NOTE: Every once in a while, I do requests. Today’s post is in response to one — and while I claim no special insight or inside access on this topic, that at least puts me on an even footing with a few thousand sports bloggers out there.
The “whither Julius Peppers” story is cranking up again for the Carolina Panthers, fast becoming our region’s version of the annual off-season “will Brett Favre retire — and stay that way — or won’t he” saga. Only I’d guess that this one will have a much shorter shelf life, being dependent more on the economics of the game than one man’s whim.
Or maybe not. Peppers, a veteran linebacker out of North Carolina, tried to leave the Panthers at the end of the 2008 season, and the team almost struck a deal sending him to the New England Patriots. But Carolina management tagged him as its “franchise player,” for the 2009 season, meaning that he wasn’t free to sign with another club. But in return he had to be paid at least the average of the top five salaries at his position as of April 16, or 120 percent of his 2008 salary — whichever was greater (got that?).
The bottom line was that for the inconvenience, Peppers gritted his teeth through a $16.7 million contract year. The Panthers can apply the franchise tag again and keep Peppers for another year against his will, but this time that would necessitate a deal of at least $20 million. (You know, no job is perfect….)
Right now, things are in limbo. Peppers hasn’t said whether he definitely wants to return to Carolina. His agent has made vague statements that the issues with the Panthers that spurred Peppers to look around after the 2008 season no longer exist. But any time a player of the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Peppers’ physical gifts hints he might be available, the rumor mill starts to grind.
And Peppers’ own statements have helped that along. “Anywhere is a potential landing spot,” he said recently. “I’m just trying to get on a team. I just want a contract.”
A search of Google News a few minutes ago resulted in newspaper and blog reports that, variously, the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars are — or ought to be — interested in Peppers, who would certainly, according to these reports, be the answer to these teams’ defensive deficiencies. (Peppers in an Atlanta red uniform would especially be anathema to Panthers’ fans.)
Meanwhile, Peppers, who says the Panthers aren’t communicating with him right now, just played in his second straight Pro Bowl after a season in which he recorded 10-1/2 sacks and forced five fumbles. It was his sixth double-digit sack performance in eight NFL seasons.
But somehow, the perception persists that Peppers doesn’t play up to his capabilities. As noted at the beginning, I haven’t covered many Panthers games since I had a regular assignment supplying stories to a coastal N.C. daily newspaper during the 2004 season. So I’m not sure I’m the best judge.
At that early point in his career, he struck me as accessible and personable, a very media-friendly player. And, as they say, he had a tremendous upside — size and quickness, someone who was as comfortable running the floor and blocking shots for the UNC Tar Heels basketball team as he was rushing a passer. And the record points to a solid career so far.
We’ll see how this one turns out, and I think it will be settled long before the Favre question is.