No true Panther fan has been at a loss for storylines this season.
There was the ever-present quarterback controversy (Delhomme or anyone else), the massive injury list, another season with outspoken Steve Smith, the inability of the team to develop young wide receivers, draft decisions, defensive and offensive game plans and formations, the future of coach John Fox and General Manager Marty Hurney, the departure of owner Jerry Richardson's two sons, the inevitable "rebuilding" process that is bound to happen sooner rather than later, and of course, the million-dollar-a-game Julius Peppers.
Along with all of these storylines, there is scarcely one overriding opinion on any of them, except that once again the Panthers underperformed after overachieving a year before, and once again John Fox cannot earn two winning seasons in a row.
But after last night's Vikings/Panthers game—thankfully for once—the major story-lines have to deal with performances: Matt Moore's, Steve Smith's and Julius Peppers'.
For Peppers, last night's performance was of the mold expected out of an elite defensive lineman, one being paid $16 million a year. It wasn't the statistic line (1 tackle, 1 sack), but the pressure placed on Brett Favre throughout the game.
If someone was to go back and watch the tape of the game, Peppers was placed on an island. The defensive front was aligned in an asymmetrical 4-3 formation with all of the emphasis placed on the left of the defense and Peppers alone outside right, one against however many the Vikings put up against him.
It didn't matter. There was no stopping Peppers, not with a double team, not even when starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie was benched for reserve lineman Artis Hicks. Peppers had his way.
McKinnie claimed it was "an off day," but unfortunately for McKinnie, it was actually an "on-day" for Peppers, one of very few lately for the defensive lineman.
And that's the problem with Julius Peppers, it appears he has an "off" and "on" switch somewhere inside of himself, and it is as if he is the only able to turn it from off to on.
Before last night's game, anyone could have argued that Peppers' broken hand had affected his recent play, but clearly, it didn't stop him from performing, so it can't be used as an excuse.
But this year, Peppers has lodged two games where he has not recorded a tackle or a sack. Twice, there has been a zero logged in every category on his stat sheet. Should a million-dollar-a-game NFL player ever garner such results?
During the past off-season, Peppers wanted a trade. He wanted a trade to a top-tier team, and he felt he deserved top dollar for his services. The Panthers felt the same way, franchising him which forces two first round draft picks from any team involved in a trade.
However, any recent observer of Peppers can claim that more often than not he does not show up when it counts. Even though Peppers had a career year with 14.5 sacks in 2008, not one came when the team needed it. Never did he have a game changer. In last year's playoff run, Peppers never showed up, especially not in the blowout against the Arizona Cardinals.
Peppers' 2008 season was the definition of a player playing for a new contract.
He can claim it's the defensive alignment, or the lack of other elite players on the line which allows opposing teams to double team him, but is this true? In too many losing games this year, Peppers has been the victim of single blocking schemes, and still his performances are inconsistent.
Even though the team plays in a 4-3 (not the 3-4 Peppers covets), a talented linebacking crew along with a fluid front four with added playmakers, like draft pick Everette Brown, have helped to tweak the defensive line to favor Peppers, and yet...Peppers flounders.
He sucks up cap space, he's insolent and disrespectful to the franchise that has catered to him throughout his career (I only say this as he went to the media to try and force a trade as well as holdout until the very last minute as far as this year's preseason was concerned, and would only entertain a trade to certain terms, thereby limiting Carolina's opportunities to get a strong return on a trade), and he is distant with the media (unless he's trying to move teams).
Performances like last night against the Vikings only lead to more confusion with Peppers. If he can dominate a game against a playoff caliber team with such ease, then why isn't the season riddled with such displays? If so many analysts and fans can see when he is "on" and when he has switched "off," then why switch off?
It doesn't just affect a team he is unhappy with, it affects his market and trade value come next season.
Right now would be the perfect time for Peppers to reach out to the media and the fans and explain his situation and point of view.
It won't happen as that's not Julius Peppers, but there has to be a better explanation than the belief that Peppers is a self-centered, selfish, me-first type of athlete that squanders his exceptional talent and ruins his legacy because he is not happy.
Whether Peppers returns next year (highly unlikely at $20 million), he is franchised and traded to another team, or waived (who knows? It's probably in Carolina's best interest), he'll continue to be viewed as a player that doesn't play hard every down and every game, that once he gets his money, doesn't earn it and takes it straight to the bank.
What team is going to want him? What elite team will pay market value for a player that may or may not show up? Personally, I feel most teams that need that last impact will look elsewhere.
It leaves the Panthers with few choices. And it leaves Peppers with little likelihood of getting paid as much as he did this year, and there's a good chance he won't be playing for that Superbowl contender he wants.
All it does is leave Panthers fans without an explanation from one of the most talented defensive ends of all time after they have given their support, love and tears to a player that promised that he was no longer disgruntled and would play his heart out all season long.
Like most events in life, Panthers fans shouldn't expect one.
Instead, come next year, they should just move on and spend their time rooting for players that will give it all in every game, in every year of their contract—that is, as long as the owner, general manager, and coach allow as much instead of agreeing to franchise crippling contracts with athletes that have demonstrated questionable production rates (to be fair to Julius Peppers, he isn't the only one).