Peppers overcame nerves to become a leader

Ryan Wood
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Linebacker Julius Peppers (56) beats offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga during an Aug. 20 training camp practice.

On his first day as a Green Bay Packer, in the very first team meeting, Julius Peppers sat two chairs away from Clay Matthews. He was the biggest man in the room, towering at 6-foot-7. His on-field resume was unparalleled.

It didn’t matter.

“I was nervous as heck,” Peppers remembers.

He felt like a kid on the first day of school, Peppers said. He knew nobody. Every face was unfamiliar, every person a stranger.

Even more, Peppers spent the previous four years playing with the Chicago Bears. In Green Bay, he was behind enemy lines. Nervous as heck? Yes, Peppers had every reason to be.

So it surprised him when Matthews turned just as coach Mike McCarthy entered the meeting room and, with no warning, blurted a question under his breath.

“You could’ve been anywhere in the world,” Peppers remembers Matthews saying. “Why are you in Green Bay?”

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A perfect icebreaker for anyone calling the frozen tundra their new home. Peppers, a bundle of nerves, didn’t provide a coherent answer. The new kid didn’t want to be caught talking in class. He stumbled and stammered, too focused on McCarthy.

“I just kind of said, ‘I don’t know,’” Peppers said, “and just kept looking straight.”

A year later, Peppers’ purpose in Green Bay is unquestioned.

Before the Packers’ trip to Chicago last September, Peppers was bombarded with questions about his homecoming. Quickly, he made Green Bay his home. When the Packers travel to Chicago to play the Bears in their opener Sunday, Peppers will be among the team’s leaders.

Inside linebacker Sam Barrington said Peppers commanded instant respect. Peppers was playoff captain last year, and the reverence didn’t just come from teammates. Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac calls Peppers a future Hall of Famer. McCarthy reserved the highest praise a head coach can offer a player.

“I think Julius Peppers was probably one of the biggest – or the biggest – impact on our football team last year,” McCarthy said, a bold statement considering his team had the NFL’s MVP at quarterback. “I think we’re all confident in the type of player that was coming to Green Bay, just from competing against him in the past. But just the personality and the uniqueness of the man, and the way he interacts with his teammates, is special.

“His role as a leader continued to grow throughout the season. So I thought he made a big impact to our team last season.”

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Looking back, coaches and teammates don’t say they’re surprised. Peppers was brought to Green Bay for a reason. General manager Ted Thompson didn’t expect a slouch.

But there was no guarantee Peppers could transition as easily as he did. He was a 34-year-old veteran who, after spending a 12-year career at defensive end, was moving to a more athletic position. As an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ base 3-4 scheme, Peppers would be responsible for more than pass rushing. He had to cover tight ends, defend the run.

At times, defensive tackle B.J. Raji said, Peppers made his position change look effortless.

“I remember reading,” Raji said, “and seeing some of the biggest questions. Could he play in coverage? Could he play in space? I felt like he could, but just seeing him on the field and seeing his movement skills in the offseason, and seeing how his ability to bend, after I saw that I wasn’t really as concerned.

“Ultimately, it was a smooth transition. He’s a smart guy, obviously. A great pass rusher.”

When Peppers arrived, he was expected to provide a consistent pass rush opposite Matthews. Instead, his presence allowed the Packers to change the way they play defense.

With Peppers’ explosion off the edge, the Packers could afford the luxury of moving Matthews to inside linebacker. Matthews made the move entering the team’s ninth game last season, a Sunday night kickoff against Chicago. Immediately, he plugged the gaps that were threatening to derail the Packers’ season.

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Peppers continued to thrive even without Matthews demanding constant double-team blocks. He finished with seven sacks last season, identical to his final year with the Bears. Even more, he stayed productive as the year progressed. His season-high of two sacks came Dec. 21 at Tampa Bay, the penultimate game of the regular season. He had 2.5 sacks in two postseason games.

New Bears coach John Fox knows what to expect when his team tries to block Peppers on Sunday. Fox was the head coach in Carolina when the Panthers drafted Peppers with the second overall pick in 2002. He wasn’t surprised Peppers was able to transition to outside linebacker.

“He’s a guy,” Fox said, “you better know where he is. He’s freaky. He’s got a good feel, whether it’s tipping the ball – I’ve watched him jump and pick the ball right out of the sky on a quick screen – I’m definitely a fan of his ability and I think our people here understand that.”

Now, Peppers has more to prove as he enters his 14th season. The eight-time Pro Bowler is 35 now. Of course, some might call him young. Reggie White had two double-digit sack seasons with the Packers after turning 35, including 16 sacks in 1998. White was 37 that season.

Time stops for nobody, but great players have a way of limiting the effects of age. That’s what Fox sees with Peppers, whom he calls a “first-ballot Hall of Famer.” Peppers had 57 total pressures in 2010, his first season with the Bears. He didn’t lose much in four years.

He had 50 total pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Fox, previously the Denver Broncos’ head coach, said his team thought about courting Peppers as a free agent last year. Instead, the Broncos signed DeMarcus Ware, who is three years younger than Peppers. The fact there was any debate indicates how well Peppers has conquered his age so far.

“In fact,” Fox said, “somebody sent me a picture the day we drafted him. I know I barely recognize myself. He looks pretty much the same. The guy’s taken great care of himself. Anybody with longevity in this league does.

“I’ve always had a great admiration for Julius, both when he was with at the Panthers and when we played them when he was here in Chicago, and now I’ll be looking across the sideline at him here with a Green Bay jersey on.”

— and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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