- Melissa Isaacson, espnW.com
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Let's face it, players are rarely as good as their team's most ardent fans think, and seldom as bad as their former team's fans claim.
So while Julius Peppers might not be able to sustain the consistency he has brought in his first four games at defensive end for the Chicago Bears, he probably didn't deserve the rap he had with the Carolina Panthers.
The knock was a familiar one in football, often heard about athletically gifted athletes the first few times they fail to make a major impact.
They said Peppers took plays off, took games off, his effort measured by his stats. It's an accusation that clearly still bothers him.
"If people look at the numbers and stop making up stuff about how I played, you'll realize I've done well, and I think I really overachieved," said Peppers, who returns to North Carolina when the Bears play the Panthers on Sunday. "Not overachieved, but exceeded past expectations when I was brought to that team."
Peppers may have taken back that last part because when you're "freakishly" talented, there is no such word as overachieved.
The rap followed Peppers from college at North Carolina to the pros in Charlotte, though obviously didn't have much effect on teams salivating for his services last offseason. The Bears served up a six-year, $91.1 million deal, including a guaranteed $42 million in March.
Bears coach Lovie Smith met him in the lobby of the private airfield adjacent to the Charlotte Airport the night free agency began, which both surprised and flattered Peppers, who immediately decided to visit Chicago.
After Peppers' last game with the Panthers, Tommy Tomlinson of the Charlotte Observer wrote: "The Panthers broke up with Julius Peppers. I say 'broke up' because Peppers said the Panthers' silence toward him was a 'turnoff.' Maybe he thought they were dating. That would explain all those games when he appeared to be playing in heels."
Be that as it may, Peppers explained on Wednesday that he was not waiting for the team to tell him his choice of hairstyle was becoming, but rather to just tell him something.
After a sub-par season (2.5 sacks) in 2007, he turned down a deal from the Panthers that would have made him the highest-paid player in the league, saying he wasn't deserving of it. Naturally, no one bought that, saying he was just waiting for Albert Haynesworth to sign his deal, thereby driving up the market.
But there was no such deal for Peppers, Carolina put the franchise tag on him before the '09 season -- his fifth Pro Bowl campaign -- and said goodbye to him after the season, Panthers' owners electing to go on the cheap.
Peppers called his departure "sour," but said the team never really did say goodbye.
"That's a business decision," he said. "I can understand and respect that. The problem that I had was they tried to turn the tables and make it look like I wanted out no matter what. Really, I didn't have the option to stay. It was never offered to stay.
"So when I say it ended a little sour, I felt like it could have been a little more respectful. At least a phone call to say, 'It's been good. We're going in a different direction. We're going to let you go.' They couldn't even give me that.' "
It's funny how pro athletes just want to be treated like people sometimes. That even when dealing with millions of dollars, a courtesy phone call after eight seasons and five Pro Bowls is considered a decent thing.
This is not to suggest we should feel sorry for a man who has $42 million guaranteed to him whether he plays like Dan Hampton or Michael Haynes. If he doesn't get another sack for the Bears this season (he currently has two), even if he draws triple teams and pressures quarterbacks into seriously reconsidering their professions, he will start hearing the same whispers. Or louder.
Hampton knows better.
"All I can tell you is that, in an abstract way, the sack is overrated," the Bears' Hall of Fame defensive end said. "More important is the relentless ability [Peppers] has to force the opposition to account for him first and foremost. That makes what they want to do as an offense always secondary to what they have to do."
Brentson Buckner, who lined up next to Peppers for five years in Charlotte, once called him "a victim of his own talent."
In four games with the Bears, that talent is beyond apparent. Both of his sacks this season forced fumbles, one that set up a Robbie Gould field goal in a close game with Detroit. He blocked a field goal against Green Bay in a three-point victory in Week 3.
If Peppers weren't here, Smith would very likely be unable to use the Bears' 3-1 record as rationale that the team is better than it looks.
The fact that no one on the Bears' line has stepped up to take Tommie Harris' spot speaks volumes to their deficiencies. The falloff after Peppers is as dramatic as it is alarming.
"No one can hide now," Hampton said.
But they can take great comfort in the fact that Peppers is there.
"If they single-block him, he's around the quarterback in three seconds," Hampton said. "If they double him, they're doing something different schematically or protectionwise that is keeping them from doing something they love to do. Every quarterback who watches him on tape has a clock in their head because of him. It makes an immeasurable difference."
The bar has been set. No hiding now.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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