Numbers game catches up to Peppers

CHICAGO -- There were no tears shed for Julius Peppers on Tuesday. No beers poured out at local bars. No protests at Halas Hall.

The end of Peppers' career with the Chicago Bears was inevitable and minimalistic. A tweet, a statement, an accounting of money saved.

Hired guns don't get romance and nostalgia. They get a paycheck and a thank you.

So, thanks Julius.

Peppers was a Chicago Bear for four wild, transformative years. He was a legend in his locker room, a beast on the field when potential and opportunity aligned, but in his tenure in Chicago he stood out the most in regard to his paycheck. He was a bounty hunter who never got his bounty.

Four years ago, Peppers was signed in one of those glorious free-agent publicity stunts. Lovie Smith showed up at the Charlotte airport at midnight to whisk him away from the Carolina Panthers and anoint him the next great defensive end and the savior of a wilting defense.

It was a fun time and, damn, if it didn't almost work.

Jay Cutler had just completed a rocky first season and Smith had to coordinate his own defense, without Brian Urlacher, and Peppers was exactly the kind of big-name, big-game savior the Bears needed to roust themselves from a deep malaise.

So much has happened since then, it seems like 10 years ago. But that's how time moves in this hamster wheel of a league.

Peppers was the wild card for a familiar, almost well-worn defense and his arrival, along with new coordinator Rod Marinelli, helped spur the Bears' defense back to the NFC Championship Game. Peppers was a problem that year and his teammates marveled at his athleticism.

But he never quite caught on as a fan favorite, if only because he would always be overshadowed by the holy triumvirate of Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles "Peanut" Tillman. They were family. He was a guest.

Peppers was a very good signing at a very high price, $42 million guaranteed.

He started every game of his Bears career -- durability is worth a fortune in itself -- picking up 38 sacks and six interceptions while forcing nine fumbles and recovering seven. Peppers didn't always have an impact commensurate with his talent or pay, but at the same time, numbers don't always conform with his true impact. I'm pretty sure Jimmy Clausen is still having nightmares from that game in 2010.

Peppers' signing was looked upon with awe, and his release met with indifference. It was expected considering he was due more than $18 million next season against the salary cap, with around $8.367 million still lingering as "dead money."

NFL fans are more familiar with the vagaries of the salary cap than they are with their own children.

Free Agent Day lost some of its roguish charm when it began to start at a normal hour instead of the stroke of midnight, but it's still a day of rebirth for the league that never ends.

Four years ago, the Bears signed Peppers, along with the forgettable Brandon Manumaleuna and running back Chester Taylor.

Before announcing Peppers' release, the Bears signed defensive end Lamarr Houston, safety Ryan Mundy, linebacker/special teams guy Jordan Senn and re-signed linebacker D.J. Williams, who had a cup of coffee with the Bears before suffering a season-ending injury last year during the avalanche that overshadowed the offensive explosion.

I think you can see the trend here. After last season's historically bad injury-riddled performance, general manager Phil Emery is attacking the weakness of the team, just the way he did on offense after he replaced Jerry Angelo.

Briggs can spend his days making mix tapes for his old friends, because he's going to be the last guy left. Tillman was making a visit to Smith in Tampa Bay, as of Tuesday night. Devin Hester was released this week. The old days are the old days for a reason.

So what about the new days?

Twenty-six-year-old Houston is the big-money ($35 million sticker price, with $15 million guaranteed, according to the Chicago Tribune) addition for the cash-conscious Bears. He's a run-stopping, hybrid defensive end capable of playing inside. He's not quite the replacement for Peppers, but that's not the point. Houston is a valuable defender in what's becoming a trend in the NFL, malleable defenses that show different looks.

Mundy, late of the New York Giants, looks like Major Wright's replacement at safety. The 29-year-old was drafted by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008 and considers himself a "physical player." More important, he bragged to the Bears' website, "I rarely make mistakes from a schematic standpoint and I like to communicate; make sure that everybody's on the same page."

Considering how the Bears' season ended, that skill seems important in the secondary.

Day 1 of free agency is just the beginning of this extreme makeover, which will continue in the draft in May. The Bears paid good money to Cutler after the season ended to lock him up for the next three years. That's the window to win a title. Emery has to hit on these free agents and find a few impact players in the draft.

While the offense convenes in South Florida for a player-led workout, the Bears took firm steps to make sure the defense matches their suddenly-high standards next season.

Time marches on, the world changes. Mundy and Houston will be introduced to the media at Halas on Wednesday. Their clock is already ticking.