Julius Peppers stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall, 283 pounds. He is 28 years old and was the first round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2002. In college at North Carolina Peppers played not only football, but also was on the Tar Heel’s 2000 Final Four team. His first 5 seasons proved the Panthers had made the right decision in using the second pick to gain his services at defensive end (David Carr was taken first and Joey Harrington was taken behind Peppers). But something changed last year when Peppers had a poor season on paper, physically, and on the field. It has not been said what was the factor for the drop-off, neither from the organization or from Peppers himself. What is the difference? All we have are our theories.
By the Numbers
In Julius Peppers’ first year he played 12 games and recorded 12 sacks. He also had 1 interception. His 28 tackles were the lowest of any year in the league. It was established then that Peppers was capable of delivering on the promise of his physical potential. In 2003 Peppers’ sack total fell to 7 but his tackle total rose to 37 and he was an integral part of the Panthers run to the Super Bowl. In Julius’ next season, he took his game to the next level. He went from being competitive to domination. He had 11 sacks, 52 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 9 pass deflections. He returned one of the interceptions against the Buccaneers 97 yards for a TD. In the 2005 and 2006 seasons Peppers had 23.5 sacks (13 in 2006) and played in each game both seasons. Peppers had now become the formidable face of the Panthers defense which had guided the Panthers to two NFC Championship games during his time there. But something changed last year; Peppers became a shell of his former self. Just 2.5 sacks in 14 games and his lowest tackle total since his rookie season. So far, by the numbers, Julius has 7 tackles and a sack in the first 3 games but the game is not just played on paper, and on the field Peppers looks like the one we saw last year.
The Eyeball Test
Besides the drop-off in numbers, Peppers has simply not looked like the player he was before on the field. He was beating defensive ends off the edge and striking fear into opposing tackles and quarterbacks, now he was just another player who could be blocked. Last year it was clear that his motor was not in gear. At certain times he was even on the bench sucking on the oxygen machine, not inspiring confidence from his teammates. It was not long before teams did not have to adjust their gameplans to blocking Peppers as they had in earlier years. By the end of the year he was being man-handled by tackles that would have been considered outmatched against the previous version of number 90.
This year the debate has raged on about whether Peppers is back to his old self. In the age of TIVO and DVR fans and media alike have easy access to replays of the games and they are watching games over again and honing in on Pepper’s performance. The judgments were split on the first two games but it was clear he was not in the peak form of pre-2007. In last Sunday’s game against Minnesota, Peppers did record a sack, but he also looked sluggish at times, fell to the ground often, and played a game of paddy cake with Adrian Peterson while chasing him down instead of tackling him.
Down With the Sickness?
Many (mainly those who support Peppers) claim that the performance of last year was the result an illness which Peppers had early on in training camp and throughout the season. The team never released any information to verify this not that that is surprising considering that Coach John Fox’s favorite phrase is “It is what it is” and Julius has never been a conversationalist with media. The scene of him on the oxygen tank and the bad motor on the field leads one to think there is something physically wrong with him. The scary thing is that if it is an illness it has gone on all of last year and there seems to be some carry over to this year. What illness would have that kind of lingering effects? Mono? Diabetes? If the Panthers have spent the money on long contracts for Julius Peppers, I would hope they would have deduced if this was a physical malady. Whether they choose to divulge that information is another issue.
Another darker theory is that Peppers’ years of great performance were made possible by a banned substance. It is not likely but it is one in this day and age that has to be acknowledged. In his first season, Peppers was suspended for 4 games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The incident was not a steroid related issue, it was merely a banned substance listed on a common supplement. We all know the tests are not a proof positive result of what the players are taking since the laboratories are staying ahead of the tests, therefore we cannot rightly know all the truth about what everyone is on. The theory is a weak one considering the length of Peppers dominance and the drop-off is so dramatic. This argument is almost obligatory but it is similar to other athletes who have been much more likely to be guilty.
The other option is that it is all psychological. Peppers is a private person and as mentioned before he does not articulate often to the press. When members of the media have been critical, he has shied away from being more vocal. Sometimes the term “the edge” is used to describe the competitive energy with which a player takes the field. If nothing is medically or chemically wrong with Julius, then it is safe to say plainly that he has lost the edge.
In summation, we don’t know what is wrong with Julius Peppers. He certainly won’t tell us and neither will the Panthers. If nothing is “wrong” then we have seen one of the biggest downturns in the NFL in the last ten years. We want Julius to be his old self and we want to see Pep succeed because we want to see greatness. The new season is young so there is ways to go before this season becomes a repeat for Peppers, but so far it looks like more of the same. The new Julius doesn’t look like the old Julius.