The Carolina Panthers’ player reunion tour continues this week when they visit Green Bay and face another of their former Pro Bowlers in Julius Peppers.
Peppers has been gone for five years, so his emotions about his exit from Charlotte aren’t as raw as those of Steve Smith, who promised “blood and guts” when his Baltimore Ravens faced Carolina in Week 4.
That was before Smith burned his former team for two long catches in the Ravens’ win, then two days later blasted Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman on sports-talk station WFNZ-AM.
Peppers was long gone to Chicago in 2013 when Gettleman replaced Marty Hurney, who drafted Peppers No. 2 overall in 2002 after Peppers’ successful, two-sport career at North Carolina.
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But Gettleman kicked the tires on Peppers after the Bears released the defensive end last winter in a cost-cutting move. Peppers described the talks as preliminary, but said for a moment he entertained the notion of returning to the team where he went to five Pro Bowls in eight seasons.
“It was a thought. It was a thought just like I had several places, potential landing spots,” Peppers said in a conference call Wednesday. “But obviously it didn’t work out. I ended up coming here and I’m pretty content being here.”
It turned out the Panthers could have used a proven pass rusher to plug in for Greg Hardy, who is on an indefinite leave of absence while awaiting his jury trial on domestic abuse charges in November. But the Panthers didn’t know that in March, after they’d put the franchise tag on Hardy and watched the Packers offer Peppers a three-year, $26 million deal.
“We thought you’d always love to have a quality player like that on your roster,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You have to understand what Green Bay did, coming with as much as they did. That makes sense. If somebody’s going to offer that type of money, you’ve got to take it.
“So we never really had the opportunity once all those numbers started getting thrown around, I’d assume.”
Peppers faced the Panthers three times with the Bears. None of the matchups was as memorable as 2010, when Peppers batted a Jimmy Clausen pass in the air and dived to make the interception.
After the play Peppers put his index finger to his facemask to “shush” the crowd. He called it one of the most emotional games he’s been a part of.
Before the 2010 game, Peppers said he was a “little sour” and felt the Panthers could have been “a little more respectful” in their dealings with him before he left via free agency.
But Peppers was more understated Wednesday when discussing his former team.
“I’ve pretty much been past all of that. After the first game that I came back and played against the Panthers, I was over it then,” Peppers said. “I’ve grown a lot since I left Charlotte. I let bygones be bygones and I’m moving forward just as they are.”
Peppers stayed in the NFC North when he signed with Green Bay, but he’s playing a new position for the first time in his career – outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 defense.
Even when he was with the Panthers, Peppers was intrigued by playing outside for a 3-4 team after watching pass-rushing ends such as Jason Taylor, Robert Mathis and John Abraham make the switch.
He’s wearing No. 56 in Green Bay not only because his customary No. 90 was taken by nose tackle B.J. Raji, but because he wanted to pay homage to Lawrence Taylor, the Hall of Famer who also played at North Carolina before redefining the outside linebacker position with the Giants.
“It’s been something I wanted to do for a while. I mentioned it while I was there (in Charlotte). I mentioned that it was one of my desires,” Peppers said. “When I left, I went to Chicago and I didn’t get the chance to try it. I didn’t get the chance to fulfill that dream, I guess. I didn’t want to look back at the end of my career and say, ‘I wish I could have tried this or I wish I could have done that.’ This was a great opportunity for me so I jumped at it.”
Peppers, 34, said he’s still learning the different leverage he has from a stand-up position, but feels he’s adjusted well to dropping in coverage, which he does on occasion. In a 42-10 win against Minnesota two weeks ago, Peppers intercepted a Christian Ponder pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown, then celebrated with his first Lambeau Leap.
That play caught Rivera’s eye as he watched the Thursday night broadcast of the Packers-Vikings game.
“He’s a lot leaner. He lost weight on purpose,” Rivera said of the 6-7, 287-pound Peppers. “I saw the interception against Minnesota and for a second I was trying to figure out who the linebacker was. He’s moving very well and he’s doing some really good things.”
And although Peppers has only 1.5 sacks in his first six games with the Packers (4-2), he’s still a feared edge rusher.
“He’s a special guy. He’s Pep. He’s big, athletic, fast. If you were creating a defensive lineman, he’d be a good place to start,” said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who played with Peppers for a season in Chicago.
“He seems to fit them well,” Rivera said. “He’s still a dynamic player, a little older.”
A little older, with perhaps a little more perspective.
“I don’t want to sound dismissive about the fact I’m playing my former team, but as we say it’s another game,” Peppers said. “Obviously I still have a lot of friends on that team that I played with, former teammates. So it’s going to be exciting to see those guys more than anything. Just to see them and give them a hug.”