Julius Peppers’ 35th birthday went from celebration to heartache.
Peppers was minutes away from going to the Super Bowl in his first season with the Green Bay Packers. Instead, an epic collapse will make Jan. 18, 2015, a memorable day for all the wrong reasons.
Peppers, however, said he’s turned the page.
“We’re looking forward,” he said last week. “Nobody’s looking back. We’re already past that. It’s a new season. We have new opportunities this year, and we’re looking forward to this season.”
To that end, the oldest player on the team — he’s one of just three players on the roster older than 30 — is working alongside the youngest players on the roster during the Packers’ offseason workouts.
“There’s always something to improve upon,” he said. “So, it’s about finding those things. For me, it’s just about getting back out there and getting a feel for playing the game again, trying to shake some of the rust off.”
Since entering the NFL in 2002, Peppers ranks third in the league with 125.5 sacks and second with 43 forced fumbles. Only one defensive player in the NFL produced more game-changing plays than Peppers did last season — and that’s not including his two forced fumbles in the playoff victory over Dallas. His production is made more amazing when considering his new role in Green Bay’s 3-4 scheme.
“You go back and you can think about a lot of plays now that influence the game,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You think about the Cowboy playoff game out here, if he doesn’t reach out and pull that fumble out on DeMarco Murray … the two interceptions for touchdowns — I don’t think he’d done a lot of that before in his career.
“So, you can drop him, he has great hands, and then we got to where we’d match him up on certain protectors and he’d be a real 1-on-1 problem. You’re always looking for guys who’ll win 1-on-1 matchups. Julius on a lot of linemen is a tough 1-on-1 matchup. And the fact that he can play either inside or outside in your sub packages, you (can) put him inside on a poor pass protector.”
With a cap charge of just $3.5 million last season, Peppers was a bargain — and not just because of his on-the-field exploits. The Packers also found a surprise leader in the quiet veteran who was voted a playoff captain. What Peppers provided in terms of production and leadership — not to mention the flexibility it gave Capers in his use of Clay Matthews — made his $12 million cap charge for this season palatable.
“He’s an excellent student of the game, and that’s the part I don’t think people don’t get to see or understand — just clearly the understanding that he has,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s a true professional in every aspect of our program, whether it’s in the weight room, the classroom and obviously on the practice field. Just having him more comfortable — not only him comfortable with what he’s doing but the relationships and the timing and the things that you do in combination with your teammates.”
At age 35, it’s always possible that Father Time will sack Peppers. That, however, doesn’t seem likely. Peppers is intent on doing things the “right way” on and off the field. After getting so close to the Super Bowl last season, Peppers isn’t lacking for motivation for this season. This year’s NFC Championship Game will be contested on Jan. 24. So, perhaps Peppers can enjoy a belated 36th birthday celebration.
“Win. Win. That’s it,” Peppers said. “There’s nothing else to do but to win.”email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.