Changing faces: Carolina Panthers

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Peppers We're continuing our team-by-team changing faces series with the Carolina Panthers and that makes me think of owner Jerry Richardson. I've said many times he's one of the classiest people in the NFL and I wish him the best as he recovers from his recent heart transplant.

But I'm also thinking it's weird and more than a little ironic that Richardson, the only owner to play in the NFL, has been jilted by the only two guys who he's ever given the keys to the franchise. One guy crashed the car repeatedly and the other seems to be leaving it in the parking lot with the keys locked inside.

The first was quarterback Kerry Collins, who partied his way out of town in the early years of the Panthers. There's no doubt that hurt Richardson and set the Panthers way back.

But what's happening now might hurt even worse. Defensive end Julius Peppers has made it very clear he doesn't want to play for the Panthers any more. He can become an unrestricted free agent in a couple of weeks or the Panthers can franchise him, which very well may set the stage for a trade.

No matter how you look at it, Peppers probably already has played his last game for the Panthers, the team which drafted him No. 2 overall in 2002 and the only team he has ever played for. Peppers also grew up in North Carolina and attended the University of North Carolina.

Richardson took great pride when guys like Mike Rucker and Mike Minter played their entire careers with the Panthers and decided to stay in the Charlotte area after retirement. Carolina is known as a place where players want to come and Richardson's reputation as a player-friendly owner is part of the reason for that.

But Peppers' desire to leave is a huge slap in the face. I don't think it's because of Richardson, but the owner did once publicly tell Peppers to step up and be the leader of the team. Peppers promptly disappeared for an entire season (2.5 sacks in 2007). Telling the shy and quiet Peppers to be a leader wasn't a good idea -- it's just not in his nature.

Time for the Panthers to move on and let Steve Smith and Jon Beason be the faces of the franchise (and get some new defensive ends, too). Time to let Peppers move on, too.

But one closing thought on the ultra-talented defensive end: During Super Bowl week, I ran into one of Peppers' former teammates and asked him for his take on the situation and I thought he brought up a great point.

"Why would anybody sign him to a huge contract after he pulled this?'' the former teammate said. "I mean, what's to stop him from going some place else and, after a year or two, deciding he doesn't want to be there, either?''