Julius Peppers: My Worst Nightmare Coming True in Carolina

Austin Penny@@AustinPennyAnalyst IOctober 1, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 10:  Julius Peppers #90 of the Carolina Panthers looks on from the bench during the fourth quarter of the game against the Arizona Cardinals during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 10, 2009 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Julius Peppers.

Where do I start? Where can I start? I'll start at the beginning.

Peppers was John Fox's first draft pick as head coach of the Carolina Panthers. The city of Charlotte, already excited about having George Seifert out of town and the prospects of Fox turning the franchise around, were ecstatic when then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that the Panthers had selected the University of North Carolina's own Julius Peppers with the second pick in the 2002 draft.

The love affair continued through Peppers' spectacular rookie season. "Pep" tallied 36 tackles, 12 sacks, five forced fumbles, and an interception on his way to earning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He accomplished all of this in 12 games.

Peppers was suspended the for the last four games of the 2002 season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Peppers insisted that the reason for the positive test was linked to a diet supplement he was given by a friend, and Panthers fans—for the most part—believed him. As then-defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said, "Julius wasn't trying to beat the system, he's a good kid who was a little naive."

When Peppers' numbers slacked off in 2003 it went largely unnoticed as the Panthers made their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.  Following the 2003 season, he recorded three straight 10-plus sack seasons while reaching the Pro Bowl in each of them. The Panthers experienced intermediate success and Peppers was considered the key cog in a defensive unit that was known as a decisive force around the NFL.

Then came the 2007 season. Peppers' numbers diminished dramatically as he recorded only 2.5 sacks and 38 total tackles while, for all intents and purposes, completely disappearing. The local media, fans, national media, and even Peppers himself were all befuddled by the drop off. Was Peppers sick, hurt, or was he just lazy? Rumors swirled and people around Charlotte started to ride his back about his poor performance.

He missed the final two games of that season with a knee injury but the damage had already been done. The Panthers' fan base, frustrated by a second straight season without a playoff appearance after making it to the NFC Championship game in 2005, began to question Peppers' heart and determination. 

He was accused of taking plays off, not having his heart in the game, and quitting on the team. He was a popular topic entering the 2008 season—his contract year.  He turned down a long-term contract from the Panthers that would have made him the highest paid defensive player in the NFL, adding fuel to the fanbase's fire. 

When the lights came on for the 2008 season, however, Peppers was back to his old form. He notched a career-high 14.5 sacks and was named to his fourth Pro Bowl.

Still, Peppers was the target of plenty of negativity from fans who insisted he was a slacker and that he was taking plays off.  His effort was questioned on a nearly week-to-week basis and it seemed as though any game that Peppers didn't put up Pro Bowl numbers, he was the main topic of conversation for the week in between games.

When the Panthers were eliminated from the playoffs in January of 2008 by the Cardinals, things turned ugly for Peppers and Carolina.

Peppers made it clear that he was not interested in returning to the Carolina Panthers for the 2009 season and was hell bent on playing as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system somewhere else. 

The Panthers' decision to place the franchise tag on Peppers with their knowledge of his desire to go elsewhere is one of the most debated and heated topics in the history of this franchise. 

Signing Peppers to the franchise tender would mean that the team would owe him about $16.7 million for the 2009 season, or roughly $1 million per regular season game.

The Panthers decided that Peppers was too valuable to let him walk out of the door with no compensation, and handicapped their offseason flexibility by applying the franchise tag to him.

The Panthers, following a 12-4 season that saw their rushing game burst onto the national scene behind a very solid offensive line, watched as the depth that made that line what it was slowly disappeared. Players who were free agents realized that their services could be used elsewhere for more money than the Panthers could offer and took those opportunities. 

The organization was faced with a decision at the outset of the offseason to ink Peppers or Gross to a long term deal and franchise the other. Gross was much more receptive to the long term deal since Peppers was virtually uninterested, and the Panthers, rightly so, took that route.

To put Peppers' franchise tag cost in perspective, he accounts for roughly one-eighth of the Panthers salary cap for their 53-man roster.

After being stuck with the franchise tag, Peppers refused to sign the tender. He demanded out of Carolina by whatever means necessary. Peppers went as far as to make a list of four teams that he would accept a trade to, a list that included the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys.

Neither the Patriots or the Cowboys, despite the rumor mill running rampant, ever made a serious offer for Peppers or displayed any real interest in acquiring the disgruntled defensive end.

Peppers was ripped to shreds in Charlotte through all of the possible outlets. You couldn't mention the team without somebody offering their two cents about the situation.

I was on the side of the organization at the time. You can't let a guy like Peppers walk out of the door with nothing but a lighter wallet. Especially not if he is planning on finding his way onto a roster of a team like Dallas, who is a contender (until December) year in and year out in the NFC, and a team the Panthers would see more often than an AFC team—the most likely destination in a trade.

In the end, Peppers reluctantly signed the franchise tender and declared that he was happy to be in Carolina for the 2009 season and that he was looking forward to building on last year's success.

This is where the story goes from ugly to disgusting. And then from disgusting to sickening.

Peppers entered training camp as the hottest topic for the Panthers. He characteristically ignored the media most days and offered vanilla responses when he decided to speak. 

When the Panthers played poorly in their first couple of exhibition games, Peppers proclaimed that it was "just preseason" and that the team would be able to hit the switch when the regular season kicked off. 

As it stands while I write this, we are three weeks into the regular season and I, along with 99.9% of Panther Nation, have yet to see any switch hit. If it has been hit, I believe it's time to call Duke Energy and pay the bill to get the power turned back on, because this team, particularly this defense, has looked like a junior varsity team thus far.

I could sit here and rip the entire team for their play so far this season, but I won't.  I'm going to put the crosshairs right on their most expensive asset.

Julius Frazier Peppers.

For those of you who aren't aware, I am a lifelong North Carolina Tar Heels fan and have been a fan of the Panthers since I knew what football meant. You can scroll through my article archive if you need an idea of how deep in my heart my ties to this team go.

I can remember watching Peppers play for the Tar Heels in college. I used to watch the games as a young kid with my dad, who would always point out No. 49 and his intensity.  He recorded the second-most sacks in Tar Heels history behind Lawrence Taylor—pretty elite company if you ask me. 

In the winter, when football was over with, Pep would suit up for the Tar Heels' basketball team as a walk-on. Imagine the Incredible Hulk in a basketball uniform, and you'll get a pretty good idea of what he looked like on the court. His enormous hands, rebounding ability, and thunderous dunks were just a few of the reasons that fans in Chapel Hill couldn't wait for the mediocre football team (minus the 2001 Peach Bowl victory over Auburn) to finish up so that Peppers could come off the bench for the Heels. 

Peppers playing two sports—and playing them well—for the Tar Heels led me to actively cheer for him seven months out of every calendar year. From September to March, Peppers was a staple on the television set every week. 

Imagine my level of excitement when the Panthers drafted Peppers in 2002. My favorite Tar Heel was staying in North Carolina and playing for the hometown Panthers. It just doesn't get any better.

For the last seven years, I have watched and pulled for Peppers twice as hard, being a self-admitted Tar Heel homer. When his numbers took a nose dive in 2007, I stood behind him. He had to have been sick or injured. As I can remember telling friends at the time, "He's Julius Freakin' Peppers, he just doesn't have a season like this for no reason."

I proved my point while watching him amass his career high in sacks last year, and defended him against those who called him out for taking plays off. I endured argument after argument about how Peppers was still the best defensive end in the league, and how he seems like he is lazy because he is double and triple teamed by every opponent the Panthers see.

The offseason drama leading up to this season was painful for me. You're telling me that the guy who I have pulled for the hardest for the last ten years of my life wants out?  We aren't good enough for him anymore? He can't maximize his potential in Carolina?  He's Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred, and when he dies he'll be Tar Heel dead...and you're telling me he wants out?

Hard to accept.  But, as they say at least once a day in the wide world of sports, it is a business. If he needs to go elsewhere to be happy, then go. With that being said, I also couldn't watch him walk away without the Panthers getting something in return. 

If I knew then what I know now, I would reverse my position completely. 

As a sports writer in any capacity whether it be for USA Today, ESPN, a local newspaper, or a blog site, it is common to have to sit at the table and eat a nice healthy plate of crow from time to time. 

I refuse to eat this plate.

Its not that I or anyone who has an opinion on the topic is wrong about Peppers, it's that he just plum doesn't care. 

Here is Julius Peppers' situation in every day terms we can all understand.

Imagine yourself at your job. You feel like you are overqualified for the job you have, and want to move on to something bigger and better. Your boss tells you that he isn't willing to let you go at the moment, but he'll pay you $1 million dollars a week for the next 16 weeks and basically give you a chance to audition for any company in your field that would have a use for you in their organization.

I, for one, would bust my ass to make sure that I made a good enough impression on somebody I wanted to work for that they would offer my current boss a deal to acquire my services that he couldn't refuse. 

Peppers played well on opening day. Five tackles, two pass deflections, a sack and a forced fumble were credited to Julius in the team's ugly loss to the Eagles.

Peppers disappeared in Atlanta. He put virtually no pressure on Matt Ryan, he was owned on the offensive line, and he looked lost on several plays as the Panthers took another loss. Okay, a bad game. Happens all the time.

Monday night took the cake for me and completely changed my view on Peppers and his status here in Carolina. All week, and frankly since the schedule was released, it was a given that Peppers would go off in Dallas in front of Jerry Jones on Monday Night Football. Remember that Peppers included the Cowboys on his list of four teams he would accept a trade to in the offseason. Jones has been known to go after high priced, high risk players in the past and Peppers fits right into that mold.

I believe Peppers is still in Dallas, sitting in the locker room waiting for the game to start. I don't believe that I watched Julius Peppers play on Monday night. I watched the shell of one of the most gifted athletes I have ever seen absolutely go through the motions as if the season were already over. 

Peppers was absent on short yardage situations, standing on the sideline with his helmet off looking like he was upset not to be on the field. In one of the few bright coaching moves by the Panthers so far this season, they took Peppers off the field in serious situations because he flat out didn't look like he cared what happened one way or the other.

I saw Peppers on at least one occasion tag a Cowboys' player with two hands on his way by him like he was running around his neighborhood where Mom's call for dinner is the final whistle. I saw Peppers get blown up off the line of scrimmage, then release his engagement with the offensive lineman assigned to him and allow the guy to go block a linebacker, cornerback, or even a safety to pick up a couple of extra yards.

Julius, you have got to be kidding me. 

If you don't pick it up, you're going to be stuck in Carolina forever (or at least as long as Marty Hurney is here). If you really don't want to play here, convince somebody else to give you a chance. Obviously nobody is sold on you or your natural talents because if they were, you wouldn't be wearing the uniform you are disgracing. 

You are picking the wrong time in your career to be turning an indifferent cheek to the organization you are contractually tied to. For $1 million dollars a week, don't you think you could at least pretend like you care?  Don't you think you could at least fall down every now and then to make it look like you gave it a half-ass effort?

Would it kill you to show just a little bit of emotion, or to act like losing phases you?

What makes the situation worse for the Panthers is that they have Peppers teaching Everette Brown the ropes of the NFL. This is a kid we gave up our first round pick in 2010 for...in the second round.  He's got a big enough hill to climb to earn approval in the eyes of the fans and pundits without having Peppers in his ear teaching him how to pout and act like a 230-plus pound baby.

Enough is enough, Pep. If this isn't the most difficult thing I've written while covering the Panthers, it certainly doesn't leave the top three. This goes deeper than the Panthers. Since I was 11 years old, I have looked up to you as one hell of an athlete, and a guy who is successful wherever you go.

Right now, I'm trying to figure out which jersey I should purchase to replace the No. 90 that I usually sport on my back each week.  In fact, I think I'll mail it to you with a copy of this article.

Believe me, I would like nothing more than to sit in this exact spot and write a retraction of this piece at the end of the season, but I don't see it in the cards. 

Pick it up, Pep...please, pick it up.


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