GREEN BAY — Kenny Clark shakes his heads in disbelief when asked about the legend that resides two spots down from him in the Green Bay Packers’ locker room.
Clark, the youngest player on the roster at 21, can only marvel at what Julius Peppers is doing in his 15th NFL season.
“I’ve never seen anybody at his age doing this,” said Clark on Monday. “I just never heard of it.”
Neither has Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who’s been coaching in the NFL three more years than Clark has been on this planet.
Yet, Peppers continues to produce in his third season in the Packers’ defense. This season, the nine-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher’s 8½ sacks (including playoffs) trail only Nick Perry (11) for the team lead.
That production helped propel Peppers into sole possession of fifth-place all-time in career sacks earlier this season with 25 of his 143½ regular-season sacks coming with the Packers.
At the same time, his ability to impact high-stakes games is still apparent on the eve of his 37th birthday. His sack of Giants quarterback Eli Manning in Sunday’s NFC Wild Card playoffs not only helped secure a 38-13 win for Green Bay, it also moved him into fourth place in the franchise’s postseason annals with 4½ sacks in five games with Green Bay.
“He’s unique. We all understand that,” McCarthy said. “I can’t recall somebody, particularly at that position, to play as well as he’s playing. He’s a huge asset to our football team. I can’t say enough about Julius Peppers.”
A veteran of 234 regular-season games, Peppers’ respect inside the Packers’ locker room is unparalleled, evidenced by the fact he was voted a playoff captain for the third consecutive year.
Clark has been blown away by the 15-year NFL veteran in their one season together. While Peppers prefers to let his actions speak for him, he has been known to speak when the right moment calls for it and is always open to assisting a young player.
It wasn’t until recently the rookie first-round pick learned about Peppers’ background in both basketball and football at the University of North Carolina. It’s tough to blame Clark since he was only 6 years old when Peppers was drafted by the Panthers in 2002.
Growing up in San Bernardino, Calif., Clark said he knew him more for his four seasons with Chicago than his first eight with Carolina. Regardless, the veteran’s performance this season has been impressive.
“He’s a Hall of Famer, first off,” Clark said. “He just goes in here and he does his job. He’s a great leader on our team. I can’t say enough about Julius, man. He’s out there making plays. Whenever we need a play, he’s out there making them. It’s crazy the things he’s doing this year.”
The Packers had a plan to lighten Peppers’ workload this season to keep him fresh for the late-season grind, which included the coaches holding the veteran out of practice on Wednesdays during the final month of the regular season.
The proof has been in the pudding, with Peppers recording five of his 8½ sacks this year in the last eight games. He had one of his finest showings of the year against the Giants in recording three tackles, two deflections, two QB hits and the sack of Manning.
“I thought today was a good day,” said Peppers after the game when asked about the benefit of tapering down the stretch. “We felt good; I felt good personally. Yeah, I guess you could say it’s working.”
McCarthy admits the defense needed to utilize Peppers a little more in the middle portion of the season than previously envisioned due to a wave of injuries at outside linebacker.
Peppers has been the only edge-rusher to play in all 17 games this season with Clay Matthews (hamstring/shoulder), Nick Perry (hand), Datone Jones (knee), rookie Kyler Fackrell (hamstring), and Jayrone Elliott (hamstring/hand) missing a combined 16 contests.
Like Clark, Packers defensive back Micah Hyde can’t believe the level at which Peppers is performing. When asked about Peppers’ 15-year run in the NFL, Hyde smiled when replying, “I’ll be thankful at 10 (years).”
“‘Pep’ is a freak, man,” Hyde said. “He’s like 45 years old and he’s still doing what he has to do. We see it every day in practice. He’s a freak, plain and simple.”
The only honor that’s eluded Peppers in his NFL career has been a Super Bowl ring. He came close in his second season when the Panthers fell to New England 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and he made two other NFC Championship Game appearances with the Bears in 2010 and Packers in 2014.
While there’s a lot of football to be played before that conversation becomes relevant, Peppers’ performance last Sunday has him and the Packers one step closer to the goal.
“I’m happy for him,” Clark said. “He’s one of the (all-time) sack leaders. He’s making history. We’re in the playoffs right now. We’re trying to win for him.”