GREEN BAY — Since the NFL preseason is prime time for overreaction, it was no surprise when Julius Peppers’ near-invisibility in the Green Bay Packers’ exhibition opener at Tennessee caused considerable unrest in Wisconsin.
Peppers, the 34-year-old pass-rush specialist who was paid handsomely to defect from Chicago to Green Bay in free agency during the offseason, was on the waterlogged field for 10 snaps — seven runs and three passes. About the only time anyone noticed him was on a play where he missed a tackle.
It wasn’t the debut everyone anticipated, but fans will be happy to know that Peppers agrees with their assessment of his showing.
“I didn’t get much done,” he said Tuesday.
What differed was the reaction to Peppers’ performance. While some wondered aloud whether Peppers was showing his age and had lost it, he remained as calm as Aaron Rodgers in the pocket.
“It’s a start,” Peppers said. “We’ll play a little bit more this week and see if we can get a little better this week.”
That calm, understated approach is typical of Peppers, a cerebral player with freakish size and athletic ability.
Although he’s making the transition from end in a 4-3 alignment to outside linebacker in a 3-4, he appears to be operating at his own pace. This is Peppers’ 13th NFL training camp, and like many veterans he probably knows better than anyone what he needs to do to get ready for the regular season.
Which is the biggest reason why any angst over Peppers’ low-impact performance in an exhibition game on Aug. 9 is misplaced. Indeed, where Peppers is concerned, the only date that matters is Sept. 4. That’s when the Packers open the regular season at Seattle.
Judging him before that is fruitless because he’s clearly pacing himself.
“I think we’re all going to need a certain amount of reps, whether it be in a game or at practice to get comfortable with the season approaching,” Peppers said. “But we have some time before the season starts, so we’ll have plenty of time to get ready.”
Still, Peppers heard the buzz after Saturday’s game. So what does he say to people who think he’s no longer the player he once was?
“I don’t say anything to it,” he said. “I guess it’s something that you expect. There’s not a lot of 34-year-old defensive ends playing in the league, so I guess it’s a fair question. But I don’t really put too much into it.”
Since Peppers called it a fair question, he was then asked to give a fair answer to the question of whether his skills have diminished with age.
“We’ll see about that,” he said. “I’m not really going to get into too much discussing what I can and can’t do. I’m going to let the film speak for it.”
Until then, coach Mike McCarthy will speak for Peppers. On Tuesday, McCarthy praised the Packers defense for adding versatility to its approach, one of the team’s major offseason initiatives.
A big reason the Packers were able to become more versatile was Peppers. Against Tennessee, five of his snaps came from outside linebacker in the 3-4, five from defensive end in a 4-2 the Packers used in pass-rush situations. Peppers’ versatility gives defensive coordinator Dom Capers more options, for the veteran and for others.
“Julius is doing good,” McCarthy said. “We’ve asked a lot of him. We haven’t just lined him up in one spot. I think the way he’s picked it up quickly, he’s getting more and more comfortable, particularly who he’s playing next to and things like that. I think he’s having a solid camp.”
Since the Packers are revealing very little of their game plan during camp, it’s not at all surprising that Peppers has been solid instead of spectacular. McCarthy won’t be hauling out the big guns until the Seattle game and you can expect Peppers to do the same.
For now, the eight-time Pro Bowl selection will let his 119 career sacks — 81 in eight seasons with Carolina, 38 in four seasons with Chicago — do the talking. He’ll quietly go about the task of learning a new position and a new defense.
“I had to make a few adjustments with stance and things like that, getting off from a two-point stance,” he said. “But other than that, it’s really a lot like playing defensive end. So the transition has been pretty smooth.”
In the meantime, Peppers’ preseason won’t be defined by his sack totals. Fans might expect a slew of sacks, but Peppers doesn’t. Not in August, anyway.
“It’s just about getting adjusted to the speed, really,” he said. “Technique and things, over the years you develop and you get pretty sound at those things. It’s just about doing them at game speed. Preseason is what it is. We’re going to get through that. Eventually we’re going to have real games for everybody to talk about.”
That’s when the Packers begin their quest for a Super Bowl ring, something that has eluded Peppers during his NFL career.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said.
And that’s why you can’t start judging him until Sept. 4.