When Julius Peppers first came to Charlotte back in 2002, the key to the city was under his doormat. The deeds for two states were waiting in his mailbox.
The home-grown kid was going to own both of the Carolinas and be the first true superstar to play for the Carolina Panthers. It would be almost like Michael Jordan getting drafted by the former Charlotte Hornets instead of the Chicago Bulls.
So what the heck is happening now? Why does it look as if the man who was supposed to be the King of the Queen City and the Count of the Carolinas is about to walk away from a franchise and a fan base that so wanted to embrace him? Why does it look like the Panthers are willing to sit back and watch the best player they’ve ever had go?
If you could answer those questions with one statement or even point to a single issue, this wouldn’t be happening because it could have been resolved. The curious case of Peppers and the Panthers is beyond complicated. Sure, football and money are involved. But it goes way deeper than that. The divorce that appears about to happen if the Panthers don’t put the franchise tag on their defensive end before Feb. 25 and let him become a free agent also involves emotions, personalities and a marriage that never was as close to being perfect as it looked on paper.
Blame can flow both ways on this and it’s not accurate to say either side is entirely right or entirely wrong. But it is fair to say they both were flawed and maybe this pairing was doomed from the very start.
Let’s start with Peppers. If you don’t know him, don’t feel bad because, basically, nobody knows him. Since the day he walked in the door of Bank of America Stadium, his teammates, coaches and team employees have tried to figure him out. They never have.
I covered Peppers on a daily basis for The Charlotte Observer from the day he was drafted until I left for this space right after the 2007 season. I saw and talked with Peppers many times, but the truth is I’ve had deeper conversations with my cat.
Peppers is a mystery wrapped in the body of a pass-rusher. He came in as an extremely shy and quiet kid. The only difference in that now is he’s no longer a kid. He’s 30 and, although he went on a Charlotte radio station recently and said he didn’t want to stay with the Panthers, nobody knows what it is he really wants. Nobody really has been able to crack that one.
"Pep is just Pep," a former Carolina teammate said.
Phrases like that are pretty much the universal answer when you ask people who have played with or coached Peppers about him. Nobody will call him a bad guy and some will tell you he’s a good guy, but they’ll qualify it by saying “as far as I know."
Peppers always has marched to his own music, often walking through the locker room wearing headphones on the occasions he even surfaced in the locker room when the media were around. There’s never been a lot of interaction between Peppers and his teammates and he’s spent his offseasons far away from Charlotte.
Through it all, Peppers generally has produced at a high level. He’s made the Pro Bowl five times, the All-Decade Team and holds the franchise record with 81 sacks. But Peppers has been known to disappear at certain times. Sometimes, it lasts a game. Sometimes, it lasts a few games and, in 2007, it lasted an entire season as Peppers came through with 2.5 sacks.
Those phases bring disappointment to fans, coaches and teammates. But, inevitably, Peppers will go out and have a three-sack game and most of the damage is momentarily undone. However, when that type of frustration is spread over an entire career, the question becomes, "Why can’t Peppers have three sacks every game?"
That’s a lofty expectation, but it’s human nature. There have been times when Peppers has looked like the best athlete on the planet. That’s where the problems really started.
When Peppers looks just ordinary, you hear the talk about him taking plays off. And you hear the talk that "Pep is just Pep."
That’s the other real problem in all this. The Panthers never really have allowed Pep to be just Pep.
The best example of that came in training camp of 2007. Safety Mike Minter was announcing his retirement and owner Jerry Richardson stood up in front of the room. He praised Minter and, then, in a very calculated move, pointed at Peppers and told the defensive end the team was now his and it was his time.
I was in the room and I saw Peppers’ jaw hit the floor. Privately, a lot of important people in that room winced. Privately, a lot of them had tried to talk Richardson out of making that statement.
Their argument was that Peppers just doesn’t have the personality or the desire to be an outspoken leader. To a lot of people, Richardson comes off as a good ol' Southern boy (he’s from the same stretch of eastern North Carolina where Peppers grew up), but that’s not entirely accurate. He’s a hard-driving businessman and, as a businessman, he certainly had the right to ask his best-paid employee to do whatever is asked.
Behind the scenes, it’s kind of been that way ever since Peppers joined the Panthers. They tried to make him something he’s not and he resisted.
From the start, the Panthers placed Peppers’ locker right in a row with the lockers of Mike Rucker, Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins. They were all big talkers. Rucker and Buckner were company men and, Jenkins, on his good days, could be even more charming. The thinking was that some of that would rub off on Peppers.
Like any football team, there’s a certain climate in which the players live. Under coach John Fox, players are expected to be company men -- noncontroversial, polished and active in the community. That works nicely for some guys. Take Minter and Rucker, for example. They were two good -- but far from great -- players. They followed the corporate tone, were active in the community and are now set for life in Charlotte simply because they are Mike Rucker and Mike Minter.
There have been certain players over the years who have resented how Fox and Richardson rewarded the guys who played strictly by their rules. And there have been many players over the years who have resented how receiver Steve Smith gets to play by his own set of rules and still gets rewarded.
Peppers didn’t do things the way Rucker and Minter did and he certainly doesn’t approach life like Smith. Some people will tell you they wish Peppers had just a touch of the chip on his shoulder that Smith does.
That sounds nice in theory, but it never would have worked. People -- and I’m talking owner, coaches, teammates, media and fans -- wanted Peppers to have a little touch of Rucker and Minter, a little dose of Smith and a tad of the fiery competitiveness of Jake Delhomme.
Peppers was born into royalty. The Panthers handed him a crown and a throne and gave him their instructions on how to use them. He declined. He didn’t want to be king. He just wanted to be Pep.