No stranger to NFL contract fights, Gilbert shares thoughts on Peppers'

daringantt@carolina.rr.comFebruary 24, 2009 

Sean Gilbert

CHARLOTTE -- When Julius Peppers began trying to talk his way out of the Carolina Panthers, he asked fans to put themselves in his shoes.

The one man in Charlotte who can said Monday that Peppers might have been better off not saying anything, but doesn't see this situation turning into a year-long disaster that hurts both sides.

And if anyone would have a clear perspective on that, it's Sean Gilbert.

Gilbert laughed a bit when asked about Peppers' situation saying: "It's different from mine. He was tagged by a team that wants him."

While they were together here just one season, their desires and their strength of conviction make them similar, whether they'd admit it or not.

"Right now, everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing," Gilbert told The Herald. "I'm pretty sure at the end of the day everything's going to work out. There are a lot of teams that could use a little 'Pep' in their step, and I would think that they (the Panthers) are probably talking to the teams that he's interested in and that are interested in him. I'm sure they want to get this done before the draft.

"Ultimately, I think something gets done that makes both sides happy."

Gilbert was in the middle of one of the ugliest labor fights ever, sitting out the entire 1997 season after the Washington Redskins used the franchise tag on him, and they couldn't reach an agreement on a new contract. Gilbert said Monday that the death of former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke was the beginning of the end of his days there, and even said that through his contentious holdout, the Redskins never made a firm contract offer -- but rather put statements in the media about their intentions that his agents never saw in writing.

That squabble and the year off led him to Charlotte, as former Panthers coach Dom Capers authorized in 1998 trading two first-round picks for the former Pro Bowl defensive tackle, in addition to a seven-year, $46.5 million contract.

Gilbert referred to himself as "a fighter for free agency," and said that he didn't agree with the mechanism of the franchise tag the way it's come to be used, saying it's punitive toward players who have fulfilled their contractual obligations.

And because of the strain it puts on relationships between players and teams, Gilbert said he's nervous for his one-year teammate because he knows first hand what those expectations can do to a player moving.

Though he was bright and engaging and articulate, and played at a high level, Gilbert was vilified here. That had more to do with what the loss of picks did to cripple a team that was crumbling anyway, rather than anything he did. Gilbert would have probably been one of faces of the franchise. But since he was always viewed through the prism of the deal that brought him here, he never had a fair chance.

Describing the local fans as "finicky" and "still young," Gilbert said he's not sure Peppers could ever come back to Charlotte and play -- as Panthers general manager Marty Hurney has said he hopes happens.

"I don't know if Charlotte is the kind of fan base that would be quick to accept him again," Gilbert said. "Let's face it, if he comes back and sneezes wrong, there will be people who don't like him. He will be tested, from that standpoint."

Gilbert joked that he didn't mind the fact he never become a hero here.

Now, 38, he still lives in south Charlotte with his family, working in the music business. He said he's occasionally recognized by fans, but if asked if he's a football player, he'll usually deny it and keep moving.

"Maybe I could have been one of the more popular guys in Charlotte," he said. "But now, no one knows who I am, and no one cares. I can grow my beard out, and there's a few more gray hairs in there, and if somebody asks me if I'm a Panther, I say no.

"I enjoy the simplicity, I always have. That part of it never bothered me."

Gilbert's advice: Keep quiet

Though Peppers has been defined by his reticence during his seven seasons, Gilbert said if he could have offered any advice lately, it would have been to avoid interviews. Peppers conducted a conference call with seven reporters on Feb. 14, during which he put forth his side of the story -- essentially saying he's done everything he can do here, and that he wants a fresh start in terms of football and atmosphere after spending his entire life in his home state.

"The best thing he could have done is say nothing,'' Gilbert said. You have an agent, you have people you hire to do your talking, so let them do it, let him say what needs to be said. If he goes that route, Julius could rebuild his relationships with the fans, could get the endorsements back. But, he's his own man, and can make his own decisions.

"I'd just tell him 'Don't say nothing.' Let your agent talk to Marty, and let Marty talk to the other teams you might like to play for. Keep it in those circles."

Asked what advice he'd give Hurney, Gilbert expressed confidence in the Panthers' front office to do what was best for the team.

"Marty is one of the best GMs in the game," he said. "I love how the organization has turned around, how it's so football-minded. They're only a few years away from being regarded as one of the really solid organizations in the league. The Richardsons have done the right things to get on track.

"Right now, Marty's doing what Marty's supposed to do. When you franchise somebody, the goal is to put everybody in a situation where it works out better for them."

Even though he's unsure Peppers could come back after asking out, Gilbert said he was firm in his belief that the situation could rectify itself in time. He compared it to a family fight, saying Peppers could quickly win his skeptics over if he continues to perform at the level he's displayed.

"The whole thing is a testament to forgiveness," Gilbert said. "If number 90 steps back on the field again, there need to be more jerseys sold. There's an element of 'We need you and you need us.' There will always be people who feel like you slapped them in the face. You haven't forgotten that, but you still have to work together. It happens in corporate America all the time, and it happens in families every day. The reality is, the fans can be a positive influence for him on the field and help him get 16 sacks.

"They'd all be happy if they won. The minute Julius Peppers gets a sack, all those boos will turn into 'Ahhh, OK.' And then when he gets another one, you figure you might as well cheer. If he does come back, you should look at it as a 16-week going-away party."

Gilbert admitted that he has "no relationship," with Peppers, and while other players facing holdouts have sought him out for advice, he hasn't spoken with Peppers since his final season in the league.

So while he tried to distance himself from the particulars, he said several times: "People need to remember this is part of the business."

"I see them getting a deal done," Gilbert said. "If it gets personal, I see him playing in Carolina next season. But I don't see that happening."

That personal level could have been approached last week, when his camp put out word that there were only four teams from which he'd accept a deal. That limited the Panthers options, and perhaps forced them to overspend a bit to keep left tackle Jordan Gross before the deadline to use the tag.

Peppers hasn't said what he'd do if the Panthers didn't deal him, saying during his lone interview: "That's too far out to be wasting any energy or any time thinking about."

If it gets to that point, the man who was in the same spot over a decade ago said Peppers will have to choose his path wisely.

"Julius has said what he wants to do," Gilbert said. "Now he has to stand for what he believes in, not what people want you to do. When you make a decision, you have to make it based on being able to lay your head down at night."

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