CHARLOTTE — Maybe Julius was right. But not for the reasons he's thinking.
As a part of his "It's not you, it's me," breakup speech on Valentine's Day, soon-to-be-former Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers was asked what he'd do were he placed in the Panthers' situation.
Magnanimously enough, he found a solution that allowed him to get what he wanted.
"If it was my decision, basically this is what I would do," Peppers offered. "Jordan Gross has come out and stated he wants to sign an extension with the Panthers. You've got one player who says he does and one player who says he wants to move on and try something different.
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"If I was in that situation, I would try to accommodate the guy that wants to be there, No. 1 priority."
Wise. And he almost got it right.
Maybe the Panthers should do just that, if not for that reason.
Since he started issuing walking points a month ago through his agent, the assumption has been that using the franchise tag on Peppers and trading him was a fait accompli, simply the thing that had to happen to get something of value in the divorce settlement.
But what's becoming more and more clear as the days tick by is that keeping Gross is just as important to the Panthers, if not more so.
They should still work to sign their rock-steady left tackle long-term -- and they are -- but if they aren't able to, they can't let him out the door.
If they can't make a deal, they have to franchise Gross, for nearly half the cost and for the good of the team.
They can tag Gross for $8.946 million, much less than the $16.683 million anchor Peppers would represent until they could trade him.
If the two hit free agency together, it might be the first time Gross won the foot race between the two. The assumption that Peppers has more value on the open market is just that, an assumption, and I'm not sure it's based on reality.
If you go by the numbers, the average of the top ten offensive line salaries is $8.451 million. For outside linebackers, a group Peppers longs to join, it's $8.304 million. He'll want paid like a defensive end (an $8.991 million average), even though he doesn't want to be one, saying he has "maxed out" what he can do in this system.
Last week, I talked to a collection of league sources -- scouts, personnel guys, coaches and players -- to gauge the relative value of the two. I asked each of them plainly, "All things being equal, what's harder to replace, a Pro Bowl left tackle or a Pro Bowl defensive end?"
The answers were split almost perfectly down the middle, but if there was a lean, it was toward the offense.
Having a veteran quarterback in Jake Delhomme and a strong running game otherwise takes some of the imperative off having a premier left tackle, said one evaluator. In his mind, Peppers can help make a so-so secondary so much better with his ability to pressure quarterbacks.
But several others mentioned the somewhat replaceable nature of pass rush. Last season, there were 35 players in the league who put up at least 6.0 sacks. That gets you down to the Charles Johnson level of acceptability. Of that group, there were more picked from the third round and down (17) than there were first-rounders (15). Those who would side with the offensive linemen also point out the presence of new Panthers defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, who has gotten 50.0 sacks over the last five seasons out of undersized fifth-rounder Robert Mathis -- proving there's more than one way to skin a tackle.
It's an interesting discussion.
Even though he's not talking right now, you can't help but come back to something Panthers general manager Marty Hurney talks about all the time.
"Keep the strength strong," is the mantra. He said it back in the days when the Panthers actually had a defensive line, and spent good money on backups like Al Wallace and Shane Burton. He said it when they were hoping linebacker Dan Morgan would finally stay healthy, but they drafted Jon Beason just in case. He said it when they drafted running back Jonathan Stewart in the first round last year, to back up former first-rounder DeAngelo Williams.
But lately, he's mostly said it when talking about the offensive line.
This is where you have to know your personnel. Hurney cut his football teeth in Washington, first covering and then apprenticing with the Redskins, whose success was built on one of the best offensive lines in league history. For the last five years in Charlotte, he has tried to build the same kind of line. It hasn't been easy, as it has taken time to find coaches and personnel guys who agree on what they wanted. But now, the personality of the Carolina Panthers has emerged. They are no longer a defensive juggernaut. They are a power running team, the kind that imposes will with the ball instead of by taking it from you. They do so because of the pack mules up front, a stable of guys whose physiques and personalities finally match the team's philosophy.
That's why if they have to pick one, they have to pick Gross, regardless.
They've worked too hard building this thing, and it's too good, to let it scatter now.
That Gross has said he wants to stay is a grace note, perhaps the only one in this current mess. Part of it is the nature of their positions, but Gross has always been a part of a greater whole, while Peppers has been a (very good) independent contractor.
That Peppers so openly wants out doesn't make him a bad person. He's fulfilled his obligation here, and ought to be able to do as he chooses. His farewell talk had a tinge of selfishness to it, but only because the entire topic of discussion was what it would take to please him.
Now it's the Panthers' turn to do what's best for them.
They have to swallow hard, accept the situation and adapt.
That means keeping Gross, even at the cost of letting Peppers walk away.