Peppers relishes his fresh start

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Julius Peppers once loathed the after-practice scene -- the cameras and mics shoved in his face -- reporters jockeying for position, the redundant lines of questioning.

Then, all of the sudden, something changed.

“I didn’t like [speaking with reporters in the past],” Peppers said. “But it’s a new start; a fresh start. That’s a decision I made when I came here, that I was going to be more available to the press, and try to let people find out more about me and what I’m thinking.”

What’s on Peppers’ mind these days involves maintaining his newfound comfort zone and proving critics wrong, in addition to providing the Bears justification for the $91.5 million ($42 million guaranteed) they spent in free agency to acquire his services.

Peppers racked up 81 sacks in the first eight years of his career with the Carolina Panthers. But in January -- a little more than a month prior to the Bears signing him to the lucrative contract -- Peppers turned 30, an age considered by league insiders to be the negative turning point in a pass rusher’s career. History indicates as much.

From 1999 to 2009, just 18 players age 30 or older at the start of the season ranked in the top 10 in sacks. Of those 18, four of them produced (James Harrison, Simeon Rice, Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor) repeat top-10 sack performances the next season.

So with those types of odds stacked against Peppers headed into the season, Bears’ general manager Jerry Angelo basically dialed up the pressure earlier this week by saying he doesn’t “see any reason why [Peppers] can’t be the most dominant defensive lineman in the game this year. I’m looking for an MVP year out of Julius.”

Well-aware of the nosedive players at his position tend to take after age 30, Peppers said he wants the same, and even hinted at taking a shot at Strahan’s single-season sack record (22 ½) this season.

“I aim high, have those same expectations [as Angelo],” Peppers said. “Anything less than that is truly going to be a disappointment.”

Asked whether the record was out of reach for him, Peppers said, “I don’t think so. I’m not gonna sit here and say I’m shooting for it. I’m not gonna say that I’m not shooting for it, either. It’s been done before, and can be done again. That’s what records are there for ... to be broken.”

Before Peppers can make a mark in the league’s annals, the veteran -- described as quiet by the coaching staff -- wants to elevate the play of his teammates. Peppers hasn’t made fiery speeches or used his reputation as one of the game’s best to accomplish that goal, according to Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

“I just see a guy who has come in here, doesn’t say anything,” Marinelli said. “What I really admire right now is he’s come in here, and has worked every day, every snap; a pro. From note taking, to details, to the rush -- just the little subtle things we ask him to do at times -- he's on it. He’s really a great example for a lot of our young players up front.”

Even older players, such as seven-year veteran Israel Idonije, are taking mental notes.

“Just watch him; watch the guy practice,” Idonije said. “He gives everything, and works hard from the beginning of practice until the end. And he’s not just doing his own thing. He’s doing what the coaches have asked. You watch that, then, just watch his technique, and the things he brings to the table. Those are some things you watch to see if you can add to your repertoire. Watch his getoff. The guy gets off the ball on every snap low and attacking the edge, forcing these [offensive] tackles to get back. That’s a great place to start when you’re watching and trying to emulate some of his qualities.”

Defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who first met Peppers when the two worked out together prior to the combine, said the acquisition of Peppers “just seems like a natural fit to me. Great dude, who will just open up everything for us and help out a lot.”

While at Carolina, Peppers didn’t always receive such praise from teammates. Peppers’ critics -- who often spoke of a tendency for the defensive end to take plays off -- caused him to close out people and take a guarded stance toward dealing with the media.

Peppers said “it was definitely time” for his departure from Carolina back in March, “not only from that team, but from the state period. I was there for 30 years. That’s my home state; I love it. I still plan to live there after I retire, but you need a change of scenery sometimes. You need to get away.”

Now that he’s accomplished the change, Peppers wants to finally silence the critics. One NFL coach who worked with Peppers in Carolina, held the same beliefs about a perceived lack of effort from the defensive end.

“When we were evaluating before we got him, I thought that too. Then one of our coaches gave me tape from the [2002] combine,” the coach said. “He said watch this one first; then watch Julius. I watched the first guy, he’s straining through this drill, grunting, making all kinds of faces. Right after that, Peppers comes up and goes through the same drill [the coach imitates an effortless run]. Smooth. You look at your watch, and Peppers just smoked the time [of the player in the first drill]. He just makes it look so easy sometimes it looks like he’s not trying.”

Peppers laughed at the story, before agreeing and adding his spin.

“You know, I think sometimes certain players – and I don’t name names – but certain players have a certain haircut, they have certain sack celebrations. They draw a lot of attention to themselves. That stuff can make it seem like you’re playing hard when really, you’re playing [about the same] as everybody else,” Peppers said. “You’re just bringing that extra attention to yourself. Just because I go about it mild mannered and I don’t do all of that stuff, maybe that’s something to talk about, too. If you hear [the criticism] from a coach that’s a different story. But I have yet to hear that from a coach. People who say it and watch the game don’t really understand my responsibilities on certain plays. If my play is not to run and chase the ball, if my play is to stay backside, then I’ve got to stay backside. I’ve got to be disciplined. I can’t run across the field and chase stuff that’s not mine. I can’t help that stuff comes easy sometimes; easier than somebody else. So I deal with it and hopefully, after this year, people won’t say that anymore.”

Still, critics will justifiably question whether the Bears paid too much for a player who could be entering the crossroads of his career. There’s also the legitimate concern that Peppers -- now that he’s received the big paycheck (he’ll make $40.5 million in the first three years) -- won't be motivated to play hard.

“That’s not my moral fiber, my character,” Peppers said. “I’m not above criticism. I can [take that] constructive[ly]; not saying that I believe it’s true. But if that’s something I have a chance to prove people wrong about, then I welcome that criticism. There’s pressure to perform. Being rewarded by this organization in that way only makes me want to play harder and repay them for what they did for me.”

Aside from the financial aspect of the situation, what the Bears did for Peppers, he said, was breathe new life into a career that had become stale.

Asked if he felt reborn with the Bears, Peppers started laughing almost uncontrollably.

“I guess you could call it that,” he said. “It’s definitely a change of scenery and a fresh start; a breath of fresh air to me. I’m happy, comfortable, and trying to stay that way for a long time.”

That could make for a lot of uncomfortable quarterbacks, for a long time as well.