CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Defensive end Julius Peppers arrives at the practice fields on the back of a golf cart, usually with fellow Carolina Panthers end Mario Addison and nickel back Captain Munnerlyn. He participates in game installation -- basically a walk-through -- stretching and a few individual drills.
Then it’s back to the golf cart for a two-minute ride to the stadium while his teammates practice for another hour and a half.
When the injury report is given later in the day, it lists Peppers as “did not participate" with the word “rest” by his name.
>The routine has been the same for most of the season, except for the golf cart this week, as the team has prepared in Bank of America Stadium instead of the practice fields.
Not every player could get away with what would appear to be special treatment. Not every player would want that.
“You start getting that kind of treatment they start thinking you’re old," said 34-year-old outside linebacker Thomas Davis, meaning no disrespect to Peppers.
Peppers is old -- in football years. At 37, he’s wrapping up his 16th and possibly final season of a Hall of Fame career, although on Thursday, he left the door cracked for another year.
But Peppers doesn’t play old. Because of the special treatment, his body is fresh on Sundays to chase quarterbacks such as Drew Brees, his target for Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game in New Orleans.
He has 11 sacks this season, his most in the past five seasons. That earned him $750,000 in bonus incentives to his one-year deal that maxed out at $4.25 million -- maybe the bargain of the year for a player who in 2010 was the league’s highest-paid defensive player.
He still dominates offensive tackles like he did earlier in his career when he didn’t need extra rest.
“There’s not too much you can throw on Pep that he hasn’t seen," Munnerlyn said. “I don’t care about him not being out there on Wednesday or Thursday, because we know Pep is going to be ready to roll on Sunday.
“He deserves [the days off]."
‘Peppers is the locker room’
Not every veteran gets the kind of respect Peppers has at Carolina, where he began his career as the second overall pick in 2002.
Pittsburgh linebacker Bud Dupree said Harrison “didn’t want to do anything that made us better."
“When someone really doesn’t want to share wisdom with you or share knowledge with you because they feel like you’re gonna take their shine or take their limelight, that’s how we feel," DuPree told reporters.
Peppers is all about sharing his knowledge and making the Panthers (11-5) better. Although quiet around the media, he has been the soft-spoken leader in the locker room and on the field.
Asked what Peppers has meant to the locker room, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short summed it up best.
“Peppers is the locker room, man," he said. “Everybody wants to do what he’s done around here, if not longer. He set the standard. Everybody is trying to chase that greatness he’s done around here."
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has been around Peppers for only one season, but he understands.
“When you look at who he is and the years of experience he’s had and success he’s had as a football player, he’s one of those guys the young guys truly admire," Rivera said. “You can see there is a group of them following him around and listening to what he has to say."
Peppers doesn’t talk much. When he does, it’s usually when there is a situation that could spark panic. His words bring a sense of calmness to the group like few others can.
“It’s usually a very timely situation," safety Colin Jones said. “At different points in the season, he’s chosen to kind of talk at opportune times. I haven’t heard him say anything this week, but I’m sure he will."
And don’t think Peppers is sitting in a hot tub with an umbrella drink while his teammates are practicing. He’s getting prepared for whatever he’s asked to do on Sunday, mentally as much as physically.
“If you get at a certain point in your career, it’s important to conserve the body for the games and make sure your mind is sharp," Jones said. “Physically, he is so dominant. It is just a matter of sharpening the mind each week."
Strong safety Mike Adams, 36, said Peppers has earned the right to rest during the week.
“After 16 years, there’s no need to put wear and tear on your body on Wednesday and Thursday," he said. “It’s hard. It’s hard enough on Sunday. Pep is just a freak of an athlete. He can just go out there and get it done.
“But you can’t argue with that when you’re performing at a high level like he is."
Peppers has played at a high level all of his career. He ranks fourth on the NFL’s all-time sack list with 154.5, 5.5 shy of former Panthers outside linebacker Kevin Greene for third place.
Like Greene, it’s the intangibles Peppers brings to the table that stand out the most.
“Intensity," Adams said. “His presence alone means a lot to this locker room. He’s knowledgeable about the game and life, period."
If the Panthers win a title, this could be Peppers last season. One of the reasons he returned to Carolina in March after spending the past seven years in Chicago and Green Bay was to finish his career where it began.
He’d never played football on any level for a team outside of the state of North Carolina before leaving the Panthers following the 2009 season. Few probably expected him to return with somewhat bitter feelings over the team’s refusal to meet his contract demands.
But players such as Davis and Munnerlyn lobbied for the Panthers to re-sign Peppers during the offseason, understanding he could be a valuable piece to a defense capable of winning a title. Rivera said he’d love to have Peppers back in 2018.
All of Peppers’ focus is on Sunday’s game at New Orleans and taking the next step toward a title. He still believes this is the best defense he ever has been a part of and one that could win a title.
He also understands you don’t get a title by looking past the next opponent. He hopes to have instilled that in younger players who think seasons like this happen every year.
“The focus is on this week," Peppers said. "It’s not time for reflection right now. We’ll get to that at some point. Right now we’re getting ready to play the game."
And getting ready for Peppers means rest so he can be fresh to chase Brees and whoever might come next.
“I can guarantee you’ll never have to worry about anybody criticizing him for not being out there every day," Davis said. “The guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He knows how to play the game."