CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Imagine how the struggling Carolina Panthers defense might look if it had a 6-foot-7, 287-pound Pro Bowl linebacker with 120.5 career sacks ready to slide in as the starter on the left side when Greg Hardy went on the commissioner’s exempt list.
It could have happened.
Julius Peppers was prepared in March to consider a return to Carolina, where from his rookie season in 2002 to 2009 he had 81 sacks, a total that still stands as a team record. In stepped the Green Bay Packers, who play host to the Panthers on Sunday.
They offered Peppers, 34, a three-year, $26 million deal and the opportunity to be a standup outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme that Peppers always wanted to be while at Carolina.
Despite the opportunity to return to his home state, he couldn’t resist signing with the Packers.
Had the Panthers known the impending woes of Hardy, who in May was arrested on domestic violence charges and in September was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list until his case is resolved, they might have offered more money.
“Well, yeah,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday. “In hindsight, absolutely. .... You also have to understand what Green Bay did, coming up with as much as they did. If somebody is going to offer you that kind of money, you’ve got to take it.
“So we never really had the opportunity once all those numbers started getting thrown around.”
Peppers isn’t sure how far talks with Carolina got, saying the Panthers were one of “several potential landing spots.”
“I was never over there for a visit,” he said. “I never talked to any of the coaches. It didn’t get very far for me personally.”
Peppers was – and in some ways still is -- a living legend in the Carolinas. He played high school football in Bailey, N.C., went to the University of North Carolina and then was selected by the Panthers with the No. 2 pick of the 2002 draft.
He then became the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after a 12-sack season and an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, five of those with the Panthers.
But in the end he needed to get away from Carolina to grow as a person and a player. It wasn’t a particularly good breakup. Peppers left Carolina for Chicago in 2010 feeling unwanted. At the time he called the departure a “little sour.”
Peppers and former general manager Marty Hurney had issues.
“How can you say you want to be somewhere when you’re really not sure if they want you there because they’re not even talking to you?” he said during a 2010 interview.
The disconnect between Carolina and Peppers began after the Panthers offered to make him the league’s highest-paid defensive player after he was held to a career-low 2.5 sacks in 2007.
Peppers rejected the deal.
“I didn’t really feel the sincerity behind that deal,” he said at the time.
Peppers responded with a career-best 14.5 sacks in 2008, then announced he wanted to play elsewhere. The Panthers instead placed the restrictive franchise tag on him in 2009.
When Peppers finally got his freedom, Chicago signed him to a six-year, $91.5 million deal -- $42 million guaranteed. The Bears released Peppers in March to avoid a $20 million hit against the salary cap.
That’s when the Panthers showed interest. Peppers was willing to listen, having moved past his feelings about his former team after they played in 2010.
“I’ve grown a lot since I left Charlotte,” said Peppers, who still has a home just outside of Charlotte in Mooresville. “I let bygones be bygones and I’m moving forward, just as they are.”
Peppers hasn’t given any thought to how the Panthers could have used him to replace Hardy. He’s focused on being a standup linebacker, something he asked to do when at Carolina.
“I was looking for a change in my life in general,” he said. “But as far as the football thing, that was one of the things that I wanted to do. I didn’t want to look back at the end of my career and say, ‘I wish I could have tried this or I wish I could have done that.’ “
Peppers would have been a short-term fix to the Hardy situation because of his age. But there’s no doubt he could have had an impact on a Panthers defense that has gone from second in the NFL a year ago in total defense to 26th.
Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said Peppers still is a premier defensive lineman.
“If you were creating a guy from scratch, he’s pretty much what you’re looking for, and we’ve got to account for him,” he said.
Rivera said Peppers still is a “dynamic player.”
“I saw the interception against Minnesota, and for a second was trying to figure out who the linebacker was, and then the realization it was him,” he said. “You would always love to have a quality player like that on your roster.”