As I was doing the reporting for my Sunday Notes lead on Julius Peppers, this little nugget kept coming up …
His real first love is basketball. He likes it a lot more than football. He just plays football because he’s better at it.
It wouldn’t be the first time that’s ever happened with a professional athlete. But it does happen to be why I think, after doing a lot of research, that Julius Peppers is, on an intangible level, a tough fit for the Patriots.
First, let’s be clear here: This has nothing to do with his ability on the field. He can be a 3-4 outside linebacker, just like he can be a 4-3 defensive end. It’s not that different to begin with, and it wouldn’t exactly make Peppers ineffective (just as playing 4-3 end wouldn’t be a killer for DeMarcus Ware.)
“He could do it, no problem,” said the ex-Panther personnel man I quoted in the story. “Trust me, if he has to cover, he can do that too. And as a rush linebacker? That’s where he’d be at his best. It wouldn’t be an issue.”
“Take the scheme out of it, he can play any scheme,” added Mike Rucker, Peppers’ former Carolina defensive line-mate. “We dropped him (in coverage), he has that ability. Taking that piece out, if you’re looking for a team for him, you’d have to tell the one that could utilize his talent by being as creative as possible. You find that coach, you might see different things.”
Fine. So Bill Belichick definitely fits that description. But here’s another bedrock of what the Patriots are built on … When Belichick is talking about a player he really likes to coach, this phrase almost invariably comes out: Football is important to him. With Peppers, you have to wonder how important football really is.
Those comparisons to Randy Moss? Yeah, there’s a difference here. For all his faults, it’s pretty obvious that Moss really does love football. And most people who’ve been around Peppers will tell you he doesn’t.
Where does it show up? Effort. Peppers is smart enough to know
when he’s got a one-on-one and a direct path to a pressure or sack. The
trouble comes when it’s not as easy.
“He’ll quit on plays, if he
doesn’t think he can get there, he’s not that extra effort guy,” said
the AFC scout I quoted in the story. “He’ll rush upfield, take himself
out of the play. You can never leave him one-on-one. But if you chip on
him a lot, start getting really physical, he’ll quit. He’ll give up on
the rush, he’ll frustrated. And then if he’s not getting to the
quarterback for a couple quarters, he could be in the tank”
Ex-NFL lineman Ross Tucker, who wrote a fine piece on this for SI.com, added that, “The thing I love about Jared Allen — and Dwight Freeney’s the same way — is the amount of production they get despite being doubled. It’s mind-boggling, and not just the sacks, but all the pressure. That should never happen, but with those guys, it does.
“With Peppers, my sense is that when he sees the chip or the double, he picks his spots, and does it a lot more frequently.”
Tucker actually spent some time with the Patriots, so he has some insight into how the club operates. He agreed that Peppers’ apparent lack of passion could scare New England away, although, “There’s something about going to New England, with Brady and Belichick and all those big, primetime games, maybe the potential is there for him to raise his personal level of expectation. I just wouldn’t bet $15 million a year on it.”
And then, he presented another reason it might not work. As Tucker explained it, the Patriots are fine with a player being flawed, just so long as they can identify and compensate for that flaw.
Consistency is the key, because it allows the coaches to plan for what they have coming. And there you have an issue.
“They want to know what they can get out of you,” Tucker said. “They want to know who you are, and what you can do. If you’re good at this, and bad at that, they can live with it, they can work around it, just so long as they know who you are and you consistently are what you are. …
“The problem with Peppers is you really don’t know what you’re going to get from game-to-game, series-to-series. You have no idea. Look at it like this — They know who Tully Banta-Cain is, they know what he’ll give them, they can plan around his strengths and weakness. With a guy like Peppers, it’s kind of hard to plan for that kind of inconsistency.”
Will he ever be what he’s always had the potential to be?
Well, that’s a “maybe”, and a big “maybe”, which makes giving Peppers big money a risky move.
“The coach will be the most important thing to him,” said another of his former defensive line-mates, Brentson Buckner. “System-wise, he can play anything. The coach he needs is a guy who can be straight with him, and say, ‘This is what we’re doing, this what’s wrong with the way you’re playing it, and you need to go harder.’ He needs that coach to challenge him physically and mentally.
“He had a lot of respect for Jack Del Rio, because Jack told him, ‘You’re faster than everyone, you’re stronger than everyone, you can make more plays. I expect more of you.’ He respected that. He’s intelligent and he understand some people say things to him trying not to make him mad. He doesn’t want people to kiss up to him. He’ll say, ‘If I make a mistake, tell me.'”
With that in mind, Buckner pegged Philadelphia as Peppers’ ideal landing spot, with Baltimore and New England after that. He said, like Rucker did, that creativity defensively will be key.
But more important than that is effort and want-to.
The NFL season is a grind, and for a professional football player to play at his best for prolonged periods of time takes an attitude marked with passion and grit. That approach has been a common thread for so many people who’ve passed through New England over the last decade.
And those are traits that, eight years into his pro career, Peppers has not consistently shown he has.