PALM BEACH, Fla. – There was a point last season when Carolina Panthers coach John Fox heard the reasoning reach a point of absurdity. Maybe defensive end Julius Peppers was having girl problems. Maybe he had some weird illness. Maybe – and Fox actually heard this one – Peppers had some kind of worm in his system.
"I've heard it all," Fox said incredulously. "The reality is he had a bad year."
In fairness, it was the worst of Peppers' career: 38 tackles (his second fewest while with the Panthers) and a career-low 2½ sacks for a defense that got to the quarterback only 23 times in 2007 (31st in the NFL). Even worse was the timing as the Panthers' cornerstone commodity looked to be on his way to becoming the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. But before anyone goes off on a wild tangent about Peppers' future beyond 2008 – the final season in a seven-year contract – Fox can rattle off some names that put Peppers' lost season in a softer light.
"Randy Moss," Fox said. "He had a little bit better year this year in New England than he did the year before in Oakland. Brett Favre. Brett Favre had a lot better year this year than he did the year before. People forget that. I could go through a bunch of them.
"I love Julius Peppers. We are not looking to trade Julius Peppers. We want him with us for some years to come. He did not have his best season a year ago. I won't argue that and he won't argue that. But we're ready to move on."
That's the same conviction shared by Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, who scoffed at offseason speculation that Carolina would be willing to trade Peppers. If anything, Peppers enters 2008 in better position to sign a long-term deal than a year ago. With the growth of the salary cap, contract extensions are sucking the lifeblood out of free agency, making quality at the pivotal positions – quarterback, offensive tackle and defensive end – even harder to come by. As a result, the Panthers know that Peppers is in line for a record-setting deal, whether it comes from Carolina or another team in '09 free agency. And when you have the talent in-house, teams are more inclined than ever to keep it.
"Look at his first five years," Hurney said, pointing at a span (2002-2006) in which Peppers put up 53½ sacks, a number that was exceeded by only the Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney (56½). "I think last year as a whole, things didn't go right for any of us. You've got to be very careful about evaluating individuals negatively when the whole team just doesn't go the way you hoped it would. We know what he is. If you asked around the league, there would be a lot of teams that would agree with that."
Added Fox, "We were on the field a lot. Some of it was our fault. We weren't as good on third down. We didn't rush the passer as well. That's something we've got to get better at. Our offense was a lot of three and outs."
Not that there isn't bound to be some consternation with paying Peppers a deal that will exceed the reported six-year, $72 million deal that Freeney inked last summer. The $30 million in guaranteed money in Freeney's pact set the bar astronomically high for elite defensive ends, and it was signed in an offseason after Freeney put up what was then a career-low 5½ sacks (he posted just 3½ sacks before suffering a season-ending injury in Indy's ninth game last year). So financially, even with last season's numbers, Peppers has a precedent working in his favor.
In reality, Peppers' numbers and ridiculous physical stature (6-foot-7 and 283 pounds) may make him more attractive on the open market than a guy like the smaller Freeney – particularly considering he plays the run well. But there remains the nagging issue of Peppers' understated leadership – something that was pointed out rather awkwardly in a press conference heading into last season by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
At this point, the fact that Peppers isn't the most demonstrative player on the field or in the locker room may not even matter. Allowing Peppers' contract to linger deep into next season doesn't sound particularly appealing. But the complexities and ramifications of negotiating such an astronomical contract extension could be what drags him into playing during a contract year.
"You don't have to pay him the money," said New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, who coached Peppers in the Pro Bowl following the 2006 season. "The key is, do you want to? Do you feel like it's a good bet – a safe bet? Sometimes, players going into a contract year, that's not a bad thing.
"Charles Grant went into his contract year for us, played exceptionally well and then got another contract. It varies with each player. You've got to look at age. You've got to look at health. Then you really try to evaluate why you think this season wasn't as good when you're talking about Peppers. Was it an aberration, or was it signs of what we're going to see more of? … After coaching him at the Pro Bowl, I would look at (2007) as more of an aberration."
Interestingly, one of Carolina's goals in the upcoming draft appears getting a talented pass-rusher on the opposite side of the line – perhaps a tandem that could rival what the Giants can put on the field with Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan. With Mike Rucker floating around in free agency, the Panthers picked up veteran Tyler Brayton, but their focus appears to be centering on Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey with the 13th overall pick in the upcoming draft.
The Panthers sent an impressive contingent to Florida's pro day last month: Fox, defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, and defensive line coach Sal Sunseri. It was Sunseri who ran Harvey's positional workout at the event, and all three coaches spent time chatting up Harvey's family.
But Fox is the first to admit that adding one piece isn't likely to unlock Peppers again. Part of it will lean on getting the anemic offense fixed and putting teams in situations where they are forced to throw to stay in games. Part of it will lean on more creative scheming. And part of it will simply be on Peppers to return to dominance.
As Fox said Wednesday, "I expect Pep to come back in a big way."
And as expectations go, there might not be a more crucial one than that in Carolina next season.