There comes a time or two every season when we have to resolve a conflict between an NFL player's statistics, his salary and the expectations surrounding him. I think we've reached that point with Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers.
Through eight games, Peppers has two sacks, a figure that trails 67 NFL players. The Bears, of course, were paying for more than one sack every four games when they signed him in March to a six-year contract that included $42 million guaranteed. So has Peppers flopped in his first season with the Bears? Or is he a rare player whose contribution can be traced, and his statistical default excused, based on other factors?
In this case, I'm with the latter argument. In fact, as we discussed in Wednesday's midseason report, Peppers was the most valuable player in the Bears' 5-3 start. In speaking with him via conference call this week, I found him aware but not disturbed by his sack total; he suggested he could catch up quickly as he has done in other seasons of his career.
"I think we all know on the team, I'm speaking of players and coaches, I think we all know what I'm bringing to the team," Peppers said. "And while the numbers aren't popping out on the page, the things that I'm doing when you see the tape, it's good football out there. I'm pleased with it. I think everybody else is pleased with it, and hopefully by the end of the year, the numbers will be matching up to what we see on the field."
It's happened before in Peppers' career. As the first chart shows, he amassed 10.5 sacks in the second half of the 2008 season and 6.5 after the midpoint of 2005. It's true: Sacks can come in bunches.
But in the meantime, how can we fairly judge Peppers' performance? As we've noted several times, his presence has allowed the Bears to limit their blitz frequency and devote more players to coverage. The results has been remarkable. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bears have the NFL's best pass defense when rushing four or fewer men.
The second chart provides those details. The Bears have rushed four or fewer men on about 70 percent of opponents' dropbacks this season. Opposing quarterbacks have a 66.6 passer rating in those situations, the lowest in the league.
With all due respect to the rest of the Bears' line, including defensive end Israel Idonije and his five sacks, I think we can reasonably trace that success to Peppers and the havoc he creates. He leads the Bears with 12 quarterback pressures, has intercepted one pass at the line of scrimmage and batted away two others while also forcing fumbles after both of his sacks.
"I've been pleased," Peppers said. "The numbers aren't where we would like them to be, but those things will come. But other than that, I think it's been a great season. I think it's been one of my better seasons playing the position overall. Rushing and playing the run and just being active on the field, it's been one of my better years."
When you look at the Bears' defense, there are handful of differences from the disappointment of recent seasons. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is healthy and rejuvenated. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has proved a capable game day playcaller. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris' playing time has finally been minimized.
But more than anything, what we saw in the first half was a textbook example of how an elite pass-rusher can impact a team in ways other than sacks. Do you think the Bears would have the NFL's No. 8 defense without Peppers?
This argument could all be a moot point after Sunday, when Peppers will face a Minnesota Vikings team he lit up last season as a member of the Carolina Panthers. Peppers played so well early in that game, notching a sack along with three other quarterback hits while also batting down a pass, that the Vikings benched Pro Bowl left tackle Bryant McKinnie.
The Bears have been flipping Peppers from right end to left end at times, and his matchup with Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt is also attractive. But Peppers noted that switching "hurts a little bit in that you don't get into a rhythm against one guy," and I wonder if the Bears won't be tempted to let him pound away on McKinnie -- and, by extension, Vikings quarterback Brett Favre -- once again.
Vikings coach Brad Childress has pledged to give McKinnie extra help in those situations, but ultimately that attention will allow the rest of the Bears' defense to continue doing its thing.
"I've been seeing [extra help] a lot, just as I have my whole career," Peppers said. "It's not anything new. So you know, I'm being patient, I'm working hard. The sacks and stuff will come. I'm not really concerned about sacks right now. I'm concerned about winning games and being disruptive. I think I'm doing a good job at that."
Is that job worth $42 million guaranteed? Maybe not over a multiyear stretch. But to this point, I think the Bears have gotten their money's worth.