Peppers keeps improving heading into fourth season

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- They are the kind of rub-your-eyes individual efforts that the folks who compile the nightly video highlights for SportsCenter dream about, the brand of plays that challenge the imagination and usually elicit an oh-no-he-did-not-do-that response, and beg to be replayed over and over and over again.

A big, athletic man performs an unusual act -- like, say, intercepting a pass or recovering a fumble and then sprinting downfield with more speed than any 300-pound individual is meant to possess -- and it is supposed to be a singular and defining moment, right? Yet Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers made that very play three times last season.

There was a spectacular interception and 97-yard return at Denver on Oct. 10. On Nov. 28 against Tampa Bay he returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown. And then, at Atlanta on Dec. 18, he authored one of the most jaw-dropping efforts of the entire year, snatching in midair and full stride a fumble by Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and going 60 yards for a touchdown. Peppers established a league mark for interception return yards by a defensive lineman (143), and his total return yards for the season (203) were the most by a lineman since the 1970 merger.

But here's the kicker: Those three highlight reel takeaways and long runbacks weren't even close, Peppers insisted Saturday as the Panthers opened training camp, to being his favorite play in the first of what looks likely to be many Pro Bowl seasons.

"Nah, there was that play just one [snap] before the interception at Denver, a play where [Broncos quarterback Jake] Plummer faked the ball into the middle, and then ran a naked boot[leg] to the right," Peppers recalled. "And, hey, I bit just like everybody else. I mean, I'm completely sucked into the middle when I see Plummer running to the right, heading for the end zone. And, look, Plummer isn't slow, right? So I just turn and sprint as hard as I can for the pylon. Somehow, I manage to get there and I knock him out of bounds at the 1-yard line. And then, on the next play, yeah, I make the interception. But the second play, the interception, it never happens without the first [play]. Remember that."

Certainly most of his coaches, and teammates and even Panthers officials recall exactly the play Peppers cited. Coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney, without any hesitation, noted it as an amazing feat. Three defensive starters, independent of each other and unprompted, mentioned it, as well.

Even Peppers acknowledged that, of all the sacks and takeaways and stuffs that he added to his burgeoning résumé in '04, drilling Plummer just inches from the goal line was the one he went back and personally reviewed on video multiple times. How come? Because so many game-altering moments, like his three takeaways or several of Peppers' 11 sacks simply happen. They are, in fact, a function of hair-trigger reaction. They are essentially the equivalent of the unplanned and totally impromptu Kodak moment, football style.

On the other hand, sprinting all-out to the pylon, to tackle Plummer on a well-designed fake on which the Denver quarterback otherwise should have strolled into the end zone, was all about effort.

"I had to want to get there," Peppers recalled. "And that's what made [the play] special to me. It wasn't just a ball getting knocked into your hands or something. It was just all-out effort or heart, or whatever. Nothing more."

Entering the fourth season of a career in which some of the few remaining critics still feel Peppers is just an athletically aberrant defender relying primarily on his freaky skills set, the former first-round choice has matured into a big-time effort player. Which cannot be good news for opposition right offensive tackles around the league.

On his right hand, just below the wrist, Peppers has a tattoo that reads "Discipline." There is a matching tattoo, "Dedication," on the left hand. Time was when Peppers sometimes had to glance at those two reminders to get himself jump-started, but no more.

"In this league, you don't make the kinds of plays he does or get 10 or more sacks every year just on talent alone," said Panthers weak-side linebacker Will Witherspoon. "Every player in the league is good, some obviously better than others, but we're all skilled. But when you put talent and effort together like [Peppers] is, man, watch out."

Consider this scary claim by Peppers, who entered the NFL with plenty of pressure on him, first because he was the second overall pick in the 2002 draft, second because every local fan knew him, since he had played football and basketball at North Carolina: In his first three seasons, Peppers contended, he was merely serving an apprenticeship. He was, he said, just learning the game, merely warming up for what is to come.

"Sometimes, I was just feeling my way around," Peppers contended.

Yet over that span, Peppers averaged 10 sacks and 68 tackles per season, forced a dozen fumbles, swatted away 16 passes with his enormous wingspan, had three interceptions and scored a pair of touchdowns. If he has indeed reached master craftsman status, as he hinted, Peppers appears likely to be absolutely dominant in 2005.

In truth, there probably is no reason that Peppers should not take his game to the next dizzying level in '05. He is part of one of the NFL's best defensive lines, one featuring Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner and Mike Rucker. The Panthers play an aggressive style that fits well with Peppers' diverse abilities. Peppers even revealed that there are plans to flip him to right end in some situations this year, and perhaps have him play the occasional hybrid role as a stand-up rusher.

But most important, say the people around him, is that Peppers will not settle for being just good. Toward that end, Fox said, Peppers has improved dramatically every year he has been in the league, and no one expects the ascent to stop now.

He is, not surprisingly, learning the nuances of the game. Three years ago, Peppers didn't use his hands very well, was inconsistent in disengaging from blockers, was mostly noted as just a one-trick pony as a pass rusher, a guy who could get up the field but wasn't able to counter or work his way back inside. Only those who haven't watched his progression in the defensive end learning curve would dare cite those deficiencies anymore.

"Remember what people said when we drafted him?" Fox said. "There was a lot of that, 'Well, he's a great athlete, but he's not a great football player.' Well, yeah, he is a great athlete. You know how good you have to be to play, and we're talking about playing meaningful minutes, for the North Carolina basketball team? C'mon. Are you kidding me? But now he's a great player. No, he's a star, really. And I'll tell you what: He is the lowest-maintenance star I've ever been around. He doesn't ask for anything special. He doesn't want you to treat him different than anyone else. It's almost as if he doesn't understand yet just how good he is."

In fact, he doesn't, it seems. There is a humility about Peppers that is engaging. A man of measured words, he often hesitates before responding to a question, and that was viewed at one point in his career as a lack of mental acuity. What it really is, though, is Peppers' attempting to offer up the best, most insightful answer possible. There is also a funny side, a dose of self-deprecation and the occasional quick comeback.

Asked whether he felt the NFL sack record was reachable -- this after he suggested that he merely hoped to again net his standard quota of 10 takedowns -- Peppers smiled. "Well, I mean, it's been done, right, so I guess it's reachable," he said. "And, I guess, if that were to happen, it would be special."

What's ironic is that Peppers doesn't really view himself as special. On the contrary, and with zero hint of false modesty, Peppers spoke repeatedly during a half-hour interview about how much more he needs and wants to grow as a player.

"To be honest," Peppers said, "there's a player like me on every team in the league."

To be honest, Julius, about 31 other franchises wish that were true.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.