. In the violent sport of football, the fountain of youth is hard to come by.
Yet it can be argued that Kearse's skills have, in fact, not eroded. He still has the burst. Remember, he's not a receiver who has to maintain speed for a long distance; defensive ends have a longer grace period regarding the proverbial "losing a step."
And judging by his physique, he appears to be even more powerful. Suffice it to say, being underweight is no longer an issue with him.
Another trend in his favor is that it is not uncommon for defensive ends to enjoy higher output in the latter stages of their playing career. Reggie White (his disastrous 2000 season with the Carolina Panthers notwithstanding), Bruce Smith, and Simeon Rice all remained forces to be reckoned with well into their thirties.
But perhaps the best thing going for Kearse is his new defensive coordinator (and fellow Sports Illustrated cover alum), Chuck Cecil. He may be inexperienced, but he knows how to get the best out of his players. Plus, if the season opener was any indication, his schemes are at first glance a bit more innovative (if not aggressive) than those of his predecessor, Jim Schwartz.
The Oct. 11, 1993 issue of Sports Illustrated featured Cecil on the cover, posing the question, "Too Vicious for the NFL?" Just like in his playing days, he brings a "take no prisoners" ethos to the defense that should benefit Kearse.
True, he's still a bit wet behind the ears, as was evidenced by the less-than-perfect defensive calls that led to the Titans' loss to the Steelers. But the former hard-hitting safety is fresh blood with nothing to lose. Much like Kearse during his record-setting rookie campaign.
Some may argue that the loss of Albert Haynesworth will lead to a drop in his numbers, but given that the new Redskin only played about 50 percent of the defensive snaps last year, it's unlikely. Especially when considering that Kyle Vanden Bosch is a stalwart in his own right on the other side of the line.
All of the cards are in place for another breakout year for Kearse, barring injury. The bitter taste of two Super Bowl losses, a worn-out welcome in Philadelphia, and a constant barrage of critics no doubt provide plenty of fuel.
If the rest of the Titans' defense follows suit, the "Freak Show" will be returning to February.