GREEN BAY, Wis. — Julius Peppers knows what he's doing. After 12½ NFL seasons, he knows the less he says, the more it'll resonate with teammates when he breaks his silence.
So when Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy asked him to make the weekly captain's speech before last weekend's nationally televised game against the Chicago Bears, who released Peppers in March, he had a pretty good idea he'd get a rise out of the locker room.
"I've always been a guy who's reserved my words for the right time," Peppers told USA TODAY Sports on Friday. "You don't want to be one of these guys talking all the time, trying to say things all the time, because people start drowning you out.
"It's kind of a calculated thing. When you speak up and say things, you try to pick the right time to say it, and I guess that was the right time the other day."
McCarthy called Peppers' speech "clearly the best one we've ever had," and the Packers responded, racing to a 42-0 halftime lead that had Peppers and other veterans on the bench long before the 55-14 throttling was complete.
While the veteran-laden roster Peppers left behind in Chicago is crumbling, a Packers squad that perpetually is among the league's youngest is on the rise again, winners of five out of six — including the last three at Lambeau Field in routs — entering Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
At age 34, Peppers is the oldest player on the Green Bay roster by nearly three years. But he seems to have gotten a boost out of the transition from 4-3 defensive end to his hybrid role in Dom Capers' 3-4 base scheme and leads Green Bay with five sacks through nine games.
"I'm having the most fun coming to work every day," Peppers said. "Just being in the locker room, being around these guys, watching the young guys grow and develop, just hanging out."
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With star pass rusher Clay Matthews perhaps headed for continued action as an inside linebacker, Peppers' presence on the edge becomes even more important — and he may not be done talking, either. Packers cornerback Tramon Williams told reporters Peppers spoke up again at practice Thursday, making sure everyone was focused for an important day of preparation.
Peppers also was a captain for the opener against the Seattle Seahawks, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers asked him to give the speech that night, but Peppers declined. It was his first regular-season game with the team, and he didn't feel it was the right time.
Last Sunday, however, was different.
So what exactly did Peppers say before the Packers tore his old team limb from limb on national TV? He smiled and paused before answering with a smirk.
"Just to play hard," Peppers said. "That was it."
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Did Silver and Black finally strike draft gold?
A ray of hope amidst dark days for the winless Oakland Raiders: General manager Reggie McKenzie's third draft class has the potential to make a big difference down the road.
Linebacker Khalil Mack already may be the Raiders' best player, even though the No. 5 overall pick has yet to record his first sack. He's beating up tight ends every week. He's not a particularly elusive rusher but has been productive and disruptive by pushing the pocket.
Quarterback Derek Carr (second round) has shown flashes despite his predictably uneven start. A scout for a recent Raiders opponent pointed to positive signs on guard Gabe Jackson (third round), defensive tackle Justin Ellis (fourth) and cornerback T.J. Carrie (seventh), too.
"They've definitely got some good, young players there," said the scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons. "It's just going to take a little while."
McKenzie brought in a load of older veterans in the offseason with a two-part plan: become competitive immediately and groom that young core for the future.
The first part has been an epic failure, leading to coach Dennis Allen's firing at the quarter pole on the way to an 0-9 start. Time will tell if the second phase is any better — but with each loss, the odds slip a little further that McKenzie will have enough time to see the plan through.
Incognito remains incognito in NFL
Before he signed with the Detroit Lions practice squad last week, cornerback Trevin Wade was working out at a Phoenix training center where the most well-known client these days is Richie Incognito.
And like many others who have shared a gym with Incognito — the veteran guard who hasn't played since the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal exploded last year, with Incognito at the center — Wade said their interactions have been nothing but positive.
"I know a bunch of people have different views of (Incognito), but I guess I see a totally different person," Wade told USA TODAY Sports recently. "I've been working out with him for the last two years at the facility. Everybody loves him there. He's just funny, keeps everybody laughing, and he works really hard."
At a time workplace conduct has plummeted on the NFL's list of controversies, Incognito's continued unemployment is becoming more mysterious. His name still comes up in NFL personnel rooms. He has visited at least two teams, including the Denver Broncos this week.
Incognito, 31, has a long history of bad behavior on and off the field. There would be some level of fan and (more so) media backlash for the team that signs him. But there never are enough solid offensive linemen to fill 32 NFL rosters. Incognito should've landed someplace by now.
Three and out
— The Cleveland Browns are 3-1 since losing Pro Bowl C Alex Mack for the season with a broken leg. But the offensive line — with career backup Nick McDonald now in Mack's place — hasn't seen anybody like Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt (not that anybody else like that exists in the league). Watt was at his disruptive best again in his last game against the Eagles. The Texans move him around, raising the importance of communication along the O-line. This could be a swing game at home for the Browns, whose next two are on the road at Atlanta and Buffalo, and their task starts with keeping Watt from single-handedly ruining everything.
— Last time the Indianapolis Colts faced the New England Patriots, QB Andrew Luck tossed four interceptions in an AFC divisional playoff game that ended up a 43-22 New England runaway in Foxborough, Mass. Ten months later, have the Colts closed the gap on the hottest team in football? Sunday night's nationally televised matchup in Indianapolis isn't the end game. Both teams look like playoff shoo-ins, raising the possibility of a rematch in January. And remember, the Colts had a "signature" win in the 2013 regular season, beating the eventual AFC champion Denver Broncos in October. But knocking off the team that knocked them off last year — coming off the Patriots' bye, no less, with New England on a five-game winning streak — certainly would be a positive sign for where things are headed.
— How far have the Carolina Panthers fallen? As of early Friday evening, the Bovada Sportsbook had them as one-point underdogs at home against an Atlanta Falcons team that last week snapped a five-game losing streak. Banged-up QB Cam Newton is a shell of himself. There's no rhythm on offense. And last season's No. 2-ranked defense in both yardage and scoring now ranks 25th and 29th in those categories, respectively. Also not favored at home: the team with the best record in the NFL. The 8-1 Arizona Cardinals, who lost QB Carson Palmer for the season with a knee injury last week, are in a pick 'em against the 7-2 Detroit Lions.
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