Would it be possible for a NFL player to have his best statistical year, get voted to his fourth Pro Bowl, and come just one vote shy of being first team All Pro yet still be widely criticized as having a sub-par year? If that player is Julius Peppers, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
For the last several years Peppers has borne the brunt of an endless stream of criticism from local media and sports talk shows who characterize him as an underachiever, someone who takes plays off, and a player who lacks intensity. The most hurtful personal charge levied against him is that he simply lacks heart.
Players are instructed not to read the newspapers or listen to the pundits who incessantly critique, chastise, and criticize their play. It would be difficult to believe, however, that the unceasing negativity directed his way over the last few years has not worn on Peppers and finally led to his desire to depart the state where he was born and bred, educated and elevated to stardom.
This season Peppers was in the final year of his contract and neither he nor Panther’s management seemed overly concerned about hammering out a new deal before the season ended. In the moments following their disappointing loss to the Cardinals, Peppers was asked about his plans for the upcoming year.
“Ideally, I want to be in the best possible situation for myself and for this organization,” Peppers said. “I’m thankful for everything they’ve done for me. I don’t want to leave them crippled or in a bad situation and I don’t want to do that to myself either. Whatever works out best for both sides is what I’m comfortable with.”
Five months removed from the game and after failing to show up for the team’s mini-camp, we now clearly understand Julius’ jargon. What he was saying in the post-game interview was simply this, “I’m outta here!”
The official line from Peppers went like this: "The front office has been informed of my desire to explore opportunities with other NFL teams following the expiration of my contract next month. At this point in my NFL career, I am seeking new challenges that will allow me to grow, develop and reach my personal potential on the football field. I strongly feel that making a move at this time is in my best interest. I appreciate the entire Panthers organization and am thankful for the seven seasons I've spent with the team."
Was this just a ploy to extract more money from management? Not according to Pepper’s agent.
“Julius is firm in his decision that he needs a change,” Carl Carey said. “He feels that he can thrive in another system. While he has been selected to four Pro Bowls and designated as an All-Pro during his career, he feels that he has yet to develop to his full potential. This is the case of a great player who seeks to become an elite one.”
When asked if that means Peppers doesn’t want to play for the Panthers again under any circumstances, Carey responded, “That’s right. He’s ready to move on.”
What led to this failed marriage between Peppers and the Panthers? It seems to be a case of unfulfilled expectations. The truth is that these expectations may have been unrealistic.
Peppers was raised in the small Tarheel town of Bailey and achieved almost mythical status there for his athletic achievements. His passion was basketball, and for four consecutive years he was voted All-Conference as a 6' 5", 225 pound power forward at Southern Nash High School.
The football coach there salivated at the thought of this manchild suiting up for the home team. During his high school career, Peppers played running back and defensive lineman, and finished his career with 3501 rushing yards, 46 touchdowns, and was one of the most feared defensive linemen in the state.
Peppers showed his surreal sporting skills by also starring in track. In 1998 he won state championships in the triple jump and as a member of the 4x200 meter relay team and anchored the school’s first state championship in track.
As a senior, he was named to the PARADE All-America team in football as an all-purpose talent, and was also named Male Athlete of the Year by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. In 2005, Peppers was named by the Rocky Mount Telegram newspaper as one of the 50 Greatest Athletes from the Nash/Edgecombe area.
The legend of Peppers only grew when he went to UNC. He was a solid basketball player for the Heels and is one of only two people to ever play in both the NCAA basketball Final Four and the NFL Super Bowl.
Football was where Peppers most excelled at Carolina. He was a dominant force at defensive end. In 2001 he won the Chuck Bednarik Award for the nation's top defensive player and the Lombardi Award as the best collegiate lineman.
Peppers was taken by the Panthers with the second pick (behind ex-Panther bust David Carr) in the 2002 NFL draft. Peppers showcased his freakish athletic abilities at the NFL combine by running a 4.68 40 yard dash at 290 pounds and completing 22 bench press reps.
Peppers made an immediate impact and was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press. During his rookie season, Peppers tallied 36 tackles, 12 sacks, one interception, and five forced fumbles. On October 13, 2002, Peppers became only the third player in NFL history to amass three sacks and an interception in the same game.
All of this was accomplished in an abbreviated season. With four games remaining, Peppers was suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy for taking a banned dietary supplement.
At times during his rookie year, he looked absolutely unblockable. He was the prototype for a new era of defensive lineman: catlike quick, Superman strong, and dynamically disruptive. Surely the record for most sacks in a year and a career would be owned by this insanely talented hulk before the curtain closed on his incredible act.
Although Peppers is the Panthers all-time sacks leader, despite the fact that he has blocked eight kicks, even though he has been invited four times to the sun-n-fun of the Hawaii Pro Bowl, nothing less than perfection from Peppers seems to be good enough. Fans always seem to expect a little more than Peppers has produced.
The criticism reached a fevered pitch in 2007 when Peppers had a dismal season in which he had only 2.5 sacks and seemed to lack motivation and intensity. It almost seems like Peppers could not possibly have done enough this year to please many Panthers fans.
So soon he will be gone. We will be forced to find another scapegoat for the defense’s disappearance, Delhomme’s disastrous games, local unemployment, global warming, or the nation’s economic woes.
Julius is exiting stage left, and many are saying “Good riddance!”
The old adage is that you never appreciate what you have until it’s gone. This will be true with Julius Peppers.
Never a clubhouse distraction, no negative headlines á la Kerry Collins or Rae Carruth, a positive influence in the community, respected enough by his teammates to be named the defensive captain, and perennially double digits in sacks, players like Peppers are definitely not a dime a dozen.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, who was informed of Peppers' decision in a meeting with Carey in Houston on Thursday, did not return phone calls Saturday but released a statement through a team spokesman.
"Obviously, Carl's comments are disappointing," Hurney said. "We have consistently reiterated to Carl in a number of ways how much we value Julius and we plan to continue having ongoing communications."
Pepper’s value will only be fully realized after he is gone. He was a good teammate, a player the Panthers could be proud of both on and off the field, and a defender who still has a lot of tread on his tires.
He was simply a victim. A victim of his own success.