Change Energizes Peppers

Julius Peppers is a rare breed as an old dog who relishes the idea of learning some new tricks. Peppers might be one of the top defenders of the generation, but there is no sense of entitlement for the hard-working veteran.

Julius Peppers has heard the chatter.

He’s coming off a bad season. He’s too old. Past his prime.

It’s funny — when did 7.0 sacks become a bad season?

“Exactly,” Peppers said with a knowing smile.

The Green Bay Packers would love that kind of productivity — or lack of productivity — from their high-profile free-agent addition.

In Dom Capers’ first five seasons as defensive coordinator, Clay Matthews has led the team in sacks every year. The runner-up in sacks in those seasons? Mike Daniels’ 6.5 in 2013, Mike Neal’s 4.5 in 2012, Desmond Bishop’s 5.0 in 2011, Cullen Jenkins’ 7.0 in 2010 and Jenkins’ 4.5 in 2009.

None of those players had more sacks than Peppers had in his, ahem, bad season.

“You look at my last year, was it one of my better years? Probably not, you know, statistically,” Peppers said. “But if you compare it to a lot of the guys who played last year, it was better than a lot of guys. So, I don’t really think I need to revitalize anything, just improve upon what I did last year. I should be able to do it.”

With his first 12 seasons in the NFL spent as a hand-on-the-ground, 4-3 defensive end, you might think Peppers would have preferred to stay in that role when shopping his wares during free agency. Instead, the 34-year-old Peppers sought a new challenge upon his release from the Bears.

“It’s fun. It’s fun,” Peppers said. “I’m actually having a lot of fun. I’m enjoying it. It’s a little different than what I’ve been used to in the past. I actually think it fits my skill-set better than just being down every play. I’m having fun doing it. I’m just enjoying it.”

Impressively, Peppers didn’t arrive in Green Bay to simply collect a pay check, and he doesn’t get to practice every day by riding on his resume. There is, as linebackers coach Winston Moss put it, no sense of entitlement. Moss sees a player who has embraced the challenge of learning a new system and a new way of doing things.

“When you take a veteran like that,” Moss said, “who simply has no issues with wanting to show not only himself but the rest of the group that, ‘I’m in this thing to work hard and I’m very, very coachable and I’m always looking to get better and I know that if I want to be successful that it takes work,’ ... and he’s putting in the work right now. All the things that he’s shown just confirm the production that he’s had over his career. He’s been a great addition. He’s one of those guys that are all about the work. He comes here, doesn’t say much and he’s been great.”

While Peppers was generally invisible in his 10-play preseason debut at Tennessee, the early returns have been impressive. At 6-foot-7, he remains a menacing presence. To get eyeball-to-eyeball with Peppers, Mike Neal stood on the bench seat at his locker, then shook his head in disbelief. The footwork that made him a basketball star at North Carolina before becoming a pro football star with Carolina is still there.

“He’s here to go toward the quarterback. We all understand that,” coach Mike McCarthy said early in training camp. “But when he does drop, he has great ability and range. And you look at his ball skills — we do a lot of ball skills with the whole team by design (because) I want everybody to handle the football. He handles the football like an offensive player.”

Going “toward” the quarterback has been Peppers’ calling card throughout his career. Since entering the league in 2002, Peppers ranks second in the league with 118.5 sacks. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, who faced Peppers twice last season, scoffed at the notion that Peppers’ career was nearing the finish line. “Good luck,” Bakhtiari said, to whoever lines up across form him this season.

Peppers will be used in various roles this season. The Packers kept most of their intentions under wraps against the Titans, other than having Matthews on the left and Peppers on the right for one series, then flip-flopping those positions on the next.

“That was one of the things that attracted me to coming — along with all of the other things they have going for themselves,” Peppers said. “A chance to stand up, move around, drop, rush, play in different positions was one of the things that made me want to come here in the first place.

“It is a new challenge and I’m looking forward to not only proving to myself that I can do it but proving to the outsiders who don’t think I can do it.”

There are few players better than a living legend with something to prove. Charles Woodson proved that during his remarkable time in Green Bay. Now, Peppers hopes to do the same. Too old, in general, or too old to learn new tricks, in general? Wait and see, says the towering man who lets his game do most of his talking.

“Well, it’s not about really proving anybody wrong,” Peppers said. “It’s about accomplishing some personal goals, one of which being is winning a world championship. That’s the main thing. That’s the main motivation. All that other stuff, it’s there, but it’s not as big as coming in here and helping this team hoist that trophy at the end.”


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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