For Julius Peppers, Green Bay ‘felt like home,’ even as Carolina was truly home

February 2, 2019 GMT

GREEN BAY — Julius Peppers only played three seasons with the Green Bay Packers — though, in retrospect, even the team would have to admit it erred in not having him stick around for more.

Nevertheless, while the Packers’ decision not to re-sign him after the 2016 season gave him a chance to go back to Carolina — where he began his NFL career with the Panthers in 2002, and where he played his college football (and basketball) at the University of North Carolina — Peppers’ three years in Green Bay clearly meant a lot to him.

That was obvious Friday, when Peppers announced his retirement after 17 NFL seasons — 10 with the Panthers, four with the Chicago Bears and three with the Packers — and 159.5 career sacks, which rank him fourth in league history.

Writing a farewell post on The Players’ Tribune, the 39-year-old Peppers said of his time in Titletown, “I guess more than anything, Green Bay just felt like home. You know, small town, good people who love their football ... it was a really great experience being a part of that culture. I was sad to leave Green Bay, and I don’t think I would have left to go anywhere but home to Carolina.

“So to Chicago and Green Bay: Thank you for embracing me and allowing me to be a part of your families.”

Peppers arrived in Green Bay in March 2014, signing a three-year, $26 million contract. He’d go on to record 29.5 sacks (including playoffs) in three seasons and help the Packers to two NFC Championship Game berths in that three-year span.

After the Packers’ loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 2016 NFC Championship Game, a host of players — including quarterback Aaron Rodgers — said they hoped Peppers would be re-signed. Instead, according to multiple sources as the time, the Packers told Peppers they were moving on and never offered him a contract to return. Only after that did Peppers explore the possibility of going back to Carolina, those sources said.

It turned out to be a grave miscalculation, as Peppers subsequently returned to the Panthers on a one-year deal that included a $1.65 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary — and delivered 11 sacks. The Packers essentially admitted their mistake when in training camp they signed Ahmad Brooks to a one-year, $3.5 million deal and got only a 1.5-sack return on their investment. Rodgers was among the players who were upset that Peppers wasn’t re-signed.

“I loved my time with Julius,” Rodgers said in a tribute video recorded by the Packers and posted on the Panthers’ team website. “I love him as a person, as a teammate. He’s still a dear friend to this day. My sadness in playing with him is not giving him a chance to win a ring, because of all the players who have played in the NFL, there’s not many that deserve a ring like Julius Peppers. Because he’s one of the all-time greats.”

The feeling was mutual, with Peppers thanking Rodgers in Friday’s essay, writing, “Aaron Rodgers, just for being an all-time great player and teammate ... and for making me believe that somehow, a Hail Mary can be a high-percentage throw. I’ve never seen anybody do some of the things you can do, man. I’m glad I had a front seat for some of it.”

Peppers returned to Carolina for one more season and had five sacks in 2018. Those 16 sacks over the past two years with the Panthers were almost as many as the Packers got out of Clay Matthews, who had 11 (7.5 in 2017 and 3.5 in 2018) and Nick Perry, who had 8.5 (seven in 2017 and 1.5 in 2018) in the past two years combined. Matthews and Perry counted a combined $43 million against the Packers’ salary cap those two seasons; Peppers counted $8.5 million against Carolina’s.

During that 2017 season when Peppers had those 11 sacks, the other outside linebackers behind Matthews and Perry combined for just 5.5 sacks — Kyler Fackrell (three), Brooks (1.5), Reggie Gilbert (one), Vince Biegel (zero) and Chris Odom (zero).

Peppers not only was productive in Green Bay, but he quickly became a team leader, despite saying upon his arrival that he wanted to proceed carefully because he was the “new guy” in the locker room. It became obvious almost immediately, though, that his younger teammates were drawn to him.

“I thought that he would have a lot left in the tank,” Rodgers said late in the 2014 season. “But he’s exceeded my expectations in the leadership category. He’s been a great leader for us and he’s a guy who really is respected in this locker room. His voice carries a lot of weight. I think the production has been great, as well. He’s doing a great job making big plays for us with forced fumbles and interceptions and returned a couple for touchdowns. He’s a presence out there.”

To be sure, Peppers was a playmaker beyond his sack numbers during his time in Green Bay. He had a pair of interceptions — both of which he returned for touchdowns — and forced six fumbles, including two during a 2014 NFC Divisional playoff victory over Dallas that sent the Packers to the NFC title game. And while fans will also remember Peppers telling safety Morgan Burnet to intentionally go down after his fourth-quarter interception at Seattle — a play that was one of many that led to the Packers’ collapse against the Seahawks — on balance, Peppers’ time in Green Bay was terrific.

“’How old would you be if you really didn’t know how old you are?’ I think Satchel Paige said that,” Peppers once said in an interview with ESPN Wisconsin, responding to a question about whether joining the Packers had revitalized him. “Age, it’s a concept. Time is a concept. It’s up to you to determine how old you really are.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to be playing. I can’t put a number on how many games I’ve got left, or how many days I have left. (But) I’m loving it. I’m having the time of my life right now. If that’s being revitalized, then I guess you could say that.”

Extra points

The Packers officially announced what was widely reported a day earlier: Shawn Mennenga will be their new special teams coordinator. The team also announced coach Matt LaFleur has retained Maurice Drayton to be Mennenga’s special teams assistant. Drayton held that role last season under now-departed special teams coordinator Ron Zook, who was fired after the season. … The Packers also announced the hiring of Wendel Davis and Christian Parker as defensive quality control coaches.