Note to Julius: Cash in, Peppers
New Bears star shouldn't wait to cash in on new fame
First things first, Julius -- cash in early.
When Jay Cutler came to Chicago, he thoughtfully eschewed endorsement deals, saying publicly that he wanted to let his play do the talking. I imagine he and his representatives wanted to eventually maximize his off-field earning potential in a dignified way, before cashing in with big-name companies. A good first season in Chicago would've sent his Q rating skyrocketing and thus, driven up his asking fees.
Well, that sure didn't happen. Aside from his well-regarded charity work with his foundation, Eli Lilly and the American Diabetes Association (Cutler is diabetic), I still haven't seen Cutler's bemused half-smile on any commercials or billboards in town.
So Julius Peppers, one of the biggest names in the NFL, should take advantage now and count the money later. No need for questions and don't wait for the season to start. Your play will hopefully speak for itself, but it wouldn't hurt to familiarize yourself with your fans off the field (and I don't mean at Gibson's). My suggestion would be to cut a deal with Dairy Queen to have your own flavor of Orange Julius. How does a Peppermint Julius sound to you?
Peppers, who will earn a king's ransom next year, is unquestionably the biggest star to emigrate to Chicago sports since, well, Cutler. But Peppers has more of a deserved and established reputation in the NFL. The five-time Pro Bowler is a one-man wrecking crew on the defensive line, a 6-foot-7 athlete's athlete best described as a "freak."
I let pessimism get the best of me last week when I wrote the Bears wouldn't get Peppers, and shouldn't even deign to overpay for his services. Now I'm nodding in agreement with all the Bears fans itching to buy a No. 90 jersey (should Jarron "Pool Jumper" Gilbert give up the number). Peppers had an ear-to-ear smile at his introductory press conference, taking up three-quarters of the questions, while fellow free-agent signees Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna flanked him, content with being trending topics on Twitter all day. How could you be against these moves? All of a sudden, there is life for the Bears again. When does mini-camp start? Someone point me toward Bourbonnais.
Glass-half-empty logic aside, it wasn't a surprise that the Bears ended up with Peppers by the time Friday rolled around. As the week progressed, from the early stages of the combine that previous Friday until Thursday night at 11:01 p.m. George Stanley Halas time, it became clear that the Bears were going to make a legitimate run at the erstwhile Carolina Panther. This team had the money to spend, the room to add him and the desire to add an impact player. It wasn't nearly as surprising as last year's trade for Cutler.
But the shock of seeing the Bears sign three "name" free agents on the first day of the signing period, having a press conference by rush hour time, is a little jarring still a couple of days later. Team McCaskey doesn't throw around nickels like manhole covers anymore -- USA Today had the Bears at No. 5 in 2009 payroll -- but who would've thought they would pay new players around $20 million in consecutive seasons?
The Bears' aggressive approach landed them those $20 million men, the top trade bait and free agent in their respective offseasons. Of course, with money comes expectations, and each could have major effects on the men in charge of them. While Cutler did not grease the wheels for Ron Turner's ouster, if Peppers doesn't headline a defensive resurgence from the Much-Maligned of the Midway, the men who romanced Peppers, Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith, could pay the price with their jobs.
This quick surge of money -- $55 million guaranteed -- is not only proof that the Bears' increase in season-ticket prices wasn't just typical avarice, but also a show of a support to Smith and Angelo. They are getting a shot to prove they have staying power in an organization that prides itself on loyalty, often to a fault.
Mike Martz might only be a short-term rental at offensive coordinator, but Angelo said he is conferring with Martz on moves to make sure every player fits with his schemes. They sure gave him two key weapons to use this season. Manumaleuna is Martz's kind of hulky tight end and Taylor jumped ship from the Vikings to get a shot to usurp, or at the very least complement, Matt Forte.
I was sure the Bears were going throw their money at a safety like Antrel Rolle, especially after both Smith and Angelo pointed to the free-safety spot as a place to "invest a little bit more," as Smith noted in Indianapolis. There are still safeties on the market and Smith also noted he wouldn't be against using a draft pick on a safety that could play immediately for the second straight year.
It shows how much I know that the Bears had laser-like focus on Peppers, the biggest impact player on the market. Is Peppers worth $42 million (not to mention the total value of the deal, $91.5 million), the most money ever guaranteed in an NFL contract, at 30? No, probably not, but how many free agents in a league that ages men quickly are worth their contracts? Few and far between. The only people that should be against this deal are contrary sports writers, cranky sports talk radio callers and Aaron Rodgers.
Peppers is certainly worth more than the previous holder of the guaranteed-money record, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Peppers will prove his worth by not only how many quarterbacks he flattens, but also by how his teammates play off him. Do you think defensive tackle Tommie Harris is excited about having a Pro Bowler nearby? Well, let's check -- his Twitter page said at 12:26 a.m. early Friday, before Peppers had even signed or even touched down in the area:
RealDeal91Pepp let's roll brother I'm 'bout to go lift right now let's gooooooooooo !!!!!!!!
I'm going to go out on a limb and say Harris is on board with this move. Offenses are going to have to pick and choose whom to double-team when Peppers and Harris are on the field together, and new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will be able dial up stunts and blitzes that should help other players pick up stats and harass quarterbacks.
Yes, the Bears are still short at a couple of positions, most notably safety and offensive guard, but there's still plenty of time to pick over the free-agency carrion and hope for the best.
I wrote twice in the past week or so that Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips might live to regret saying the Bears wouldn't go "hog wild" in free agency, comparing those words to Jim Hendry's ill-fated decision last year to get "more left-handed." But Phillips bamboozled all the non-believers and I bet he and Angelo had a good laugh about it last Friday.
After a miserable season that began with Urlacher's injury and Cutler's stink bomb in Green Bay and culminated in an embarrassingly long search for coordinators, everyone in Halas Hall deserves to pat themselves on the back and think that 2010 will be a better year. No league invites more quick turnarounds than the NFL, and the Bears have done an admirable job in laying down the foundation for a possible playoff run in a short window. While no one should paint the Bears as Super Bowl contenders, as some national reporters did last year, this makes them a factor in short order. And it's not because of Taylor.
I hope Peppers had a grand time at the Bulls game and popping bottles at the club. I hope he continues to have fun here, a la Cutler last year. And I hope he snags some major endorsements in the coming months. He can be the superstar Chicago needs and that's something to savor.
But first things first: Can he play goalie?
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com