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The trick of free agency, especially when it comes to older players who already have made their money in the National Football League, is finding the way to maximize the time and talent a veteran has left.
How do you motivate a guy who is financially secure? How do you convince him to push through the monotony of the offseason, to work on his body, to train, to sweat through training camp and to keep fighting through the grind of the regular season? How do you motivate him to push through the inevitable adversity every season brings, no matter the team?
|The Bears didn't have much success against the Packers during Julius Peppers' four seasons in Chicago.|
How do you remake a player who is past his prime into a serviceable version of his younger self?
The answers to those questions are rarely clear or easy, which is why the general rule is that the smart teams build through the draft and supplement their roster through free agency. It is also why Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson so rarely spends money in free agency. Thompson doesn't believe in bringing in other teams' players. He wants to find, draft, cultivate and, ultimately, keep his own. That's the Packers way.
But Julius Peppers is different. Peppers in Green Bay actually could work. It actually makes sense that the Packers signed the 34-year-old veteran defensive end who has played 12 seasons for two franchises and made, as one NFL head coach put it to me the other day, "a gazillion dollars."
Yes, Peppers at 34 isn't the Peppers of 24. He isn't the player who averaged more than 10 sacks a year in his eight seasons for the Carolina Panthers, who selected him second overall out of North Carolina in 2002.
Peppers isn't the player who notched double-digit sacks in eight of his first 11 seasons. He isn't the player who terrorized quarterbacks off the edge, who wore them down with his relentless pursuit, a combination of size and speed that is so rare in a defensive end.
He is not that, no, but he still has talent. Peppers is sliding down the backside of his career, but he still has value. He is a veteran leader with ample experience and a wily sense of how, even at his age, to best break into the backfield and rattle a quarterback.
In Green Bay, Peppers has two things that will help in his favor. The first is that the Packers' defensive line coach, Mike Trgovac, was the Panthers' defensive coordinator for six of Peppers' eight seasons there. Trgovac understands what Peppers does well and how he is most comfortable lining up.
He knows that while Peppers played in a 4-3 defense for all four years in Chicago, he has always wanted to play in a 3-4 scheme. Trgovac knows that Peppers is just as good of an athlete as DeMarcus Ware and that Peppers can still be effective standing up or rushing as a joker.
Trgovac will understand how to push Peppers' buttons and how to get the most out of a player who didn't always look like he wanted to be out there last season.
Most importantly, Trgovac will provide Peppers with familiarity and a trusted voice. He has a chance at being able to affect Peppers even after Peppers has made all of that money.
Nnamdi Asomugha didn't have that in Philadelphia. He was familiar with no one. After all those years in Oakland, Asomugha was playing in a new system in 2011 for a defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, who had spent the previous 13 seasons as the Eagles' offensive line coach.
Asomugha had no one who really knew him in Philadelphia. He had no ally on the coaching staff. He had no one he could turn to on the team when things went sideways -- and boy, did they.
Peppers will have that in Green Bay, which will give him a fighting chance to succeed.
The other thing Peppers will have is the motivation to win a championship. He played in one Super Bowl with Carolina in his second season, and that's it. In 2010, Peppers' first year with Chicago, the Bears lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game 21-14. Although the Bears had won the NFC North, Green Bay won the Super Bowl.
In the three seasons since, the Packers have finished first, first and first in the division, while the Bears were twice shut out of the playoffs and beat Green Bay only once in six attempts.
Peppers couldn't beat the Packers, so he joined them.
"When it gets down to it, it's normally about the money and about winning if they haven't won here for a little bit," one head coach said of dealing with free agents. "For that kid coming out on that second contract, there's so much emphasis on [how] that's where you make all of your money, that that probably drives it. When they're in the area of 26 years old, that's the leading motivator.
"Then, when you get to Peppers' age or older, he's been around a while and says, 'I might take a little less to play here so we have a chance to win. I know the guy, whether it's [Packers defensive coordinator] Dom [Capers] or whomever, I know somebody there, so boom, I go play there.'"
It could be that Peppers is totally done. But the more probable outcome is that the Packers will be able to find a way to motivate a gifted player who wants nothing more at this point in his career than to win.