GREEN BAY – At times, Julius Peppers admits, he has caught himself thinking about next year.
He’ll drive down the road after work, heading in the opposite direction of Lambeau Field, when his thoughts start mulling over his future. There’s more uncertainty than he ever has faced. Peppers has played football most his life, been in the spotlight almost as long, and doesn’t know what it would be like without practice and games, workouts and meetings, an opponent to always chase.
Peppers acknowledged that time could be coming, though he’s unsure. After his 15th NFL season ends, whether it’s on New Year’s Day in Detroit or a later date, he’ll retreat to his Miami home and make a decision.
The 36-year-old pass rusher no longer will be under contract with the Green Bay Packers, his three-year, $26 million deal expiring at season’s end. Retirement is one option, Peppers said, but he isn’t ready to rule out returning for a 16th season.
“I’m not saying that I don’t want to play next year,” Peppers said. “I’m not saying that I do. I’m just saying that right now, I don’t know. And I’ll figure it out at some point.
“There’s a lot of things that can happen between now and February.”
An unexpected Super Bowl title could heavily weigh into Peppers’ decision. It is the lone item missing on an otherwise Hall of Fame resume.
Peppers added to a distinguished career Sunday against the Houston Texans when he sacked quarterback Brock Osweiler near the end of the first half. It gave Peppers 142.5 career sacks, passing former New York Giants pass rusher Michael Strahan for fifth on the all-time list.
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The usually understated Peppers acknowledged it was “a huge deal” to crack the top five, and said he “reflected a little bit on it” when he got home after the game.
“The first goal,” Peppers said, “is to get 100 sacks. So you start looking at that thing. I started looking at that about five years ago — trying to get 100 sacks. From there, you keep trying to climb the charts.”
Short of a Super Bowl ring — the playoffs are a long shot if the Packers don’t beat Seattle this Sunday — Peppers will have a tougher decision to make.
Despite turning 37 next month, Peppers said he believes his body can handle another NFL season. The Packers have tapered Peppers’ snaps this fall, reserving him mostly as a pass rusher in third-down situations.
Injuries increased Peppers’ snap counts the past couple of weeks. He played 43 snaps (73 percent) against the Philadelphia Eagles, then 58 snaps (88 percent) six days later against the Texans.
Sunday was his highest snap count and snap percentage.
“I’m not sure this was the plan,” Peppers said, “to have everybody get injured to where I’d be forced to play more, but that’s the way it’s worked out. And I feel good. There’s only four games left. I can play four more games. Four for sure games. Obviously, we’re hoping for the playoffs, but I’m talking about four regular-season games. I could do that, easiliy.”
Peppers has responded well to the increased playing time. He has one sack in each of his past three games, boosting his total to 6.5 this season.
It’s enough for Peppers to feel confident he can continue playing, he said, but the question returns to his internal desire.
“It’s all about how I feel,” Peppers said. “How one feels, and having a purpose to do it. Obviously, you know what the purpose is — the Super Bowl and all that stuff — but even without that. What’s the purpose? If the season ends, I don’t have a contract obviously, and if nobody calls and nobody says anything — which I don’t think will be the case — but I’ve got to sit back and figure out if I really want to play and if I do, why? And I don’t know. I don’t know.
“I feel like if I wanted to play, that I could. Yeah, I could, for sure.”
Peppers said he’ll “be at peace” whenever he decides to walk away. He’s content playing 15 years in the NFL — “that’s a lot of football,” he said — gave him a full career. Everything he set out to do as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, with the exception of getting that elusive Super Bowl ring, Peppers said he’s accomplished.
Peppers should have plenty of options to pursue after his career. He said he has “an idea” of what’s next, but didn’t share specifics — only to say it’s unlikely to be associated with the game. He doesn’t see himself as a TV analyst, either.
He might be happiest, Peppers said, returning to his Miami home and spending more time with his two young children.
“When I walk out of here one day and I’m done,” Peppers said, “you probably aren’t going to see me for about 10 years anywhere.”
Except, perhaps, when Peppers gives an acceptance speech in Canton.
“Maybe,” Peppers said. “Yeah, maybe.”
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