Bears camp report: Big deal opens up scary Peppers

Aug 7th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

Bears: Love and hate | RapidReports | Bleacher Report

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — There is a large man standing in a cluster full of reporters, holding court. A quick glance over reveals that it’s Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, smack in the middle of the team’s practice fields, answering each and every question in detail, actually looking like he’s having fun doing so.

Who is that guy? Most considered Peppers a bit of recluse when he was with the Carolina Panthers, rarely taking time to meet with the media, often bolting from the locker room before the media got in after games. But a new home, a big, fat contract and huge expectations seem to have softened him some.

Julius Peppers is talking? That’s news in itself.

“This is a new start,” Peppers said. “The decision I made when I came here was that I was going to be more available to the press and let them find out more about what I am thinking.”

That’s a good thing. In a brief 15-minute conversation with Peppers, he came across as someone who has a lot to say. He laughs a lot. He can take the criticism he has heard and, more importantly, he is intent on proving those who doubt him that they are wrong.

One of those doubters has been me.

When the Bears signed Peppers, I thought they overpaid to get him. He has wonderful talent and might be the most athletically gifted pass rusher in the NFL. Peppers is big at 6-feet-6 and 285 pounds and has great agility as evidenced by playing college basketball at North Carolina.

It is a formula that should add up to huge numbers, special numbers. The reality is Peppers has been good, not great.

He should be great.

The knock on him is that he doesn’t play hard all the time, many scouts insisting that he allows his talents to go to waste. Some coaches have echoed the same thoughts.

When I asked Peppers about it, he chuckled. He has heard it as well.

“I hear it all the time,” he said. “I watch TV. I read the papers. I read the Internet. I am not above criticism and that’s one of the few things people have criticized me for. I can be constructive with it. I’m not saying that I believe it’s true. If that’s something that people believe, I have to prove them wrong. I welcome the criticism. It doesn’t bother me. All I can do is try to perform and silence the critics.”

Peppers signed a six-year, $91 million contract with the Bears in March, putting him right in the criticism crosshairs. With more money come more pressure and more expectations.

Signing him seemed like a no-brainer for all teams in a league starved for pass rushers. Yet there were some teams that needed a defensive end that backed off trying to sign him because they felt he took too many plays off.

“He’s scary good when he’s playing hard,” said one coach. “But that isn’t always the case.”

Peppers has racked up double-digit sacks in six of his eight seasons, including 10½ last season. But in 2007, he had 2½ sacks while playing 14 games. That can’t happen.

That’s when the takes-plays-off talk really intensified.

“Certain people who watch the game don’t understand my responsibilities,” Peppers said. “On a certain play, if my role is to not chase the ball, and my play is to stay backside, then I have to be disciplined. I can’t just come down the line and chase stuff.”

Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who has known Peppers from their days making Pro Bowl teams together, took up for his new teammate.

“I don’t care who you are, you can’t go 110 percent on every play,” Harris said. “People who say that about him just don’t understand what he’s supposed to do on some plays. He can’t just go chase the ball.”

It doesn’t help that things appear to come easy for Peppers. He is such a good athlete that it might appear he isn’t going all out all the time. He also doesn’t have any post-sack celebrations to bring attention to himself. Plus, his previous attitude of staying away from the media didn’t help his cause.

“I can’t help stuff comes easier than to somebody else,” Peppers said. “I think sometimes certain players, and I don’t want to name names, have a certain haircut, they have sack celebrations and they draw attention to themselves. That stuff can make it seem like you’re playing hard, when you’re really playing just as hard as everybody else, and you’re just bringing extra attention to yourself. Just became I go about things mild-mannered, and I don’t do all that stuff, maybe that’s something to talk about.”

He didn’t name names, but it was obvious that he was talking about the mullet-wearing pass rusher in Minnesota named Jared Allen. Allen has cut his hair — a promise he made to his new wife — but you get the point.

“That’s not Pep,” Harris said. “He’s always low-key, even off the field.”

Peppers will key the Chicago defense. The plan is to move him around the defensive line, going from the left side to the right side and back. Where he lines up will be dictated by formations and situations. The Bears plan to move him to get him in more one-on-one matchups. He is a power end who also has good speed, which is why he was often doubled in Carolina.

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has gone on record as saying he expects Peppers to have an MVP-type season. That would mean 15 to 18 sacks — at least.

“I have those expectations for myself,” Peppers said. “Anything less than that will truly be a disappointment.”

So the sack record of 22½ might be possible?

“I’m not going to say I’m shooting for it and not say I’m not shooting for it,” Peppers said. “It’s been done before, so it can be done again. That’s what records are for, to be broken.”

Peppers smiled. He does that a lot these days. Maybe $91 million can do that to a guy. It certainly has helped loosen him up. Those who know him well say he has always been an easy-going, likeable guy. He just never showed that side much in Carolina.

Now comes the tough part, proving that he’s worth the money. If he goes two or three games without a sack, the Chicago media will eat him up. The fans will have a field day on talk shows.

Will the smile go?

There is some feeling among league scouts that he is a player who will get content now that he’s paid.

Peppers frowned at that.

“That’s not my character,” he said. “That’s not my fiber, my moral fiber. There’s more pressure to perform when you’re rewarded. It only makes me want to play harder.”

If the new Julius Peppers is now a truly motivated Julius Peppers, the quarterbacks he faces each week should be warned.

“I’m happy and comfortable and I want to try and stay that way for a long time,” Peppers said.

With that, he hopped on a golf cart and rode away, making me scratch my head.

Was that the same Julius Peppers?

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