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Even though he had allies among the Panthers, Peppers admits he had been thinking about leaving Carolina for two years. After he turned down a four-year, $54 million offer from the team before the 2009 season, the Panthers placed a franchise tag on him, which meant he made more than $18 million last year. This season, citing financial reasons, the organization decided against using its franchise tag on him (it would have cost more than $20 million), leaving Peppers free to test the market.
Departing meant leaving behind a remarkable legacy of triumph—and controversy. Peppers was named Defensive Rookie of the Year for 2002 after a season in which he had 12 sacks in 12 games, but he missed Carolina's last four games for violating league policy on banned substances. (Peppers, who has said the positive test was the result of a diet supplement containing ephedra that he obtained from a friend, called it "crazy" for people to think he needed steroids to boost his performance.) The following season he helped lead Carolina to the Super Bowl, which the Panthers lost to New England on a late Adam Vinatieri field goal. Carolina hasn't made it that far since.
"It was time for a change, not only from that franchise but from the state," says the 30-year-old Peppers. "I'm from a small town, and I've lived in Charlotte, which is really a small city and a small town too, but I've never lived in a big city or had to perform under the spotlight in one. That's a challenge in itself. I like those things. I wasn't going to shy away."
Peppers has quickly warmed to Chicago, where he plans to start a foundation to help at-risk young men. He also embraced the city's fast pace: Following his introductory press conference in March, Peppers ventured out to the club Crescendo and bought 25 bottles of Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne (about $350 per bottle) for the patrons. Captured on YouTube, it's a big-city moment light years from Bailey: As bottles lit by sparklers are passed around the room, the DJ can be heard shouting his appreciation over the thumping sound system. "Make some noise for the new Chicago Bear, J. Peppers in the building!" the DJ says. "Super Bowl, next year, 2010, Chicago Bears. Thank you, Julius."
The Bears see Peppers as a complete defensive end who can help stop the run and cause general discomfort to opposing offenses, but it's his ability to pressure the quarterback that makes him most valuable. "Our scheme is predicated on the pass rush," says Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo. "We think third down on first down, so a player of Julius's skill set really accentuates what we want to do on defense."
His teammates are already getting a taste of the discomfort Peppers can cause. At a recent practice he lined up at right end. At the snap he engaged the left tackle, freed himself, rushed the quarterback, leaped into the air as the quarterback threw a screen pass into the flat, spun around and chased down the running back, who saw the ball sail over his head. Peppers did it all so quickly that he made it look easy.
"You go up to block him, and you don't expect to get pushed back, because it doesn't look like he's coming off real hard," says Bears tight end Desmond Clark. "Then you lock onto him, and you find yourself backpedaling. As soon as you meet that force and he's pushing you back, it doesn't matter what it looks like. It didn't look hard for Michael Jordan, but he always got it done."
Urlacher shakes his head. "Three hundred damn pounds," he says. "I don't know how a man his size moves as good as he does. This dude busts his ass every day. I don't understand [the criticism]. The expectations for him are so high, people wanting him to get a sack every single play—you can't do it."
Coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli plan to take advantage of what Smith says are "a couple of outstanding [pass-rushing] moves and a great countermove off them." The more attention an opposing offensive line pays to Peppers, the more it opens up chances for other pass rushers. "Everybody you talked to about Julius said the same thing," says Smith. "A guy like Ron Meeks, his defensive coordinator [with Carolina last season], said, 'This is one of the best guys you will ever be around.' And Julius did his homework on us too. I talked to him about the teachers we had on our staff. Stern teachers. We're not going 'm-f' and cursing guys out on the football field, but each day we're going to coach them hard and try to teach them exactly what we want them to do."
Marinelli, a former defensive line coach to Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, says of Peppers, "It's his work habits, attention to detail, his presence at meetings, how he takes notes. He's a pro, and he's setting a standard on how to be a pro, and he doesn't even have to say anything."