CHICAGO — The fans of Chicago don't really care right now that Julius Peppers is a shy guy. They care perhaps slightly more that he's a player occasionally accused of taking a play off here or there and coasting a bit. No one is going to worry at this moment whether Peppers will be as hidden from the media as he was in Carolina or if he's a great guy in the locker room with his teammates.
What matters now to Bears fans is that he was brought in to rush the passer and was part of, with Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, the biggest one-day free-agent bonanza in Bears history. And everyone here thinks they have a guy who can sack the quarterback 12 to 15 times a season and wreak havoc on the Aaron Rodgers of the world.
But along with the nearly $91.5 million over six years the team spent come those caveats. Those traits will be the things we immediately default to when Peppers has a zero- or one-tackle game, as he did a combined five times last season, or if, God forbid, he goes on a five-game sack-less streak like he did in both 2006 and '07. The talk-radio phone lines will light up here faster than when authorities raided Rod Blagojevich's house.
Pass rushers are a lot like home-run hitters in baseball: A lot of their production comes in spurts. There are going to be droughts, some of them agonizingly long. In football terms, though, a cold spell constitutes two games. That's an eighth of a season.
But he has proven it over the long haul. Since entering NFL in 2002, Peppers has 81 sacks, the third-most in the NFL behind Jason Taylor's 88 and Dwight Freeney's 84. And that's what got him one of the richest deals in NFL history. The Bears think he can keep this up for at least another four years. You'd think there would be more celebration in the air yesterday in Chicago.
Being that this was the biggest free-agent day ever for the Bears, the mood was decidedly muted. Perhaps it was that GM Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith were severely lacking sleep, having worked feverishly along with senior director of football administration/general counsel Cliff Stein and several other team execs to make this day happy. But Angelo and Smith only hung around for a handful of questions from the media before quietly exiting. If you're going to spend this much money, wouldn't you want to chat a little about it?
And then there's Peppers. He clearly was all smiles, coming out to meet the media. And he spoke about as long in one sitting as I ever have seen him — comfortable, thoughtful and genuinely excited. But still very private, quiet, reserved.
The criticisms of Peppers being indolent are unfounded. He always worked out on his own in Charlotte, forgoing his workout bonuses, and yet he always showed up in good shape. His conditioning has never been the biggest issue with Peppers, and his effort really is right on par with a lot of star players. But there's a sense that football, although it's his vocation and something he's really very good at, is not something he lives, breathes and dies for.
"I love the game just as much as anybody else," Peppers said to writers after his introductory press conference. "But at the same time, I also understand that life is more than football, too. People can get that misconstrued, too, that I don't care. I am not diehard football — eat, sleep and drink it all day and night. And you shouldn't be that way, anyway.
"There's a certain type of balance in life. And I know when to put football in its proper place. But my love for the game is ... I have it just like anyone else."
And that's OK. It's not his fault he's not a gridiron junkie. Some great players are not. But you have to somewhat question the wisdom of this contract if that's indeed the case. It might not be an issue now that Peppers is 30 years old. But like running backs, pass rushers tend to hit a wall in their early 30s and tend to hit it hard when they do. Will Peppers run out of gas, physically and mentally? If so, when?
It's bound to happen. Chicago is not the compactor city that New York is, but people around here don't take too kindly to well-paid athletes who aren't going their hardest.
"I feel like that thing about people saying I take plays off, someone said that about me in college and it has followed me throughout my career," he said. "I feel like if we had the film on that TV and we were watching that film, and you wanted to pick one person out that was taking a play off on a particular play, you could pick anybody.
"Not to say it's not only me. Not to be the guy who says, 'I am not the only one who is doing it,' but I am the only one people are saying that about. Sometimes, you're on the field, you get tired. So, if I am not playing as hard on play number 66 as I am on play number one, come on ...
"I never felt like my effort was a problem."
Right now, the city of Chicago is basking in the afterglow, much the same as when Jay Cutler arrived in this town about a year ago. Fans are not talking about the effort, the exposure, all the things that go with a player who could earn more than $91.5 million. He says the adjustment to being even more in the spotlight won't change who he is.
"I didn't spend a lot of time in front of the media in Charlotte, by choice," he said. "This is a little bit of a different experience for me. It might take a little bit of an adjustment, but I am fine with it. I can handle it.
"I'll try to be a little more accessible (with the media and fans). I understand where I am at. I can't say I'll come out here and totally change my personality and be in front of the camera all the time. But I'll do what's necessary."
And who is Peppers? An insanely talented and gifted but highly reluctant and introverted superstar. If he does his job on the field, no one will care. If he doesn't ...
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