The last time Aaron Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone, Julius Peppers was on the other side of the line. It was the 2013 regular-season finale at Chicago, and the Packers quarterback narrowly avoided Peppers to throw the game-winning touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in the final minute.
Four years later, Peppers will be there again. The pass-rush specialist is back in Carolina, where he started his career and where Rodgers will make his return from his broken collarbone on Sunday.
In between, the two spent three years together with the Packers, and although Peppers didn’t get the Super Bowl ring he came to Green Bay for — the closest he got was two appearances in the NFC Championship Game — he left quite the impression around here.
Known as a soft-spoken, keep-to-himself kind of guy, the Packers saw a different side of Peppers almost from the beginning.
Unlike some teams, the Packers don’t pick captains for the entire season. It rotates on a game-by-game basis until the playoffs. Peppers got a turn for his first game against the Bears at Lambeau Field in 2014.
And anyone who remembers that the Packers were a little late for the pregame introductions on that night now knows why. Peppers, as one of the captains, had the last word two minutes before the Packers took the field.
Except two minutes wasn’t enough time for Peppers.
“He was on a roll, a big-time roll,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy recalled.
At that point, McCarthy’s administration coordinator, Matt Klein, tapped McCarthy on the shoulder and said: “‘We’re out of time.’”
“And I said, ‘Hell, don’t worry about it, he’s on a roll. Let him go,’” McCarthy said. “It was one of the funniest things as we broke as a team and we come down the hall here and out the tunnel, and you could see the TV [people were surprised because] you could see we missed the introductions. We had to run onto the field. I thought that was classic. Those are the things you don’t hear about, but he was a great teammate.”
The Packers trounced the Bears that night 55-14, and afterward just about everyone in the locker room was talking about Peppers’ speech.
Then-Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said at the time: “It was actually a pretty long speech he made. And it was good. We went out there and did everything that he said. It was a really good speech. I wish y’all could have heard it personally.”
No wonder Peppers was selected as a playoff captain all three years in Green Bay.
Peppers recorded 25 of his 153 career sacks during his three years with the Packers, and if they had known he would continue to be this productive — he has 9.5 sacks for the Panthers at age 37 — then perhaps they wouldn’t have let him go back to Carolina.
“He’s a freak of nature,” Packers left guard Lane Taylor said. “He’s like 37 years old and he’s still getting it done out there, nine sacks, still top of the league. He’s a good player. We knew he was even when he left here.”
Rodgers knows he’ll have to keep an eye on Peppers, just like he did in that 2013 game at Chicago. It was on the 48-yard game-winning touchdown to Cobb that day when Rodgers, with the help of a timely block by John Kuhn, sidestepped Peppers. That was Peppers’ last play as a member of the Bears.
Rodgers said this week that he won’t change the way he plays to try to keep from getting hit on his collarbone, but when asked whether he’d request that Peppers take it easy on him, Rodgers joked: “Well, I might do that.”
Peppers said he won’t do anything special to try to prepare his younger teammates to face a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
“We’re not going to add any unnecessary pressure that we don’t need to,” Peppers said. “We’re going to treat this like a regular game regardless of who is playing quarterback. Any kind of tip I might have, whether it’s watch out for the substitution because he likes to try to get 12 people on the field or watch out for the hard count … any insight I have on those things I’ll share, but technique things and game plan, I’ll let the coaches do their job.”
“Obviously, Aaron is a great player,” Peppers added. “He takes the team to another level. But it’s the same type of plays and things like that as far as the scheme part of it. He does elevate that team to another level when he’s out there. We’ll be ready, though.”