Going into our 19th year, the Panthers are nearing two milestones. First, we are quickly approaching 20 years in the NFL. Anybody else feel slightly older after reading that? Sure, outside of the Jaguars, Texans and Ravens we're pups compared to the storied franchises of yesteryear. Franchises where helmets were leather, concussions were headaches and offensive lineman were hog-mollies at 250 lbs. I'm pretty excited about it and looking forward to the festivities the PR department no doubt have planned. For today's topic though we'll be looking at and reminiscing on milestone number two; the first Panther enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This first occurred to me in a seperate thread some two months ago. A few members were discussing the possibility and merit of Steve Smith being nominated for Hall of Fame status. At some point in the discussion the name Julius Peppers was brought up. I recall stating something along the lines of I couldn't be happy on the day Peppers was enshrined because of the way he left and the time being split with Chicago. They say time heals all wounds and I think my Julius Peppers hatred may have just surpassed it's shelf life. Please refrain from lighting the torches and grabbing the pitchforks until the end.
I don't pretend to know what went through Julius Pepper's head during his final years in Carolina. I've heard consistent theories about not wanting to be the big fish in a small pond. It was exacerbated when ol' foot-in-the-mouth Richardson challenged him to be team Captain following Mike Minter's retirement. The theories into the Peppers flight from Carolina begin to get much more Freudian from there. What I remember is a player who flip-flopped the final few years of his contract. A player who at one point would say "Last year, at the time, that was the option that I wanted most," Peppers said. "Now it's not." or "That deal was to make me the highest-paid defensive player, but slightly, very slightly," Peppers said. "I didn't really feel the sincerity behind that deal." To me, it reaked of a selfish young man. I didn't put much stock into the theories of a socially challenged individual. I wondered how one could simultaneously feel insulted by an offer to only slightly put you ahead of the rest while wanting to blend into the crowd. Years later, the situation is as mirky as ever and the idea of getting a straight answer via interview from Peppers seems like wishful thinking. I'm going to stop there, lest my vitriol for
Judas Ploppers Julius Peppers return.
Not too many people will be fortunate enough to witness the first player from their favorite team enshrined into the NFL Hall of Fame. To some fans, namely Steelers and Packers, the Hall of Fame is just part of their offseason. For those of us who don't pull for the easiest of teams we are left watching, wondering when our proud moment will arrive. Make no mistake, Julius Peppers will be the first Carolina Panther to put on an oversized yellow blazer...that will no doubt get stuck on his oversized ears. I realized I'd rather that moment be a happy and proud moment rather than one where I cursed the big, dumb oaf between mouthfuls of nachos waiting for the first game of preseason...and you can too if you follow my simple 3-step process.
Step 1. Realize that Peppers is gone and he ain't coming back. There won't be a jersey retirement party years down the road, that bridge was doused and burned the minute he cleaned the etch-a-sketch, the 120 lb. dumbells and last tubs of Play-Doh out of his locker.
Step 2. Remember that for all the drama at the end, Peppers gave us some exciting football when he was in town. The man was a once in a decade player. During his rookie season, Peppers tallied 35 tackles, 12 sacks, 1 interception, 5 passes defended, and 5 forced fumbles and he only played 12 games! He was suspended the final four for taking a banned dietary supplement. Anybody remember the blocked kicks? Well, Julius has blocked a total of 13 XP and FG's. Yeah, that's 2nd all time. And finally, how many times did we get to see 6'7", 285 lb. Julius Peppers line up against a 5'11", 195 lb. DB on goal line plays? Why Jake never passed it to him is beyond me. Remember the interceptions? He would put his big mits in the air and pick off passes that the QB thought were through clear passing lanes. I watched in awe as he defended a pass, fell down and had the presence of mind to intercept the ball on his knees. The guy was a freak and when he was on there was none better.
Step 3. Realize that potentially we may have found a replacement LDE in Hardy that could closely mirror what Peppers was able to do. This is what sealed it for me. With all due respect to the great Charles Johnson, I've been waiting for the next LDE to go up against the Joe Staley's, Joe Thomas' and Jake Long's of the league. Greg Hardy came on last year like a bat out of hell. With 61 tackes, 11 sacks, 2 passes defended and 2 forced fumbles I saw flashes of a once dominant LDE we used to have, with a personality and ferociousness that was always lacking. Is Greg Hardy Julius Peppers? No but they're similar. The Kraken is a physical specimen himself and was once heralded as the #1 overall prospect by Sports Illustrated in the 2009 draft before returning to Ole Miss. Throw in Charles Johnson, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei and I find the loss of Julius Peppers much easier to accept.
I still bristle a little seeing Peppers in the orange and blue. I don't find myself rooting for him and probably never will. But I'll say this; in a few years when Julius Peppers lumbers across the stage to reveal a big-eared, goofy smiling bronze bust of himself I'm pretty confident I'll be able to split custody with da' Bears fans on this one. Can't agree? Still can't stand him? Completely understandable. I would encourage you to watch his enshrinement speech regardless. It took five years in Carolina before I heard the first interview from Peppers, I quickly discovered why. If you want a good last laugh at one of the most hated Carolina Panthers it will be your chance. I'll be watching it hoping he's mended fences and at least mentions his time in Carolina in a positive light. If not, I may have to change my stance yet again.