- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Like most professional athletes, Jevon Kearse is a proud guy.
He also likes to laugh and joke. More often than not these days, in things related to football, he's smiling. At a news conference where he was reintroduced by the Tennessee Titans in March, he was giddy.
But he knows he's still the brunt of jokes in Philadelphia, a punch line. He knows he'll be used as Exhibit A on how leaving a good situation for a big-money free-agent contract might be simultaneously great for one's bank account and terrible for one's career. He knows many aren't expecting some great resurrection in his return to Tennessee, but a confirmation that he's injury-prone and done.
The big contract and the failure with the Eagles are history, and like a lot of players on Tennessee's roster, Kearse qualifies as a big question mark.
In 1999, the Titans drafted the former Florida star 16th overall. If Kearse can approach the form he showed in his first five NFL seasons, Tennessee might be able to maintain or even build on the excellent line play that was the defense's catalyst last year.
If he can't, no matter what Antwan Odom is doing in Cincinnati or how Travis LaBoy is faring in Arizona, Titans fans will lament those free-agent losses and the 14 sacks that left town with them. Beyond Kearse at left end, the Titans have players who are young and unproven.
Kearse remains immensely popular in Nashville. Though he was not far removed from a DUI charge from a stop near the Vanderbilt campus, he got the loudest welcome of a star-studded lineup at coach Jeff Fisher's charity softball game Saturday night. He's an electric, magnetic personality whose physique, if not his play, remains worthy of the label "The Freak."
The defensive end hardly sells himself as a victim in what unfolded in Philadelphia. Still, he says the two-gap style he was asked to play -- the way he was asked to start with his feet parallel rather than in a sprinter's stance with one foot forward -- and way the Eagles deployed him were largely responsible for his poor showing.
But coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson are smart and successful coaches who surely would have adjusted things to better suit Kearse had they believed something else would have worked better for a player given an eight-year, $66 million contract with $20 million in bonuses in the first three years.
Now Kearse knows exactly what will be asked of him since he's back in Tennessee, playing for the head coach (Jeff Fisher), the coordinator (Jim Schwartz) and the position coach (Jim Washburn) who were in place in 2003, Kearse's last season in Nashville.
All three are believers that Kearse, who returned for a two-year, $6 million deal with a $1.3 million signing bonus, can approach his old form and help stabilize a depleted line.
Schwartz said Kearse looked good to him early the past two seasons before suffering a serious injury in 2006 and wearing down and losing his spot in the lineup in 2007.
"The 2006 season he had 3½ sacks in the first two games then he got the knee injury and missed the rest of the year," Schwartz said. "But he was on his way to a big-time season. Watch those games and you were like, '[Shoot], that's what he [still] looks like.' Then last year, early in the season he looked like what I remembered. You watch games later and he wore down eventually with his knee and got replaced in the lineup. He just wasn't able to sustain it.
"When he's been healthy, I haven't noticed a whole lot of drop-off in what we remembered and what fans [here] are used to."
I think he sort of realizes [coming back] wasn't for the money as much as it was to sort of restore his name a little bit. He's a punch line of some jokes. In Philadelphia he's a joke. I still think he has some ability if he can stay healthy.
--Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn on Jevon Kearse.
Seven different injuries have sidelined Kearse in nine seasons, costing him 30 games. But he still has 69½ sacks in 111 regular-season appearances.
Some in the Titans camp thought Kearse either wasn't the same player or was not a cost-effective risk after he fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot on the second play of the season in 2002. After the 2003 season, Tennessee wasn't really in the running when he was an unrestricted free agent. He said Seattle was other team that was tempting before he went to the Eagles right as free agency opened.
As Kearse readies for a second go-round in Nashville, the Titans' concerns over his durability have been eased by his dedication to their offseason program. Traditionally at this time of the year, he has returned to his Florida home.
When he returned to Nashville, he passed on an offer to repurchase his old house there, choosing to live closer to the team's facility for easier access. This spring and summer, he's been a regular at team headquarters, participating in workouts and getting to know his teammates. Only five players remain from the Titans' outfit he left.
"He's never had an offseason before other than his rookie year here, he's never done all this," said Washburn, who oversaw Kearse's conversion to defensive end, which paid dividends with a rookie-record 14½ sacks, a defensive rookie of the year award and a Super Bowl appearance in the 1999 season. "He sure seems to be different than he was the first go-around.
"I think he sort of realizes [coming back] wasn't for the money as much as it was to sort of restore his name a little bit. He's a punch line of some jokes. In Philadelphia he's a joke. I still think he has some ability if he can stay healthy."
Kearse scoffs at the idea that he will be used as a situational pass-rusher, asking a questioner just who's suggesting that.
He likely will qualify for some practices off as the team looks to be careful with his workload in training camp, during which Schwartz said the Titans will make their initial determination about Kearse's role in the defense.
They'll say, 'Why the hell did we let that dude go? What were they thinking?'
--Jevon Kearse, on what Eagles fans will think after his 2008 season with the Titans
"That's going to be up to him," Schwartz said. "If he's healthy and he's playing well then we're not going to want him off the field either."
Kearse's playing time might also be affected, in part, by how well two youngsters out of small schools fare -- rookie fourth-rounder William Hayes out of Winston Salem-State and Jacob Ford, a sixth-rounder out of Central Arkansas in 2007 who missed his entire rookie season after tearing an Achilles tendon.
Five of the team's eight defensive ends have 21 games of experience or less. Pro Bowler Kyle Vanden Bosch is locked in on the right side, but the only other player with a significant NFL résumé, Bryce Fisher, showed very little last season.
Off the field, Kearse knows he's got to focus. His June DUI arrest in Nashville embarrassed him, and he's hired high-profile Nashville lawyer Roger May to handle the case. The initial court date is July 14.
Kearse has adopted the chip-on-his-shoulder cliché with a twist, turning the chip into a boulder. He said there isn't a player in the league looking forward to the season more than he is. At the end of the 2008 season, what will Eagles fans think of him?
"They'll say, 'Why the hell did we let that dude go?'" Kearse said. "'What were they thinking?'
"But everything happens for a reason. Maybe it was a good reason: So I can get pissed off and get more motivated."
Paul Kuharsky covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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