On Julius Peppers, the Packers? elephant on the field
This story appeared in the May-June 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
So I have this friend. For as many ways as he is an unpredictable bundle of energy at any given time, he is so, so consistent in one area: his unending, sometimes unnerving, love for Julius Peppers. My friend is a Carolina Panthers fan too, didn’t want Peppers to leave Charlotte, and really didn’t want him to sign with the Bears. That meant he’d be, twice a season, inundated with texts about Peppers from his Packers fan friends, of which he has many. And it didn’t help that Peppers, for all the talk about his on-and-off energy level, never seemed to approach a Packers game with anything less than his full attention. (In 10 career games Peppers has 9.5 sacks against Green Bay. The last two seasons in Chicago he registered 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception against Green Bay.) Anyway, it was through this friend that I woke up to the Julius Peppers signing.
I did not believe it at first. But under everyone’s noses and the cover of an otherwise normal early Saturday morning, Julius Peppers snuck into Green Bay and signed with the Packers on March 15. In an instant the deal turned an offseason of re-signings and the same ol’ waiting game into something different, something we’d heard might be coming this way. With one move it became a louder period compared to the usual noise generated during springs and summers spent with Ted Thompson and his method of football-team-making, which is to say mostly quiet on the free agent front, generally heavy on hushed improvement from within, and the NFL Draft as Party Time Central as far as personnel moves are concerned.
Even the Peppers pick-up, though the team’s biggest free agent defensive addition since the eternally-glorious Charles Woodson signing in 2006, is classic Thompson smart-hedging. Peppers isn’t getting a ton of promised money, and isn’t getting locked into a long-term contract. At 34, maybe Peppers was going to get all that somewhere else, eventually, but not from Green Bay. What he does get from the Packers are incentives and the chance to play on a championship contender that just might happen to need someone like him before truly becoming the championship contenders they are pushing to be. This was, apparently, enough for him to swap NFC North cities after the Chicago Bears chose to relieve themselves of the salary cap seam-bursting contract he signed with them four years ago.
We’re in the absorption period now. All the above has come to the forefront after the initial shockwaves wore away. But let’s remember that morning for a minute. The shock so many Packers fans woke up to that Saturday – an agent-tweeted photo of Julius Peppers, one of the biggest names on the free agent market which means, to many, that he’s probably not a fit with the Packers simply because they just don’t make those moves very often – not only visiting Green Bay but sitting there signing a contract seemingly out of thin air. Without any of the usual flurry of news bits signaling the arrival of a certain player at a certain destination. It was at once refreshing and stunning because of how different it was from most other transactions in today’s NFL and the hamster wheel of the news cycle. From the outside it felt like the Packers and Peppers ran into each other shopping at Bay Park Square Mall. After briefly catching up near the Auntie Anne’s, the Packers casually, almost jokingly, end the conversation by saying, “Yeah, we should really get together sometime,” not expecting anything, and then Peppers responding, “Well, what are you doing right now?”
Of course the Packers deserve more credit than this. By all accounts it seems they’d been targeting Peppers before and since free agency started. Staying true to themselves they hung in the tall grass out of sight until everyone else was gone. They struck and got their guy before our coffee was in the filter.
As mentioned, we’ve now moved into the processing phase of the deal. We pretty much know why Peppers was their guy from the get-go, because we now know how the Packers generally plan to use Peppers. And we know the why and the how of it are directly connected by Peppers’ famously freakish versatility. We know, thanks to Mike McCarthy at the NFL meetings in March, that the position for Peppers in next season’s scheme also has a cool name: the elephant.
In simple terms, Ganesha is a popular deity of the Hindu religion. Ganesha has the body of a Siddha – basically cross-legged humans that double as masters of various realms of the universe – and the head of an elephant. Ganesha can have four arms and one broken tusk, and is known as the Lord of Obstacles, meaning he either removes obstacles or places them in front of those deserving. He is known to play more than that one role in the Hindu faith, too, and here is of course where we’ll draw the line to Julius Peppers. From the various roles it sounds like this elephant position will take for the Packers’ defense next season, with Peppers and the likes of Mike Neal and Nick Perry shifting from hand-down defensive ends, interior line pass-rushers, outside linebackers blitzing and dabbling in coverage, elephant is just a better way of saying versatile.
And in this elephant role Peppers will be removing obstacles, either for himself or for his Packers teammates, notably the more lion-like – if we’re doing animal comparisons now – Clay Matthews. Peppers is an obstacle the offense must work around, focus on, because we don’t care if he’s 34, he’s still Julius Peppers, and ignoring him a season after he was cut doesn’t seem wise. Ignoring him any season isn’t.
Peppers’ isn’t what he once was, maybe he’s got a broken tusk in that way, but the dude is the Lord of Obstacles because they’re created around him and, in turn, for him. Obstacles cropped up when he played as straightforwardly as possible as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end for the Bears. Wherever he is, he must be accounted for. And that was on a Bears team that arguably used Peppers and all that he could bring to the field in about as boring a fashion as a team probably could. The Packers will not do this. The Packers could have found a more traditional defensive end/pass rusher somewhere else. They signed Peppers because he is that, but he isn’t just that. He is an elephant now, and wherever he plays he will be a big, obvious obstacle fitting of the term. It’s the position he maybe always should have been playing, by the sounds of it.
My friend is, as you’d imagine, more than happy about the marriage of his favorite player and second favorite team. I’m just glad I’m no longer in fear of Peppers. His presence, with Chicago’s defensive line ravaged by injuries last season, may have been too big for his own good. There may not have been a better way to use his abilities other than aiming him straight at the quarterback as the Bears did, a bedrock staple of any successful defense, and hoping his talents broke through the double teams, the singular focus, and somehow lived up to oversized expectations in a bad situation.
Maybe we won’t have an otherworldly Lord of Obstacles like Ganesha in Peppers. If he’s just circa-now Julius Peppers – aging, once-and-still-occasionally-unguardable Julius Peppers – it’s hard not to see dangerous and creative obstacles on the field that the Packers can then use against a quarterback. Wherever in the spectrum Peppers’ time in Green Bay falls, the Packers have a player who still very much means something in the NFL. Like Woodson before him, Peppers is a foreboding and respected veteran around the league, an elephant in the room who, like Matthews, demands attention. My friend has seen Julius Peppers play in more plays than I ever will. But neither of us have seen what’s coming next for him. We’re all awake to the deal now, yet the dream could still be very far ahead. You can only avoid obstacles for so long.