Peppers, Panthers hardly recognize each other

Ryan Wood
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Julius Peppers and the Panthers each have changed significantly since he left Carolina.

The head coach is different. Many of his former teammates have left. Julius Peppers looks at these Carolina Panthers, the team traveling Sunday to Lambeau Field, and he sees the same logo and familiar colors.

From there, it's a stretch to recognize the team he led for eight seasons.

"I really don't know this team coming in here right now, as far as personnel and as far as philosophy and scheme and stuff like that," Peppers said. "I've been (gone) for a while now. It's a totally different team I think."

There is the same, old storyline this week. Peppers and Carolina. Carolina and Peppers. The two were inseparable. Growing up in Wilson, N.C., starring on the University of North Carolina's football and basketball teams, Peppers was the state's native son when the Panthers drafted him with the second overall pick in 2002.

Now, too much time has passed. When the Green Bay Packers host the Panthers noon Sunday, Peppers won't have many old pals to greet. Fewer, in fact, than he had last month when the Packers traveled to play the Chicago Bears, where Peppers played his past four seasons.

Standing at his locker, Peppers was asked the usual questions. Fond memories? Special seeing your former team?

"It's special because it's the next game and a game that we really need to win," Peppers deadpanned. "So it's definitely important. The emotional part of it, not so much. I've been (gone) for a while, so I think that's over now."

Back in Carolina, the Panthers don't recognize Peppers much these days either. Coach Ron Rivera said Peppers is "a lot leaner" than in past years. He's intentionally lost weight, Rivera said, to fit as an outside linebacker in Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme.

Rivera watched Peppers' interception returned for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings earlier this month. For a moment, the coach didn't recognize him. That sprinter's speed, the slender frame, it was hard to believe a 34 year old playing a new position was capable of generating such a highlight.

"He seems to fit them well," Rivera said. "He's still a dynamic player. He's a little bit older. It's going to be interesting to see how he handles the cold up there. He handled the cold pretty well in Chicago, but it gets colder in Green Bay."

In the offseason, Rivera said the Panthers "considered" offering Peppers a contract, and with it a chance to return home. Talks never got far. Peppers signed a three-year, $27 million deal with Green Bay. It was a hefty price, but Peppers has justified every cent through six games.

In hindsight, Rivera said, he wishes negotiations would've gone further.

"Then again," he said, "you also have to understand what Green Bay did, coming up with as much as they did. I mean, that makes sense. It really does. If somebody is going to offer you that kind of money, you've got to take it. We never really had an opportunity once all those numbers started getting thrown around like that."

Instead, Capers got a chance to coach the player who got away. He was the head coach of the Houston Texans in 2002, when the expansion Texans passed on Peppers with the first pick in the draft. Capers, a defensive-minded coach, thought the franchise needed to build a foundation on its quarterback of the future.

Instead of Peppers, Houston drafted David Carr. It didn't work out. Behind a woeful offensive line, Carr went 22-53 in Houston. He was gone in five years.

Now, Capers sees what he missed. Even at 34, Peppers is making a case for his ninth Pro Bowl. He's the only player in the NFL with a touchdown, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery. Capers admits he's surprised how quickly the veteran adapted to playing outside linebacker for the first time in his career.

"I've learned that he's a special guy because he has rare ability," Capers said. "Not many people have the size, strength, athletic ability that he has. And yet, there's a reason why the guy has a lot of success through the course of a league. There's a lot of guys who have good ability, but he's got those intangible things that you look for.

"To me, for our young players to be able to be around a guy like that and watch the way he handles his business, he doesn't change, he comes in, comes to work every day, gives you a good day's work and goes home. He comes in the next day and gives you the same thing. Those are the things you talk about. Sometimes, it's so much easier for a coach to say, 'Watch the way this guy does his job. There's a reason why he's played, and he's one of the few guys in the league.'"

More than stats, it's Peppers' interaction with Green Bay's youngsters that will leave a lasting impression.

Since Peppers arrived in Green Bay, he hasn't missed a practice. Each meeting, Capers said he's sitting in the front row, taking notes. He makes sure to set a good example for youngsters, who naturally flock to him.

On Thursday, Peppers played a board game inside the locker room with rookie linebacker Carl Bradford, rookie defensive tackle Mike Pennel, and second-year defensive tackle Josh Boyd. Peppers was in charge. On a notepad, he kept score.

"From what I hear, he does an outstanding job one-on-one talking to guys, sharing his experiences, trying to help them if he sees something," linebacker coach Winston Moss said. "He's been an outstanding mentor to everybody."

It was the same way for eight seasons in Carolina. Peppers was the face of a franchise that reached unprecedented heights. There were three playoff appearances, two NFC South division titles and a berth in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

None of those accomplishments is what Peppers remembers most fondly.

"The relationships, really," Peppers said. "It's a special place, you know. Like all these places are. But that's a special place for mainly the people in the building. That's the thing that I remember the most."

Many of those people have left the building. Without the relationships Peppers built for almost a decade, Sunday is just another game. and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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