Peppers' title pursuit could lead to Canton

Playoff disappointments drive ageless linebacker

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For three weeks, Julius Peppers shuttered himself from the outside world. The television inside his Miami-area home was off. No Internet. Absolutely no football.

The Green Bay Packers' outside linebacker wanted nothing to do with the beach and palm trees last January. For two, three weeks after the NFC Championship Game in Seattle, Peppers hid from everything. Inside his home, the collapse kept replaying in his mind.

“Just the meltdown at the end,” Peppers said. “Everything. The whole last five minutes. I still haven’t watched the TV copy. Obviously, we watched the coach’s film, but I haven’t watched the TV copy of it. I still haven’t brought myself to do it.”

Peppers’ career is marked with playoff disappointments. He advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII with the Carolina Panthers in 2004, only to fall a field goal short of beating the New England Patriots in his second NFL season. Back then, Peppers said, he took the experience for granted. “I thought we were going back the next year,” he said.  It has been 12 seasons. His beard is gray, his face starting to show its age, and a second chance remains elusive.

He has gotten close. Everything was aligned perfectly in 2008, Peppers remembers. The Panthers would have had home-field advantage in the playoffs, but they lost in the divisional round to the Arizona Cardinals. Two years later, Peppers was in Chicago when the Bears lost the NFC title game at home to the Packers.

Those defeats were painful. The memories linger. They don’t compare to what happened 10 months ago, Peppers said.

“That was the worst,” Peppers told Press-Gazette Media this week. “The worst experience in sports that I’ve ever been a part of. It was terrible. On top of all that, it was my birthday. On the whole plane ride home, I was just like, ‘Man, I can’t believe that just happened.’

“So it took me a while. I didn’t go and get checked out, but I think I was depressed for a good two, three weeks after that. Luckily, I had my son, and I had my family around to keep me sane.”

Peppers turned 35 on Jan. 18, the day of the title game. There was no joy, no celebration. Instead, Peppers said, he left Seattle in shock. His birthday was a reminder every opportunity is precious, especially now. At his age, Peppers knows, he’s running out of chances.

It’s a good thing Peppers never saw the TV copy. He doesn’t need that memory. In the aftermath, the camera found him. He knelt on the sideline, hand covering his mouth. As he watched the Seahawks celebrate in the end zone, Peppers looked ill. He said he was in disbelief. No, he hasn’t forgotten that feeling.

The shock, the depression, the meltdown — it’s fueling Peppers to his best season in years. He’s playing like a 25-year-old, leading the Packers with 5½ sacks. At a 12½-sack pace, he could finish this season with his most since 2008.

He was 28 then. In a young man’s game, how is it possible for a 35-year-old to still thrive? Linebackers coach Winston Moss said it starts with Peppers’ desperation to get back to a Super Bowl.

“There’s a guy that is passionately driven to get to that Super Bowl and win it,” Moss said. “I think that is something that’s missing in his career. He doesn’t go around shouting about what he has not accomplished, but I think there are some things that he wishes he had accomplished by now. It’s something that you can just feel from inside-out with him, that he wants to be a champion.

“He’s one of those guys who doesn’t talk about it. He walks the walk.”

Pursuing a championship

From across the country, the man who drafted Julius Peppers watched last season’s NFC title game. Marty Hurney, the former Panthers general manager, saw Peppers hunched over on the sideline. His thoughts flashed back to 2004.

It was pure joy when the Panthers advanced to the Super Bowl, Hurney said. The expansion franchise was in its eighth season. Peppers, who attended North Carolina, was helping to lead the way. This script couldn’t be better, Hurney thought.

Then Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal split the uprights. In that moment, Hurney said, he realized playing in the Super Bowl wasn’t enough.

“The difference between winning and losing that game is night and day,” Hurney said. “You want to experience that feeling, and I think it motivates him a lot. He wants to go and win because he knows the difference. He’s been there once, but he knows that the only thing that really matters is going and winning.”

Peppers’ pursuit of a championship led him to Green Bay. It was an unexpected destination. For four seasons, he competed against the Packers inside the NFC North. Some of their greatest triumphs in the past decade came at Peppers’ expense.

He was ready for a fifth year in Chicago. Instead, his phone rang soon after the 2013 season. His release wasn’t a shock — “I always expected the unexpected,” he said — but it came without warning.

“They hadn’t said anything,” Peppers said. “They didn’t say, ‘Hey, we want to keep you. Would you mind taking a pay cut?’ It was just all of the sudden they called and said, ‘We’re going to release you.’”

Peppers never had been doubted before. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft, a natural on the field. For the first time, a team told him he was unwanted.

It was easy to find the positive in his situation. The Bears advanced to the NFC Championship Game in his first season, but they hadn’t reached the playoffs since. With Chicago fading and his mid-30s approaching, Peppers was given the opportunity to pick his team.

More than anything, he wanted to join a Super Bowl contender.

“I’m 34 at the time,” Peppers said. “The only thing I want to do is win. So you chop off half the teams in the league right there.”

Peppers’ initial list included eight potential teams, he said. Eventually, he cut it to three finalists. Peppers wouldn’t name the teams, but he classified each as a championship contender.

The Packers weren’t one of them.

“I hadn’t talked to anybody over here yet,” he said.

He wasn’t expecting to hear from the Packers, either. General manager Ted Thompson’s reputation for building through the draft and shunning free agency is well known throughout the league. For Peppers, Thompson made an exception.

Peppers was “surprised” when the Packers called. Immediately, he put them at the top of his list.

“I played against these guys for my whole career,” Peppers said, “and I always admired the organization. Always admired how they played. I had a great respect for Aaron (Rodgers). I immediately wanted to come here, because I knew these guys were winners. So I wanted to come and try to help.

“So that was it. It was just like a formality when I came here to visit, just to sign. Because I already knew I wanted to play here.”

Now, the challenge is personal. Those three teams he almost signed with after Chicago? Peppers said each is still a contender. They’re standing between him and a ring.

Peppers doesn’t need to win a championship to validate his decision, but it wouldn’t hurt.

“It’s kind of funny,” Peppers said, “because the teams that I want to beat now – the teams that we have to beat – are some of those teams now that I could’ve went to. So it’s like, OK, I’ve got to make sure. I already know I made the right choice, but we’ve got to solidify that and knock the rest of those teams off.”

Behind the black visor

All David Bakhtiari remembered was the black visor. It covered Peppers’ face, hiding his eyes. Only his mouth was visible.

This was an intimidating look. Peppers, towering in his Bears uniform, stared down the Packers rookie left tackle twice in 2013. He had a sack in each game.

So Bakhtiari was pleased to welcome Peppers into the Packers’ locker room before the 2014 season.

“It was awesome I got to meet him after just knowing him my rookie year as an opposing player,” Bakhtiari said. “All I could see was his mouth, because he had his eyes always covered with that black visor. It was honestly an honor to meet him and to know him as a teammate.

“People say, ‘Oh, he’s a pro’s pro.’ He makes pro’s pros look like guys who don’t play. I’ve just been very fortunate to see and observe him.”

Thompson deviated from his team-building philosophy for a reason. In Peppers, the general manager saw a player who could complete his team. Still, few could’ve expected Peppers’ signing would be this successful.

At an age when most players find the twilight of their careers, Peppers is thriving. He has 15 sacks in 25 games with the Packers, counting playoffs. Defensive end Mike Daniels, who was 12 when the Panthers drafted Peppers, said his veteran teammate leaves him in awe.

“I’m always surprised,” he said, “and at the same time I’m never surprised. It doesn’t surprise me what he can do, but when I see it, it’s like, ‘Golly, how’s that even humanly possible?’”

It’s a fair question.

At first glance, Peppers’ career belongs to science fiction. He has played 14 NFL seasons, 221 games counting playoffs. He has missed only two games because of injury — a sprained MCL to close the 2007 season — and never has required surgery.

Peppers looks indestructible, standing 6-foot-7 and 287 pounds. His body appears immune to the rigors of age. In two seasons with the Packers — at age 34 and 35 — Peppers hasn’t appeared on the injury report once. He hasn’t missed a practice because of injury. It’s not because he spends extra time in the training room.

“I don’t want to go anywhere near the training room,” Peppers said.

Each week, Peppers said, fellow linebacker Clay Matthews tells him to spend time in the cold tub. He still hasn’t gone there. Peppers doesn’t do “anything special” to prepare his body for Sundays, he said. He merely shows up ready to go.

Peppers is as perplexed as anyone. He sat at his locker this week, trying to explain.

“I don’t know,” Peppers said. “I really don’t. I’ve been very fortunate to avoid any of those freak things, like somebody falling into my leg or planting wrong, have a knee injury or something like that. I’ve been fortunate to avoid those things, so that definitely helps. Other than that, it’s a little bit of genetics, I guess. I’ve been very flexible. So I guess that helps, being flexible.”

Early in his career, Peppers said, he never expected to play deep into his 30s. When he was drafted, Michael Rucker was the veteran along the Panthers defensive line. Peppers “stayed close” to Rucker, always observing. He said Rucker taught him how to be a professional.

Peppers noticed Rucker’s body start to wear out in his late 20s. Rucker, 5 years older than Peppers, had 12 sacks at age 28 in 2003, then 7½ in 2005. He retired two years later.

“I could tell he wasn’t feeling great,” Peppers said. “You could just tell when guys get to that age. So I thought when I got to 30, 31, I thought that was probably going to be the end. But when I got there, when I finally got to 30, I was like, ‘Hey, I still feel like I can do this.’

“That was when I got to Chicago. I was like, ‘I still feel like I can do this.’ I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to it.”

Peppers has an answer for many other things. In the locker room, Moss said, teammates listen. Bakhtiari said Peppers removes any excuses for his teammates. If the 35-year-old can practice after 14 seasons in the NFL, Bakhtiari said, everybody should.

Moss notices how younger players respond to Peppers. He often shares insight to teammates. His tips don’t stop with linebackers and defensive ends. Peppers will share advice with offensive linemen, cornerbacks, whoever he can help.

“He talks when he has to,” Moss said, “not when he wants to. He’s a very reserved guy, and he is one of those individuals that listens to everything, and he pays attention. He’s one of those old sages that, ‘When I say something, I want you to listen and pay attention, because it’s going to be worth it.’ So that gives a great impact for not only his role, but his messages and the way he comes across.”

Peppers’ pursuit of a Super Bowl ring might not end in Green Bay. After his career, there’s another destination he’s considered: Canton, Ohio.

Canton awaits

Yes, Peppers has thought about the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He said it was never a goal when he started his career, despite expectations that come with being the draft’s second overall pick. As the years went by, and his stature in the game continued to ascend, he sensed that enshrinement in the hall was becoming more likely.

“In my head, I am,” Peppers said. “But I don’t know. I think it’s inevitable, really, if I can continue to play at that level. Because I think longevity has a little something to do with it as well. Can you continue to play at a high level for 15 years? Anybody that does that is a hall of famer in my book. But I think the next couple years are important.”

Peppers said winning a Super Bowl would mean more than being enshrined. Fair or not, the two might be tied together. A ring is the only item missing from an otherwise convincing resume.

Peppers’ 131 career sacks ranks 14th all-time. With two sacks Sunday against the Panthers, he’ll pass former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Of the 10 hall-of-fame eligible players with more career sacks, only Kevin Greene (160 sacks) and Leslie O’Neal (132.5) have yet to be enshrined.

With 44 forced fumbles, 17 fumbles recovered and 11 interceptions, Peppers always has been more than a pass rusher. He’s the only player in NFL history with at least 100 sacks and 10 interceptions. In Green Bay, Moss said, Peppers has been asked to be more diverse than ever as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.

That, Moss said, shows why Peppers belongs in the hall.

“It’s not a possibility,” Moss said. “It’s got to be one of those, you hate to say locks, but the reason they built the hall of fame and put guys in it is to honor guys like Julius. He would represent the hall of fame and be one of their best guys based upon the way he goes about his business, what he’s done, his production. If you knew him from inside-out, he’s definitely a hall of famer.”

Then Moss paused.

“It would help that ‘champion’ is next to his name,” he said.

His pursuit continues. Peppers has thought about what that moment could mean – for him personally, and also his career. He thought his second chance was coming 10 months ago, only to fall short again.

It’s why Peppers remains as motivated as ever. Time is running out, the hourglass of his career almost empty. How much longer will he play? Peppers said he doesn’t know.

“I’ve thought about it,” Peppers said. “Different scenarios go through your head. Obviously, winning the Super Bowl and going out on top would be ideal. So, you know, that would be the ideal scenario – winning it this year and going out on top.

“But who’s to say that if we win it this year that I don’t still want to play?”

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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