What does $1 million per game buy?
That's the question I set out to answer. To do so, I reviewed every Carolina Panther defensive snap for the first three games of this season. I concentrated on Julius Peppers, who the 0-3 Panthers are paying slightly more than a million dollars per game this season.
Panther coach John Fox sometimes says "the eye in the sky don't lie." Although I watched the video feed available to anyone with a TV, I saw enough to come away with three conclusions about Peppers:
- Teams are no longer afraid to block Peppers with one man. Peppers used to command a double-team on passing downs. On 75 percent of the pass plays on which he has rushed the quarterback this season, only one offensive player has blocked Peppers.
- Peppers' ability to make big plays is hampered by the defense around him. The Panthers are last in the NFL in run defense, and much of the yardage is up the middle. Also, the defensive secondary's coverage has been soft enough to allow quarterbacks to throw completions quickly.
- I've covered Peppers since his NFL career began in 2002 and I can tell you with certainty after watching him for 12 hours on tape that something is not right.
I saw a player whose effort I would strongly question. Peppers' pursuit to the ball has been lacking this season. He seldom catches anyone from behind anymore. I would argue while Peppers may not take the first half of plays off, once his initial burst is contained he sometimes takes it easy on the second half of that very same play.
Maybe Peppers will fix all this against Washington today with a three-sack game and a victory. But he's going to have to try harder.
This is not 2004 (his best season) or even 2008 (when Peppers had 14.5 sacks). Peppers has gone such long stretches without making a tackle or doing anything else disruptive this season that the game announcers frequently have not mentioned him for quarters at a time.
When they do say something, it's in the vein of what TV analyst Jon Gruden said about Peppers during the Dallas-Carolina contest: "Ron Meeks, the defensive coordinator, told us last night it all goes through Julius Peppers. He has got to be dominant for everybody else to have a chance. And so far (the Cowboys) have frustrated him."
'IT'S NOT A ONE-MAN GAME'
Some teammates have noticed how minimal Peppers' impact has been this season. Peppers has one sack in three games. His 10 tackles rank 11th on the team. Linebacker Jon Beason, who like Peppers is a team captain, said Thursday he planned to have a one-on-one talk with Peppers about his lack of production.
"The pressure is what you want to see - the intensity," Beason said regarding Peppers. Beason also said he wanted to tell Peppers: "I need everything you've got."
Others with a big stake in Peppers righting himself and having another Pro Bowl season defend him to the hilt. No one is more protective of Peppers than Fox, who made Peppers his first-ever draft pick as a coach in 2002 with the No. 2 selection.
When I asked Fox to assess Peppers' production so far this season, Fox said: "Like the rest of us. We're 0-3. It's not a one-man game, that's why they call it a team sport. It's not one guy's fault."
Fox also said while teams may not double-team Peppers often, they still slide their protection toward his side of the field "a lot."
When a team slides its protection toward one side, it allows the offensive tackle to set up further outside. That way the tackle can anticipate an outside speed rush - Peppers' specialty - and knows he might be able to get help from the guard if Peppers instead tries to sneak inside to get at the quarterback.
The Panthers have tried to counter this tendency in 2009 by lining up Peppers all over the place. In Peppers' first six seasons at Carolina, he played left defensive end. Last year, he played right end. This season has been almost equally split. Peppers has participated in 156 of the Panthers 190 defensive plays - 80 plays on the right side, 72 on the left and four at defensive tackle. None of it has worked very well.
Peppers said in February he did not think he could reach his full potential as a Panther. Through his agent Carl Carey, Peppers tried to force his way out of Carolina via free agency or a trade.
It didn't work. The Panthers instead made him their franchise player, obligating them to pay him $16.683 million this season.
"Julius is viewed as one of the top defensive ends in the league," Panther general manager Marty Hurney said. "He's a guy with special ability, and his records and his Pro Bowls have documented that. I don't think there's any question he can still be a difference-maker. You don't let those types of players go."
But for must of this season Peppers has instead looked like what some NFL types call a "JAG" - "just a guy."
UNIQUE BLEND OF SIZE, SPEED
When Peppers is at his best, he makes at least a couple of stunning plays every game and a truly extraordinary one every three or four contests. Peppers' best season, for instance, was 2004. He had 11 sacks and set his career high with 85 tackles.
Peppers also made a handful of plays in 2004 that would still lead off any Peppers highlight film - a 97-yard interception return against Denver, a 60-yard fumble return off Atlanta's Michael Vick after stabbing the ball out of the air and a 46-yard interception return for a TD against Tampa Bay.
He has remained extremely durable - missing only two games due to injury in his career. But Peppers has had one interception since 2004. He has not scored a defensive TD in five years. After a career-low 2.5 sacks in 2007, he did have a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2008.
Of course, sack stats doesn't tell the whole story. As former Panther Mik Rucker said: "You can make 20 sacks and get pushed into the secondary on every other play, and people will still say you had an unbelievable year."
A PLAY HE DIDN'T MAKE
Against Philadelphia, Peppers won enough battles that the Eagles double-teamed him on nine of 22 passing plays. He still had a sack, a forced fumble, five tackles, two passes batted down and a blocked field goal on special teams.
But Dallas tackle Flozell Adams - a five-time Pro Bowler considered a bit past his prime at age 34 - and relatively unknown Atlanta tackle Tyson Clabo neutralized Peppers one-on-one on virtually all pass plays. Peppers only pressured the quarterback one time apiece in those games.
With that sort of uneven performance, it's hard to imagine the Panthers giving Peppers more than $20 million to play for them again in 2010 - which they would have to do under franchise-tag rules unless they sign him to another long-term contract.
Although the Panthers are sometimes criticized for dropping Peppers into coverage, they have done so on only seven times all season. And occasionally, surprising the defense by not having Peppers rush does put him in good position to make a play.
For instance: Early in the third quarter, against Dallas, Carolina clung to a 7-0 lead. On second-and-six, the Panthers ran a zone blitz and Peppers dropped into coverage.
It wasn't a pass play, however. Instead, Dallas running back Felix Jones got the ball and circled toward the left sideline, in Peppers' range and running fast.
Peppers shifted to full speed, too. For a moment, he was in high gear and looked like he might have an angle on Jones.
Instead, Peppers got one arm on Jones' shoulder, but that was all. Jones flew through Peppers' attempted tackle and ended up gaining 40 yards on a run that changed the momentum of the game.
This was the sort of freakishly athletic big play Peppers was once known for - chasing down a running back in open space to prevent a big gain. Instead, on this play and far too often this season, Julius Peppers looked like just another guy not able to keep up.