When he was with the Carolina Panthers during their Super Bowl season two years ago, now-retired defensive end Jared Allen talked proudly about how he kept track of all the quarterbacks he’d sacked during his career.
“He’s in my book,” Allen would say when asked about a particular quarterback.
That’s not the case with Julius Peppers.
The Panthers’ prolific edge rusher and the NFL’s active sacks leader doesn’t have a running tally of the passers he’s pressured and taken down.
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It’s a long list.
Peppers, 37, who returned to Carolina in March before the start of his 16th season, last week became only the fifth player to reach 150 sacks since the NFL began recognizing them as an official statistic in 1982.
Eagles second-year quarterback Carson Wentz was Peppers’ latest victim, even if there’s no book for Peppers to update.
“I haven’t really thought about going through the names to see,” Peppers said this week.
The Observer did it for him, creating a database of his sacks using information from NFL.com.
Peppers’ 150 sacks have come at the expense of 74 quarterbacks, a list that runs the gamut from current and future Hall of Famers (Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) to journeymen who only started a handful of games (Ryan Lindley, Andrew Walter).
Peppers has sacked quarterbacks who were big-time busts (Tim Couch, David Carr) and others with big, long names (Marques Tuiasosopo).
Peppers has gotten current teammates (Cam Newton), former teammates (Jay Cutler), ex-Panthers (Kerry Collins), QBs who later became reality TV stars (Jesse Palmer) and QBs who stay in the spotlight no matter what they do (Tim Tebow).
Peppers’ sacks have come against QBs winding down their careers and passers just breaking into the league.
In a game against St. Louis in 2004 during his first stint with the Panthers, Peppers sacked Rams quarterback Chris Chandler, who was a rookie in 1988 for an Indianapolis team that featured running back Eric Dickerson, who is now 57 and has been out of the league for 24 years.
This week Peppers will go after Bears rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who was 8 when Peppers debuted for the Panthers in 2002 after Carolina drafted him No. 2 overall.
And though he’s never scribbled their names down on paper, Peppers looked over a reporter’s scribbled-down names on two sheets of paper, smiled and said: “I remember all of them.”
And you always remember your first.
No plays off
Peppers left North Carolina as a two-sport star before the 2002 draft, when the expansion Houston Texans had the first pick. After the Texans took Carr, the Fresno State quarterback, No. 1, the Panthers followed by grabbing Peppers.
The Lions snagged a quarterback with the third pick by taking Joey Harrington, who was still playing behind Mike McMahon when Detroit came to Charlotte in Week 2 that season.
McMahon, who had played at Rutgers, remembers hearing the Lions scouts saying they wouldn’t have been interested in Peppers because they thought he took plays off for the Tar Heels.
But on the Lions’ first possession, Peppers broke through the line and wrapped up McMahon for his first career sack. McMahon doesn’t remember Peppers’ first two sacks that day, but he hasn’t forgotten Peppers’ third one – though his recall immediately after that play was cloudy.
McMahon was flushed from the pocket on the final play of the first half. He moved to his left and was trying to find a receiver when he was blasted from behind and lost the ball.
McMahon didn’t realize until later it was Peppers, who had come from the opposite side of the field and leveled him.
“He hit me and I remember going parallel to the ground. The ball goes flying. I fumble the ball. I don’t even know who recovered it (the Panthers’ Reggie Howard did),” McMahon said. “I think by the time it was recovered or picked up, the clock had run out.”
McMahon, who had blacked out briefly, was still laying on the grass as both teams headed toward the tunnels for halftime. Because this was years before the NFL had a concussion protocol, McMahon finished the game – a 31-7 Panthers victory.
Afterward, he sought out a couple of the Lions’ personnel guys.
“I remember after that game going, ‘Well, do you guys like him now because I don’t think he took any plays off,’” McMahon said.
In his second career game, Peppers had put together the first of nine three-sack days.
The frequent victims
Peppers had more reasons to remember several quarterbacks, particularly those who spent their careers entirely in the NFC, as Peppers has.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 7.5 times by Peppers, more than any other quarterback – despite Peppers playing with Rodgers the past three seasons with the Packers.
Green Bay visits Carolina on Dec. 11, although Peppers likely won’t get a chance to add to his total: Rodgers broke his collarbone last week and could miss the rest of the season.
“Nah, probably not,” Peppers said of Rodgers, whom Peppers has stayed in touch with. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
Just behind Rodgers on Peppers’ sack list is former Falcons and Eagles star Michael Vick, who was dropped seven times by Peppers despite being one of the fastest quarterbacks in NFL history.
“With Mike, sometimes you get sacks that you’re not supposed to get,” Peppers said. “Sometimes he ends up running to you, extending the play and running out of bounds. Some of those sacks are probably like that.”
Five of Peppers’ sacks vs. Vick came before he went to federal prison for 18 months for running a dogfighting ring.
The Lions’ Matthew Stafford saw Peppers twice a year for seven seasons in the NFC North when Peppers was with the Bears and Packers. Stafford thought he’d been spared when Peppers re-signed with the Panthers ... until Carolina went to Detroit in Week 5 and Peppers sacked him for the sixth time in his career.
“Can’t get away from that guy,” Stafford told Detroit reporters.
Stafford and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan are the only quarterbacks Peppers has sacked for each of his three teams – a fact Peppers found “pretty neat.”
Peppers’ 6.5 sacks through six games this season have pushed his team record to 87.5, to go with the 37.5 he collected in Chicago and the 25 he had in three seasons as an outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme.
Peppers has already nearly matched his season sack totals from two of his three years with Green Bay. He says getting back in a three-point stance as a traditional defensive end has helped, as has his decision to take it easier during the offseason.
His new routine: “Just do less. Really that’s it, it’s that simple. Just do less and maintain.”
Less has meant more for Peppers, who unofficially leads the Panthers in vet days off.
Bears coach John Fox, who was in Carolina when Peppers was drafted, said whatever Panthers coach Ron Rivera is doing with Peppers, it’s working.
“The fact that he’s still playing and being productive,” Fox said, “I think the coaches there are doing a great job of putting him in a position to succeed, taking good care of him and he’s done a terrific job so far this season.”
Peppers acknowledged there are milestones for edge rushers.
Former Tampa Bay quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was Peppers’ 50th sack, and ex-Panthers and current Bills quarterback Joe Webb was his 100th.
Peppers said Panthers assistant coach Eric Washington had a “little presentation” for him in the defensive line meeting room after Peppers notched his 150th vs. Wentz.
“I try to deflect that stuff,” Peppers said. “It’s about the team.”
Interestingly, Peppers said he thinks his 10 career interceptions have been more memorable than his voluminous sack total.
Warner, the former Rams and Cardinals QB and current NFL Network analyst, would agree.
Warner wore a memory of Peppers on his non-throwing arm – a bulky, black brace – for the remainder of the 2007 season after Peppers dislocated Warner’s elbow diving for the ball after a strip sack.
“When my kids pull up the video of when I dislocated my elbow, there’s that big behemoth of a man jumping on top of my arm and making it go the wrong direction – and getting the ball on top of it,” Warner said.
But what sticks with Warner most about Peppers was a 2009 game when Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff drew up a quick-hitting swing pass for running back Beanie Wells. The play called for an Arizona tackle to cut Peppers, giving Warner a throwing lane to hit Wells.
“I told my coaches all week long, ‘Please don’t run it that direction. I know you think you have it in for Julius. I like the play. Run it the other direction,’” Warner recalled.
But Whisenhunt kept the play in, and called for it in the second quarter from the Cardinals’ 20.
The tackle was able to cut Peppers, but then things unfolded pretty much as Warner had feared.
“(Peppers) goes down to the ground and I’m thinking, ‘OK, get the ball out now.’ So I get out the ball quick and Julius pops up off the ground, reaches up with one hand, snags it out of the air and walks in for a pick six. Right in my face,” Warner said.
“I couldn’t get over to the sideline fast enough to tell my coach, ‘That’s why you don’t throw it at Julius Peppers.’”
The 13-yard interception return was one of six career touchdowns for Peppers, with four coming on interceptions and two on fumble returns.
And for Warner, it was another example of the 6-foot-7 Peppers’ blend of size and athleticism that one day will earn him a bronze bust in Canton.
“We haven’t seen very many guys that are that big and that athletic and have really the whole package,” said Warner, a Hall of Fame inductee this year. “And then to do it as well and as long as he has, I would have to think it’s a no-brainer that one day he’ll be sporting a gold jacket, as well.”
Those thoughts can wait
But those aren’t conversations Peppers is interested in joining – at least not now.
He says there will be time after his playing days to reflect on his accomplishments and the quarterbacks he’s brought down.
Three weeks ago in Foxborough, Mass., Peppers sacked Brady twice, raising his total to three vs. the five-time Super Bowl-winner. It prompted little more than a shrug from Peppers this week in the locker room.
“As we go through these things I don’t really process it,” he said. “But after the fact one day I might sit back with my boys and talk to them about it: ‘I played against Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and sacked those guys.’”
He’s not done, yet.
Though Peppers signed only a one-year deal with Carolina, he says he’s not sure how much longer he wants to play.
For now, he’s going to keep chasing quarterbacks, with Trubisky next up on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Peppers was asked whether it would be cool to add a fellow Tar Heel to the book that Peppers isn’t keeping, but continues to add to.
“Hopefully,” Peppers said. “Hopefully I get this one and knock this out of the way so it’ll be on to something else.”
Gavin Off: 704-358-6038
Panthers at Bears
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. (CBS)