NFL: Peppers says he was willing to remain with Panthers
By Charles Chandler
As excited as Julius Peppers is to be a new member
In an exclusive interview with the Charlotte Observer on Saturday, one day after signing a six-year contract that can earn him up to $91.5 million with the Bears, Peppers insisted he was willing to stay with the Carolina Panthers.
Providing specifics for the first time regarding his contract negotiations with Carolina last summer, he said the two sides were split by a $6 million difference for a four-year deal — or $1.5 million per year.
“My feeling is they could have done that,” Peppers said. “If they wanted me to stay, it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.”
He also said it wasn’t until about the time he played in the Pro Bowl on Feb. 1 that he decided he definitely wanted out since the Panthers hadn’t made any overtures to resume contract talks.
He emphatically denied that the team made a late effort to keep him and said the only person in the front office or coaching staff who has contacted him since the season ended is defensive line coach Brian Baker, with whom he’s developed a close personal relationship.
“It wasn’t me who chose to leave,” Peppers said in a 29-minute telephone interview from a Chicago hotel room. “At the end of the day, I made the final decision to leave, but it’s not like I was closed-minded. . . . I was open to staying.
“I’m not trying to place blame solely on them, though. Both sides could’ve done things differently to make things work out another way.”
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney didn’t return a call Saturday seeking comment.
Hurney said during a Feb. 23 press conference that the Panthers chose not to place their franchise tag on Peppers for the second straight year due to financial considerations. The tag would’ve required the Panthers to make a one-year tender offer of more than $20 million.
Hurney also emphasized that the Panthers repeatedly tried to reach a long-term deal with Peppers over the past few years.
Peppers, a defensive end who holds Carolina’s all-time sacks record with 81, became an unrestricted free agent at 12:01 a.m. Friday and was the hottest player on the open market.
His agent, Carl Carey, said he had offers from Philadelphia and New England before signing a deal with the Bears that will pay him $20 million in 2010 and includes a league record $42 million in guarantees.
According to Carey, the six-year contract totals $84 million ($14 million per year) plus $7.5 million in incentives for things such as making the Pro Bowl and being named league defensive player of the year.
Last June, Peppers had a private lunch meeting with team owner Jerry Richardson, after which the two sides decided to try to reach a contract agreement before the NFL’s July 15 deadline for teams signing their franchise players to long-term deals.
Peppers said he was hopeful a deal would get done, but that the Panthers’ best offer of $13.5 million per year (four years, $54 million) fell short of his asking price of $15 million annually (four years, $60 million).
Because the Panthers had offered to make Peppers the NFL’s highest paid player in 2007 with an offer of just over $12 million a year, he and Carey still wanted that distinction.
However, due to subsequent contracts elsewhere in the league in the nearly two years since the previous negotiations, the cost of making Peppers the highest paid defender went up. So even though the Panthers raised their offer by nearly $1.5 million a year, he turned it down for reasons that he said went far beyond finances.
So Peppers played the ’09 season under the contract tender. He had 10 › sacks, was named to his fifth Pro Bowl and to the NFL’s all-decade team.
He said he enjoyed playing for the Panthers’ new defensive coaches and that he ended the season prepared to stay, only to be surprised that team officials didn’t try to keep him.
“Things could’ve ended on a better note than they did if everybody would’ve just been straight up and kept it professional,” he said.
However, Peppers said he isn’t angry and that his respect for Richardson hasn’t wavered.
And he said he wasn’t slighting the Panthers when he said at his introductory Bears’ press conference Friday that he was drawn to playing for a defensive-minded head coach in Chicago’s Lovie Smith on a team with other defensive stars.
Like Smith, Panthers coach John Fox has a defensive background, and both teams have standout linebackers — Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher in Chicago and Carolina’s Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.
“I wouldn’t make any comparisons like that,” said Peppers. “Both (Smith and Fox) are great coaches. Coach Fox is one of my favorite people I’ve ever played for.
Peppers said one of the appealing aspects to the next phase of his career is that he’ll play for a Bears’ team with a rich history. The Bears were one of the NFL’s charter members in 1920, while the Panthers began play 75 years later as an expansion team, when Peppers was 15.
The Bears’ history includes lean years in addition to championships, but their list of Hall of Famers runs deep, including linebackers Dick Butkus, coach George “Papa Bear” Halas, and running backs Walter Payton and Gale Sayers.
“It was more than me at Carolina, but I was one of the first people there to be a Pro Bowler,” said Peppers. “Up here, it’s a different situation with the legacy because I’m adding to one that’s already great.”
Peppers said he grew up a Philadelphia fan, which made turning down the Eagles difficult, but that he also liked the Bears in his youth and remembers their famed run to the Super Bowl title in 1985 when he was 5.
One matter of business ahead of him is securing jersey No. 90, which he wore with the Panthers. The number currently belongs to defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert.
“I’m trying to work on that right now,” said Peppers. “Hopefully, he will just give it up out of respect.”
Peppers won’t have to wait long to return to Charlotte for a game. The Bears are scheduled to play at Carolina next season. The date hasn’t been announced, but he said it won’t be a grudge match.
“People will try to make it bigger than what it really is,” said Peppers. “I’m not going to say it’s not important (and) I’m not going to say it’s not going to generate much attention, because it is. It’s going to be a big deal.
“But to me, it’s just going to be another game. I played against former teammates on other teams before when I was in Carolina. It’s really the same thing. I’m just on a different team now.”