They met during a recruiting weekend on the Florida campus in
January 1995. Kevin Carter was the All-America, soon to be the
sixth selection in the NFL draft. Jevon Kearse was the gangly
safety-linebacker prospect, looking for a place to pursue his
Introduced at a party, they talked awhile, then moved on. But
whenever Carter returned to Gainesville and watched Kearse work
as an outside linebacker, he would think, This kid is going to be
a great defensive end. Kearse heard the same thing from his
teammates, who told him, You'll be just like Kevin Carter. It was
the ultimate compliment. "Kevin is still the talk of the town
down there," Kearse says today.
Thanks to a March 28 trade that sent Carter from the St. Louis
Rams to the Tennessee Titans, the two are the talk of Nashville.
Now, however, Kearse is the known quantity and Carter must prove
himself. Kearse, a first-round draft pick in 1999, has become the
quintessential sack specialist, confounding offensive linemen
with his speed and quickness. Carter is starting over, trying to
put a nightmarish 2000 season behind him.
In St. Louis, Carter's problems were twofold: money and coach
Mike Martz. The cash part was simple. Going into the final year
of his contract (and coming off a dream 1999 season in which he
led the league with 17 sacks, made his first appearance in the
Pro Bowl and was part of a Super Bowl championship team), Carter
sought an extension that would make him the league's highest-paid
defensive player. The Rams' offer--a seven-year, $45 million deal
that included a $12 million signing bonus--fell short of that, and
Carter also felt the package was too back-loaded, with $25
million to be paid over the final four years of the nonguaranteed
contract, according to his agent, Harold Lewis. When Carter
balked, the Rams spent the money elsewhere, signing quarterback
Kurt Warner and wideout Isaac Bruce to long-term extensions.
After that, St. Louis was too close to the salary cap to lock up
Carter, leaving him disappointed, confused and, in the team's
The Martz situation was more complex. Carter had enjoyed a close
relationship with Martz's predecessor, Dick Vermeil. He had no
such bond with Martz, the offensive coordinator under Vermeil and
a man who isn't as nurturing with his players as Vermeil was.
Carter and Martz initially clashed after the birth of Carter's
first child, Zion, on Sept. 19. Carter had stayed up for 18 hours
to be with his wife, Shima, during the delivery. Drained, he says
he assumed skipping practice the next day wouldn't be a problem
and left a message at the team's facility, informing team
officials of his plans.
Martz, though, never heard anything and was livid. He perceived
Carter's actions as the insolence of a player operating under his
own set of rules. "Kevin needs to look around--other people are
having babies in the world too," says Martz, alluding to the fact
that Warner and left tackle Orlando Pace had been absent when
their children were born during training camp that year and never
missed a practice. Martz benched Carter for the start of that
week's game, against the Atlanta Falcons, and fined him $20,000.
Carter admits that he didn't handle the situation well, and that
his relationship with Martz deteriorated. Martz thought Carter
didn't work hard in games or practice and benched him on two more
occasions. "Kevin feeds off encouragement, not benchings," says
former St. Louis defensive tackle D'Marco Farr, a teammate of
Carter's for six seasons. "If you bench him, it will only be a
negative." For the rest of the season Carter and Martz spoke only
"Anybody who knows me knows I'm emotional," Carter says. "Coach
Vermeil never hung me out to dry. He had me over to his house for
dinner. He addressed players as individuals. He was involved in
my life enough to know to treat me differently than someone else.
My relationship with Mike was different. Sometimes he wouldn't
address me about a problem. He would just do it through the
"When [members of] the media ask you why a player is benched, you
tell them," Martz says. "I called Kevin into my office four or
five times during the year to talk about his problems, and every
time he would say all the right things. In Kevin's mind, he
wasn't playing poorly. I never saw him as a cancer, but I really
think he got into a funk. He could never get the contract issue
out of his mind."
As the Rams' defense--a unit that would surrender a league-high
29.4 points a game--got progressively worse, Carter went into a
shell. He sat by himself in meetings and rarely joked with
teammates. Although Vermeil called twice a week to offer support,
Carter felt like a scapegoat. "You could tell he wasn't happy,"
says New Orleans Saints right tackle Kyle Turley. "This is a guy
who had 17 sacks a season earlier and is talented enough to do it
every year. It was pretty obvious something was bothering him."
"He had given so much and felt he'd made his mark in the
community," says Shima. "He didn't miss a game in six years. It
was a blow to him that all that dedication could be thrown away
Carter finished the season with 10 1/2 sacks. The Rams designated
him their franchise player, assuring themselves compensation in
the event the free agent signed elsewhere. It seemed clear a
divorce was necessary. As Carl Hairston, Carter's position coach
for four seasons, says, "I'm not sure it would have been a good
thing for either side if Kevin had played in St. Louis this
As it happened, the Titans were in the market for a defensive
end, having lost Kenny Holmes to the New York Giants in free
agency. Tennessee sent the 29th selection in the draft to the
Rams--who were looking to stockpile picks so they could rebuild
their defense--in exchange for Carter. He reached terms on a
six-year, $42.75 million contract that included a $3 million
signing bonus. His base salary this year will be only $500,000,
but Carter is also due bonuses of $7 million and $4 million in
2002 and 2003.
There were nonmonetary incentives as well, notably the
opportunity to play for a defensive-minded coach in Jeff Fisher
and for a sympathetic front office that had nearly drafted him
instead of quarterback Steve McNair in 1995. "There are no
questions about his character," says Fisher. "I think things just
got crossed up in St. Louis."
Carter scoffs at the notion that he must redeem himself. After he
signed with Tennessee, a club employee approached Carter, saying
he couldn't wait to see him prove people wrong. "Prove people
wrong?" he says. "I was the best defensive end in football two
He certainly has nothing to prove to Hairston, who is now the
Kansas City Chiefs' defensive line coach. "I don't question
Kevin's effort," Hairston says. "When he turned it loose and just
played, which is something he did the year before last, he was
productive. It's when he started thinking about things, trying to
set things up, trying to create things on the field, that his
production went down. Plus, the other end he played with, Grant
Wistrom, has a motor that never stops. Kevin doesn't have that
same personality, so if somebody wants to make comparisons, he's
never going to match Grant's effort."
Now Carter lines up opposite another end known for his
relentlessness. Kearse, though, endured some trials of his own
last season. After setting the league rookie record for sacks
with 14 1/2 in 1999, he faced blocking schemes in 2000 that were
designed to neutralize him. The Chiefs, for example,
triple-teamed him, using two tight ends and a running back.
Kearse won't admit it, but what bothered him most was chipping, a
tactic in which a running back delivers a blow while the defender
is engaged with an offensive lineman. "The word got around the
league that he hated it," says one AFC assistant. "It frustrated
him because he was getting his ass kicked."
While other Titans benefited from the extra attention Kearse
received--Holmes registered a career-high eight sacks--Kearse
learned to rely on more than his athleticism. In late October he
was further fueled by Fisher, who suggested that he was being
outworked by Holmes. Kearse responded, picking up 8 1/2 of his
11 1/2 sacks over the last eight games and earning his second
consecutive invitation to the Pro Bowl.
"All I did in my first year was line up and come after guys,"
Kearse says. "They weren't used to my speed. Last year they got
used to it, so now I have more power moves, more inside moves."
"People don't see the little things with Jevon," says Titans
reserve defensive end Keith Embray. "He's 6'5", 260, and I've
seen him throw aside 350-pound linemen to make a tackle. I can't
count how many times he has turned the corner on a quarterback
and forced the guy to throw it away. Plus, he's maturing. If you
had told him as a rookie that he was having a down year, he
would've taken it personally. When he heard that talk last year,
he kept doing his job."
Kearse also has grown off the field. Instead of taking two months
away from football to party on South Beach, as he did last
off-season, Kearse has scaled back his club-hopping and been more
vigilant about working out in Nashville. He has also kept his
distance from old friends in drug-infested neighborhoods of his
hometown, Fort Myers, Fla. "I have to worry about who I'm going
to be around," says Kearse, who has an off-season home in the
Miami area. "I still have homeboys in Fort Myers, but instead of
hanging out with them, I'll drive by, wave and keep going.
They're still cool with me, but I can't be around those areas. My
bread and butter is football, and I have to stay focused on
Both Kearse and Carter will need sharp focus this season. Over
the past two years the two have amassed a combined 53 1/2 sacks
(chart, left). Each expects his play to improve, because neither
wants to be outdone by the other. They have always lined up on
the left side in the NFL, but new defensive coordinator Jim
Schwartz plans to move Kearse to right end to take better
advantage of Kearse's quickness as he comes from a right-handed
quarterback's blind side. "No matter how people schemed Jevon
last year, they'll have to change because they have to deal with
Kevin," says Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese. "You can't
take a chance blocking either guy one-on-one."
Kearse sees the potential in the pairing and recently used it as
a sales pitch. In early April, Tennessee Pro Bowl cornerback--and
restricted free agent--Samari Rolle sent Kearse an e-mail saying
that St. Louis was talking about signing Rolle to an offer sheet.
Rolle told Kearse the Rams were enticing because "they have all
the money." Kearse responded by telling Rolle what the future
might hold in Nashville. "I told him we have all the pass rushers
over here," Kearse says. "So if he wanted to have a bigger
paycheck and run around the field all day, he could leave. If he
wanted an easier job, he should stay put."
Rolle is staying put for now. Carter also hopes he has found a
home--and maybe an easier job--playing on the same line with
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERYA.SALTER/CORBIS SABA Double trouble Carter (left) and Kearse, who combined for 53 1/2 sacks the past two years, will join forces.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: TOM DIPACE (2)
Passers ARE THEIR Prey
No pair of defensive ends projected to start in 2001 had more
sacks over the past two seasons than the Titans' Kevin Carter
(above) and Jevon Kearse (opposite).
TEAM PLAYERS (SACKS) TOTAL SACKS
Titans KEVIN CARTER (27 1/2) AND JEVON KEARSE (26) 53 1/2
Bucs SIMEON RICE (24) AND MARCUS JONES (20) 44
Lions ROBERT PORCHER (23) AND TRACY SCROGGINS (15) 38
Redskins MARCO COLEMAN (18 1/2) AND BRUCE SMITH (17) 35 1/2
Ravens MICHAEL MCCRARY (18) AND ROB BURNETT (17) 35
Last season Carter played for the Rams and Rice played for the
Cardinals; in '99 Smith played for the Bills.