No matter how you look at it, Panthers win bout

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
In the end, the Carolina Panthers won.

It's not just because defensive end Julius Peppers is going to have to come to training camp with his tail between his legs after finally signing his franchise tender Wednesday.

The real reason the Panthers won is because they're keeping a player they wanted to keep all along. A guy they've built their defense around for seven years. A guy who, is no worse than the second-best player in franchise history. (Steve Smith is the only other guy even in the discussion.)

"If you go by actions, and we've known Julius for seven years, Julius has been the same guy for seven years and we really haven't seen any change in that," general manager Marty Hurney said. "He's always been a very competitive person, who's always shown he likes to be a Carolina Panther. That's not a concern at all. He's the same guy.''

Hurney's a big believer in actions speaking louder than words. I share the same philosophy and so do a lot of other people. But you have to at least ask the question about the words Peppers and his agent spoke back in February.

They basically came out and said Peppers wanted out of Carolina, wanted to go to a team with a 3-4 defense and felt he hadn't been able to reach his potential with the Panthers.

If those statements came from another player or agent, you could roll your eyes and say it was all part of a contract negotiation. But Peppers isn't like any other player. He's about the most quiet and private player I've ever encountered. When he says something of that magnitude, you have to assume he meant it.

So what's changed in the months in between?

Maybe nothing. Before you go out and start buying No. 90 Carolina jerseys again, remember that Peppers really had no other choice than to sign the tender. Carey had months to shop him to the rest of the league. Nobody will say for sure if any team offered anything for Peppers, but we can at least be certain no one offered enough to convince the Panthers to part with the guy they drafted No. 2 overall in 2002.

The only other option was a holdout for the season and that would have cost Peppers almost $17 million in salary, so it wasn't really an option.

Peppers will have some explaining to do when he shows up at training camp on Aug. 2. But the signing of the tender means he will show up and this is not some prelude to a trade.

Peppers will return to the Panthers -- for at least this year. I wouldn't worry too much about resentment from teammates. Peppers is well-respected in the locker room. I'd worry more about if Peppers has patched up what seemed to be some differences with coach John Fox and the team's defensive philosophy.

Carolina's defensive staff -- almost in its entirety -- has changed from last year. Coordinator Mike Trgovac's gone and so is defensive line coach Sal Sunseri, but I don't think either of those guys were part of whatever issue Peppers had.

Fox isn't going to suddenly change his defense. He's going to hand new coordinator Ron Meeks the keys to Peppers and basically go about doing things the same way the Panthers always have.

That's pretty much a no-lose situation.

There really are two best-case scenarios (and one worst-case that's not all that bad) here.

Best case I: Peppers either already has patched-up his differences or will patch them up. He comes in highly motivated, racks up about 17 sacks and Panther Nation lives happily ever after.

Best case II: Maybe Peppers hasn't patched-up those differences and maybe he never does. But logic suggests he should show up with a chip on his shoulder. He can go out and have a huge year and then, basically, write his own ticket to wherever he wants to go (although there are no contingencies stating the Panthers won't franchise him again). This situation worked once for the Panthers a few years back when disgruntled defensive tackle Kris Jenkins wanted out. The Panthers weren't willing to let him go. Jenkins came back, kept his mouth shut and produced. The next year, he still wanted out and the Panthers let him go when they got a nice price tag from the New York Jets.

Worst-case scenario: This is a long shot because it's hard to imagine a player with so much on the line (and with the kind of pride I think Peppers has) just folding. But what if Peppers shows up and goes through the motions (for reasons we'll never really know) like he did in 2007 when he produced 2.5 sacks? Only the Panthers and Peppers really know what was going on in 2007, and all indications are those were different circumstances.

Peppers has produced the rest of his career, including a career-best 14.5 sacks last year.

"You go by the person you've been with for seven years," Hurney said. "You
go by what he's done for the team. There's no concern about that on this end."

Whatever battle was going on is over. The only real question is what happens this season. Will Peppers' actions in September, October, November and December speak louder than his words back in February?