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Re-Living ‘99: Kevin Carter, the ‘99 sack champion who played in the shadows

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The Hall of Dependable? The Hall of Great? Rams’ Carter belongs in many places, including the backfield

Kevin Carter #93

Re-living ‘99: A week-to-week look back on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.

In some ways I feel like Kevin Carter played in the shadows. He had all the makings at one point of a pass rusher who wouldn’t be blocked out of Canton by any tackle and even today has a body of work that makes you wonder why he wouldn’t be enshrined in a few more places but Carter remains a mystery and at times I wonder if some people think they only imagined him.

Ask someone about Kevin Carter and they may ask if you’re talking about the photojournalist who died a year before the football player was drafted.

Ask a football fan about Kevin Carter, that pass rusher from the 90s, you know, he played on the Rams, but don’t get offended if for a few moments they mistake him for Kevin Greene. Maybe instead they’ll get confused about the decade and think you mean Andre Carter.

Ask a non-football fan about Kevin Carter from the 90s and they may reply back, “Was he in Backstreet Boys or N’Sync?”

But there were at least 104.5 moments that a quarterback wished he had only imagined Kevin Carter.

It might sound crazy but it ain’t no lie: Kevin Carter finished his career with more sacks than Hall of Famers Charles Haley, Andre Tippett, and Howie Long. He played in 224 of a possible 224 games throughout his career, plus nine playoff games and a Super Bowl championship. If he were in the Hall of Fame, there would be people who would say “That isn’t right” but that is also what they say about some players who are currently in there.

Setting aside Hall of Fame arguments for Carter or anyone else, I instead want to focus on the question that’s been on people’s minds for centuries in some ways: What separates Kevin Carter from a Hall of Famer?

Or in other words: What can make a person so good but not so great?

Kevin Carter was born on September 21, 1973 in Miami. He was a highly-regarded football player at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee and recognized for having great character off of the field, a reputation he has upheld with honors and positions he’s taken in college, the pros, and after his career ended. He went to the University of Florida, was extremely reliable and as a senior was named a first team All-American.

The St. Louis Rams 1995 draft class was nearly a full-on disaster as they selected 10 players and by 1999 only one remained: Carter. Picks used on second round center Jesse James and third round kicker Steve McLaughlin went about as poorly as they could but landing Carter at six was nearly as good as the Rams could have hoped.

Not any one of the five players selected ahead of him would have been likely to do as much for the franchise as Carter. He did go ahead of three Hall of Famers in that first round (Warren Sapp, Ty Law, Derrick Brooks) but what more could St. Louis have ever asked for in 1999 than Carter?

As a rookie in 1995, Carter’s six sacks was tied for the second-most for a rookie behind the 10 of Hugh Douglas with the New York Jets.

In 1996, Carter posted 9.5 sacks, five less than Greene, who left the Rams in 1993 to join the Pittsburgh Steelers, then by 1996 had traversed to play with the Carolina Panthers for one year. His sacks dipped by a small amount the next year but in 1998, Carter posted 12 sacks. At 25, he was two years younger than any of the 10 players who had at least 12 sacks that season.

But he was not named to the Pro Bowl. Despite his high total, six players in the NFC, including Greene and Douglas, had more than him. Not the most fortunate timing in 1998.

He had near-perfect timing in 1999.

So far in this series I have not mentioned Kevin Carter much and maybe that’s why I’m writing out Kevin Carter so many times. So he’s not in the shadows anymore. Even without me writing Kevin Carter nearly as many times as I’ve written D’Marco Farr, he’s managed to accumulate 11.5 sacks over these first 11 games I’ve covered.

That included 8.5 sacks over a four-game period but two of those were losses. And though he could bunch up his sacks in ‘99, Carter also did something else rare in that — as you’ve come to expect from Kevin Carter — he was extremely reliable.

Sacks have been a stat since 1982 and in that time there’ve been 123 seasons of a player posting at least one sack in 10 games of one season. Carter had 10 games with at least one sack in 1999. It’s impressive though at 123 seasons, I’m not saying it’s off the charts impressive. Andre Carter did that. Andre Tippett did that. Howie Long did that. Kevin Greene did that three times.

But what if you include the playoffs?

Since 1982, only 10 players have posted at least one sack in 13 games, including playoffs. That list doesn’t include the other Andres, or Long, or even Greene. It does include Kevin Carter. 1999.

It’s now the first game of December of that season and the Rams are traveling to Carolina, three weeks after they beat them at home by 25 points. Carter had 2.5 sacks in that game, Greene had none for the losing side. What will happen this time around?

Week 1 - Rams 27, Ravens 10

Week 2 - BYE

Week 3 - Rams 35, Falcons 7

Week 4 - Rams 38, Bengals 10

Week 5 - Rams 42, 49ers 20

Week 6 - Rams 41, Falcons 17

Week 7 - Rams 34, Browns 3

Week 8 - Titans 24, Rams 21

Week 9 - Lions 31, Rams 27

Week 10 - Rams 35, Panthers 10

Week 11 - Rams 23, 49ers 7

Week 12 - Rams 43, Saints 12

Week 13 - St. Louis Rams at Carolina Panthers, December 5, 1999

Had the Rams played like the Rams of 1998, Carolina might have been a playoff team in 1999. They went 8-8 and were feeling pretty good about themselves following a 1-3 start but they were battered by St. Louis on the field and in the trenches. That included Greene, who spent 1997 with the San Francisco 49ers but returned to the Panthers and posted 15 sacks in 1998 at age 36.

He truly would leave no doubt about Canton.

Carolina had won three of their last four, the only loss coming to the Rams. This one would feel over rather quickly and yet it became one of St. Louis’s biggest scares in a season of relatively few scares.

This is the longest highlight reel I could find if you’d prefer to watch it rather than read me write about it.

In the previous game, the Panthers took a 7-0 lead before quickly learning that as much as a Steve Beuerlein pick-six could shift the tide back in the Rams favor. In one respect, this game would be exactly like the last one. Not in the respect of how it starts though.

St. Louis took a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter when Kurt Warner threw his third touchdown of the day, his second to Az-Zahir Hakim, both coming in just under 50 yards.

When it didn’t seem like Carolina had the talent, strategy, or energy to keep up with the Rams, Beuerlein quite literally took over the offense. They ran 15 plays and 14 of them were passes. That included an 11-yard completion to Patrick Jeffers on 4th-and-10 and a 15-yard touchdown to Wesley Walls, a five-time Pro Bowl tight end with a Super Bowl championship who is also in some hall with Carter but not the Hall of Fame.

21-7.

Nearly about to let the beat drop on this channeling of a much better player than he typically was, Beuerlein got the ball to start the second half and despite being sacked by Carter on the first play, had the Panthers with 1st-and-10 at the St. Louis 22. His next pass however was intercepted by Todd Lyght, the second time in four games that Lyght has picked off Beuerlein.

But Warner was channeling Beuerlein a bit in the third quarter and they got the ball right back. On 3rd-and-1, Carter sacked Beuerlein and forced a fumble, but it was recovered by Carolina’s Chris Terry for a first down. The drive ended in a 36-yard touchdown pass to Donald Hayes.

21-14.

After a field goal extended the lead back to 10, Beuerlein did an even more Warner-like move and found Jeffers for a one-play, 71-yard touchdown drive.

24-21 and it’s the fourth quarter. A missed Jeff Wilkins field goal gives the ball right back to the Panthers with a chance to tie or take the lead at home with Warner seemingly off his game now. At midfield and targeting his best receiver, Muhsin Muhammad, Beuerlein again finds the wrong player.

This time it is Dre’ Bly and he goes 53 yards.

31-21.

Some more minutes pass, Carter adds another sack, the Rams go home winners again.

FINAL SCORE: Rams 34, Panthers 21

Record: 10-2

Kurt Warner: 22-of-31, 351 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 1 sack

Marshall Faulk: 22 carries, 118 yards, six catches, 79 yards

Isaac Bruce: 6 of 7 targets, 111 yards

Az-Zahir Hakim: 4 of 5 targetes, 122 yards, 2 TD

Sacks: Kevin Carter (2.5), Dexter McCleon, Nate Hobgood-Chittick (.5)

Interceptions: Dre’ Bly, Todd Lyght

Game Recap (ESPN):

“Rams clinch first title since ‘85”

Dick Vermeil doled out bear hugs by the dozens. Georgia Frontiere wrote a special poem. Kurt Warner tried on his commemorative T-shirt and found it to be a perfect fit. The St. Louis Rams capped their unlikely rise from NFC West doormats to division champions with a 34-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

“I came here thinking we could get it done,” said an emotional Vermeil, hired as Rams coach in 1997 after a 14-year coaching hiatus. Frontiere, the team owner who took a chance on Vermeil, went to the locker room after the game to give him a poem she wrote especially for the occasion.

“Except for my children and my grandchildren, this is my life,” she said. “I knew that if he had enough time, he could handle it.”

Off in a corner of the locker room, Warner, the Arena Football League refugee, soaked in the celebration scene, holding his NFC West champions baseball cap and T-shirt as he tried to gather his thoughts. With four regular-season games left, Warner has 32 scoring passes, one more than Jim Everett’s team-record 31 in 1988.

“The records are nice,” he said, “but we want something that can never be taken away from us. We want that little ring.”

Warner threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, including a pair to Az-Zahir Hakim.

“We felt we were good enough to do this,” Warner said. “There were no questions in our minds. Now we’ve gone out and shown everybody.”

St. Louis, which improved to 10-2 for the first time since 1978, had not been to the playoffs since 1989. After winning their first six division games by an average of 25 points, the Rams wrapped up the crown by weathering the Panthers’ second-half rally.


The NFL’s instant replay rule had a role in the touchdown that cut the Panthers’ deficit to 21-14 with 5:13 left in the third quarter.

The Rams challenged a ruling that St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones had fumbled an interception return that was recovered by Carolina’s Chris Terry. But the 90-second review clock expired without the officials reaching a decision, so the call stood, giving the Panthers the ball at the St. Louis 49.

Five plays later, Beuerlein found Hayes streaking down the right sideline for the score.

Final Takeaway

Kevin Greene posted 12 sacks with the Panthers in 1999 and retired. He was almost as good of a guarantee as Kevin Carter to healthy for game day but way more productive. Greene’s 160 sacks ranks third all-time and 72.5 came with the Rams. Greene had 10 seasons in his career with double-digit sacks but even he only made the Pro Bowl five times.

It gives you greater perspective to think about how hard it can be to make that roster at certain positions and in certain eras — and yes there are a whole other set of flaws with Pro Bowl voting besides that — and a reason to not give it as much of a thought when you see that a certain player only went two times.

In a season where Kurt Warner was the main story at the time and perhaps the only story (along with the whole Rams offense) left to remember, St. Louis also had the league-leader in sacks in 1999. Greene twice posted 16.5 sacks during his time in Los Angeles with the team but Carter tallied 17 as a counter-punch for the Rams when the offense was taking a water break.

Could he have been helped by the fact that his team was often leading, by a lot, early, and forcing opponents into more passing attempt over the course of the game? It’s worth mentioning but ultimately whatever opportunities Carter was given, he had earned them over the course of his football career to that point.

And so on from then.

Carter was a first team All-Pro in 1999 and in case I forget to mention it later, had one sack in each playoff game. He spent one more season with the Rams before being traded to the Tennessee Titans for a first round pick that was used on defensive tackle Ryan Pickett. Carter had 10 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in 2002, but was never above six sacks in any of his final six seasons.

He was however always available, reliable, and he did considerably more than necessary to justify himself as a high draft pick. He just wasn’t quite at that level above. What is it that makes that difference in people? What is it that makes Kevin Carter into Kevin Carter and Kevin Greene into Kevin Greene? Or Reggie White into Reggie White?

Carter had no lack of work ethic or physical talent necessary to become a star recruit and a prized draft pick and then his career was very good. His older brother Bernard Carter, seemingly having the same advantages and disadvantages as Kevin, was a fifth round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and played in part of one NFL season.

Why Kevin Carter and not Bernard Carter?

Why Kevin Greene and not Kevin Carter?

What makes someone the shadow and someone else the tree when they’re in many ways identical? I’m not sure but whether it was Kevin Carter or Kurt Warner or Marshall Faulk, the ‘99 Rams had plenty of trees.

Up Next: at New Orleans Saints