Mike McCarthy wanted to watch. He had a feeling what might happen, but he wanted to see it for himself.
So when Julius Peppers walked into a meeting last week at Lambeau Field as the Green Bay Packers kicked off their offseason program, the Packers ninth-year coach surveyed the scene. Never before in his tenure had the team acquired such a big-name player during an offseason and then had him show up on the first day of workouts.
He saw the smiles, the wide eyes. He felt the excitement.
“When a guy [like Peppers] walks into the room, you see the reaction,” McCarthy told a group of reporters after walking the Robert W. Baird blue carpet at last week’s Wisconsin Sports Awards in Milwaukee. “It’s a great fit. We’re glad he’s there. He seems to be comfortable. He’s off to a good start.”
The last time the Packers added someone with Peppers’ gravitas (eight Pro Bowl selections, three-time Associated Press first-team All-Pro) was in 2006, when McCarthy was in his first year and the team signed ex-Oakland Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner and a four-time Pro Bowler at the time, to a seven-year, $39 million deal.
But Woodson, who’d eventually mature into an elder statesman and leader of the Packers defense en route to the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and the team’s Super Bowl XLV championship after the 2010 season, didn’t sign until late April, well into the offseason program.
Not only that, but having developed a reputation as a malcontent in Oakland – and not exactly thrilled to be playing in the league’s tiniest outpost – Woodson showed up for the team’s mandatory minicamp in May but skipped everything else, choosing to work out at home in Houston rather than attend even one of the team’s 14 organized team activity practices or the voluntary extra minicamp the Packers had under their rookie head coach.
At the start of training camp, Woodson was unapologetic about the time he missed (“I just feel like being down there in Houston I'm getting ready for football but I'm away from football”) and even acknowledged that McCarthy was ticked off about him not even trying to assimilate into the team (“I don't think any coach would have been OK with it, but we just had to accept what it is on both our parts”). Years later, given the kind of unquestioned leader Woodson became, those quotes are downright bizarre to read.
It’s unclear if Peppers intends to be at every offseason workout, participate in all OTA practices and be at the mandatory mid-June minicamp – the Packers’ prized offseason addition still hasn’t been made available to the Wisconsin media after signing with the club on March 15 – but it’s clear that his teammates expect him to take on the kind of leadership role Woodson held before being released in February 2013.
In fact, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said that’s exactly why it’s important to have Peppers in Green Bay and working out with his new team.
“It's fun to see Julius,” said Rodgers, who called the 6-foot-7, 287-pound Peppers “a specimen” and said he “looks great” during strength and conditioning drills. “It'll be fun to get him really into the fold and get him feeling like he's part of the team, encouraging him to be a leader for us. I think he brings a lot to the table -- on the field and in the locker room.
“I'm just excited about not having to run away from him anymore.”
Peppers, who entered the NFL as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft out of North Carolina, has registered the second-most sacks (118.5) in the NFL and forced the fifth-most fumbles (39) since entering the league. He also leads all NFL defensive linemen with nine interceptions over that span. He’s also been extremely durable, playing in 186 of a possible 192 games.
“He’s someone we have such great respect for, competing against him the last four years down there in Chicago,” said McCarthy, who revealed at the NFL Meetings last month that Peppers will play a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role in the Packers’ defense. “We’re glad he’s a Packer.”
Of course, he won’t really be a Packer until he and fullback John Kuhn talk about “The Play.” It was Peppers, of course, who was closing in on Rodgers in the final minute of the Packers-Bears regular-season finale when a diving Kuhn got just enough of Peppers to allow Rodgers to escape to throw the game-winning, playoff-clinching touchdown pass to Randall Cobb. Kuhn said at the Wisconsin Sports Awards that the play hasn’t been discussed – yet.
“We haven’t gotten into the details or the nitty-gritty yet. That might come up later when we’re better acquainted,” Kuhn said with a laugh. “[But] it’s exciting. We’re all happy. I think we’ve all gotten up and said something to him at some point and introduced ourselves and said, ‘We’re really glad you’re on our side now.’”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.