Cornelius Bennett made a big impact everywhere he went during his 14-year NFL career but it all started in the place where he refused to go.
The two-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year was the second player drafted in 1987 after being a three-time All-America at Alabama but his interest in playing for the consistently losing Indianapolis Colts was non-existent. So, for the only time in what many feel may have been a Hall of Fame career, he didn’t show up.
That season was shortened by a player strike and was riven by turmoil, none less important than Bennett’s refusal to sign with the Colts. What that decision led to was a block buster mid-season trade that is considered one of the biggest, and most impactful, in NFL history.
The Colts traded the rights to Bennett to Buffalo for the Bills’ No. 1 picks in 1988 and 1989, their 2nd round pick in 1988 and running back Greg Bell. The Colts then traded that entire package plus their own first and second round picks in 1988, their 2nd round pick in 1989 and running back Owen Gill to the Los Angeles Rams for future Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson. All those picks later morphed into Gaston Green, Aaron Cox, Fred Strickland, Cleveland Gary, Frank Stams and Darryl Henley. The only one to play in a single Pro Bowl was Green but he did it in Denver not Los Angeles. Dickerson’s career also soon faded in Indianapolis, although he did not.
But Cornelius Bennett fulfilled all his vast potential, earning four of his five Pro Bowl trips in Buffalo while also leading its defense to four straight Super Bowl appearances. Later he would move on to Atlanta and start on a defense that took the Falcons to the Super Bowl as well.
In 14 years Bennett started for teams that won eight division titles and five conference championships but went 0-5 in the Super Bowl, leaving him, some argue, one ring short of Hall of Fame induction because, frankly, all the other numbers are there for a player who is now in his 13th year of eligibility without once having made it into the voting room for debate.
Bennett started in 204 of the 206 games in which he played, amassing seven interceptions (one returned for a TD), 31 forced fumbles, 27 fumble recoveries, 71.5 sacks, and 1,190 tackles. Upon his retirement at the end of the 2000 season (ironically with the Colts), those 27 fumble recoveries ranked third in NFL history among defensive players behind only Jim Marshall and Ricky Jackson. Now 18 years later, he’s fourth all time.
Bennett was a disruptive outside linebacker who could rush the passer, cover a receiver or a running back and hold the edge like a cement wall. He was a playmaker of such consequence he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Year twice, in both 1988 and 1991, as well as being selected to the 1990s All-Decade team. If there was a box he didn’t check it was only one - his team never won the season’s final game.
He started in that game four times as part of that remarkable Bills team that went to – and lost – four straight Super Bowls. Eight years later he was back there with the Falcons. He was a significant factor on all five teams.
“He creates havoc,’’ Bills’ head coach and Hall of Famer Marv Levy once said of Bennett. Indeed he did. In fact, it should have been his middle name.
His impact was evident right from the start not only by forcing what became one of the biggest trades in NFL history but by what he did when he finally suited up in Buffalo eight games into that strike-shortened 1987 season.
The Bills defense was allowing an average 30 points per non-strike game that season before Bennett arrived. After he got there that was cut in half to 15. A year later, after a full training camp, Bennett made 103 tackles, had 9 ½ sacks, intercepted two passes, forced three fumbles and recovered all three from his left outside linebacker position. That would prove to be only the beginning.
Known as “Biscuit’’ for much of his life, Bennett formed a terrorizing dynamic duo with future Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith. When one or the other crushed a quarterback, stuffed a runner or forced a turnover they would stand facing each other with chests puffed out, arms folded in front of them nodding to each other dismissively. Opposing teams didn’t like it but they seldom could do anything about it.
When the end finally came for Bennett it ironically was where he’d started out. Or, to be more accurate, where he refused to start out. Back in Indianapolis, where he played his final two seasons, 1999 and 2000. When that moment arrived, Cornelius Bennett knew it.
“During a practice of my last year, it honestly felt like a movie script," he once said. "The sun was going down, and I happen to be looking at the sunset. I’m down on one knee on the practice field and here I am watching the sun go down and right then and there, I just knew I’d be satisfied if I never played again.”
At the end of that 2000 season, he was rightfully well satisfied with what he’d done with his career. So were the team he played for. When he walked away, he never looked back. Apparently, neither have some Hall of Fame voters, who regularly include Bennett among their first round of nominees but have yet to advance him even to the semi-final 25 (15 usually reach the final debate on the day before the Super Bowl, with that number increasing only if there are ties in the voting).
Bennett’s numbers stack up well with Hall of Famers Dave Robinson, Chris Hanburger and his friend, Robert Brazile. All three finally reached the Hall via the deep waters of the Senior Committee but Bennett will not be eligible to dive into that pool for another seven years and so he waits to see again this year if he will move from a list of 102 “preliminary finalists’’ to the semi-final list of 25. In February the aptly nicknamed “Dr. Doom’’ had a bit of advice for the 53-year-old Bennett, who continues to wait patiently for one last shot at NFL glory.
“Last year at this time, people were asking me if I was deserving, or if I should be in and I was giving Cornelius the information that I live by,’’ Brazile said after finally being voted into the Hall. “There’s so many deserving football players that’s out there. Luckily, he’s one of them. All I can tell him is to be patient because if he left it on the field, if you did what you had to do on the football field, it will take care of itself. That was my philosophy for years and years…it’s bittersweet at the other end of it but if he can wait and they call him and he gets that knock on the door, he’ll understand what I’m talking about.”
Bennett has taken Brazile’s advice to heart. Unlike some former players he is not demanding a rightful place in Canton nor is he assailing the process as somehow blind to his production. Just as he has accepted his fate of being on the wrong end of five Super Bowls, knowing that if he had been able to win even one of them he might already be a Hall of Famer, Bennett has accepted that maybe this year – or next - will finally be the one.
"I know there's nothing I can do," Bennett said. "I left everything on the field. I feel as though I'm deserving of it, if you look at my body of work. So (Brazile) just gave me a piece of advice: Just be patient. It's going to happen. And when it happens, it's going to be the right time. So I don't get discouraged or anything. It’s part of the journey.’’
For Cornelius Bennett it was a Hall of Fame journey that has left him content with life and financially independent enough to do what he wants when he wants. Anything that is, but enter the Hall of Fame. For that to happen 48 voters need to take a hard look at his production and the disruptive nature of his play.
If they do what they’ll find, as Marv Levy said, is that Cornelius Bennett created havoc. He also created a career that deserves debate before the Hall of Fame selection committee.