The lights would go off in our high school English class, and all hell would break loose. People would throw wads of paper, make funny noises, and generally revert into ancestral chimps. I was one of them. Our teacher was good-natured about it, but often said, “Yes, you do exist.” He was an odd guy, but whip smart. It was his subtle way of pointing out our immaturity, and it always stuck with me. You do exist, even when nobody can see you. Nobody embodies that more than new Hall of Fame Inductee, Cortez Kennedy. Seattle has never seen a more dominant defensive player. His dominance was so complete that playing on a terrible team in “Southern Alaska” did not hold him back from gaining league-wide acclaim, and now Hall of Fame recognition.
Kennedy joined the Seahawks in 1990 after being drafted 3rd overall out of Miami (back when the Hurricanes mattered in college football). Joe Nash and Jeff Bryant manned the middle of the defense back then, and Kennedy didn’t get a chance to start until 1991. His impact was immediate, piling up 6.5 sacks as an interior lineman in that first season. But it was not until 1992 that Kennedy truly announced his arrival. On what was arguably the worst team in Seahawks franchise history (2-14, lowest scoring team in modern NFL history), Kennedy turned in one of the NFL’s most dominating seasons. He piled up an insane 14.0 sacks and 92 tackles. The league did not track tackles for loss, but Kennedy played that entire season in the opponents backfield. He easily would have racked up a tackles for loss total in the high teens, and quite possibly got into the mid-20s. Nobody could block him. No two bodies could block him.
There was no doubt that he was the best defender in the NFL that year, but there is always doubt that a Seattle player will get his due, especially on such a terrible team. In fact, of the 41 players that have been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, only five have played for a team that did not make the playoffs. Of those five, only Jason Taylor of the 2006 Dolphins (6-10) and Kennedy played on a team more than two games below .500. The Seahawks were twelve games below.500.
Kennedy was a rare breed of greatness
League awards are always a popularity contest to some extent, and none of the voters have time to really research and follow all the teams across the league. They rely on the stats, and on the teams making the most headlines. The fact that Kennedy managed to win the award in 1992 before the Internet era is all the more impressive. It was also completely deserved.
Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant are dominating players, at times, for the current Seahawks. Each approaches Pro Bowl consideration. Neither are in the same stratosphere as where Kennedy was in his prime. It is hard to think of another defensive tackle that compares. Warren Sapp was dominant, but very different type of player. Kennedy was huge, where Sapp was almost undersized. Sapp attacked upfield through creases in the offensive line. Kennedy was more like King Kong rumbling in any direction he chose with lineman helplessly hanging on.
Kennedy went to eight Pro Bowls and was 1st Team All-Pro three times. Walter Jones is the only Seahawk with a more decorated career, with nine Pro Bowls and four All-Pro selections. Jones may be the best comparison to Kennedy in terms of dominance. They played different roles, but opponents were similarly helpless when facing them. I would pay good money to see them face off in their primes just in one-on-one pass rush drills.
As great as Kennedy was, he was too often surrounded by ineptitude. The Seahawks were 76-100 (0.432 winning percentage) during his career. He suffered through Stan Gelbaugh, Dan McGwire, Kelly Stouffer, Rick Mirer, and John Friesz. He played on only two winning teams, and made only one appearance in the playoffs near the end of his career. He never demanded a trade. He never put himself above the team. Seattle was lucky to witness his greatness, and may never see another like him. Congrats, Tez. Well earned.