On the first day of free agency in 2010, Lovie Smith and the Bears landed their No. 1 target: Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers.
The big-money move was a surprise for the Bears, who rarely had signed high-profile players from outside the organization. The Bears guaranteed $42 million to Peppers, who had the potential to earn more than $90 million through the length of his six-year deal.
“It felt right,” said Peppers, who had spent his first eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers.
Not as surprising is how Peppers’ decision changed his current and former teams.
Those differences will be on display Sunday when the first-place Bears (5-1) play the last-place Panthers (1-5) at Soldier Field. One team has won four consecutive games and has Super Bowl aspirations, while the other has lost four consecutive games and could be on the verge of another roster overhaul after firing their general manager five days ago.
Peppers, a seven-time Pro Bowl player with 103½ career sacks, is not the sole reason for the Bears’ success or the Panthers’ failures. But statistics show that the Bears have enjoyed a resurgent defense since his arrival, while the Panthers have regressed in his absence.
BEARS: Before and after
Total defense ranking
Three seasons before (2007-09): 28, 21, 17
Two-plus seasons since (2010-12): 9, 17, 6
Smith oversaw stellar defenses in 2005 and 2006, but his reputation took a hit as the Bears finished in the bottom half of the NFL in total defense for each of the next three seasons. The arrival of Peppers and the promotion of Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator helped reverse the slide, and in 2012 the Bears have allowed only 299.3 yards allowed per game.
Three seasons before: 35, 28, 41
Two-plus seasons since: 34, 33, 21
Peppers has done his part with 22½ sacks in 38 games with the Bears. However, as a team, the Bears have not produced as many sacks with Peppers as they did in the season before his arrival. That could change this season with the Bears on pace to tally 56 sacks, which would be the highest total since 1987.
Three seasons before: 23-25 (.479)
Two-plus seasons since: 24-14 (.632)
We could list all kinds of statistics to help articulate Peppers’ value, but the bottom line comes down to wins and losses. The Bears were in a three-year playoff drought when Peppers arrived, and another disappointing finish in 2010 might have cost Smith his job. But the Bears advanced to the NFC Championship Game in Peppers’ first season, and they are aiming even higher this season with the league’s third-best record going into Week 8.
PANTHERS: Before and after
Three seasons before: 16, 18, 8
Two-plus seasons since: 18, 28, 21
Peppers’ departure created a void that the Panthers have yet to fill. Carolina addressed its defense by selecting Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, which marked the franchise’s second top pick on defense since 2006.
Three seasons before: 23, 37, 31
Two-plus seasons since: 31, 31, 14
The Panthers held steady in terms of sacks, notching the same total (31) in both seasons since Peppers’ exit as they posted in his final year in Carolina. Defensive end Charles Johnson has led the way with 24 sacks since 2010, and he was rewarded with a six-year deal worth up to $72 million before the start of the 2011 season.
Three seasons before: 27-21 (.563)
Two-plus seasons since: 9-29 (.237)
Yikes. The Panthers fired longtime coach John Fox after the 2010 season and replaced him with Ron Rivera, who already is in jeopardy of losing his job after a 7-15 start to his tenure. When Rivera looks across the field Sunday, one could not blame him if he feels a bit of envy that Peppers is on Smith’s sideline instead of his own.