CHARLOTTE -- Any defensive player, particularly one with the gifts of Julius Peppers, plays better when he plays free.
So it as surprising as it might have been to see Peppers beaming with joy so often last week, he talked Wednesday about feeling constrained in 2007, and not just on the field.
Peppers clearly has taken over the Carolina Panthers' defense this season, and last week was probably the most clear sign of his renewal. He had a sack, two hurries, broke up a pass and forced a fumble, while making a key fourth-down stop which kept the high-powered Saints from reaching double figures.
During the game, he was all smiles, sprinting off the field after the fourth-down measurement, inciting fans, pounding teammates about the head and shoulders. Afterward, he never appeared before reporters, as he's been known to do when he plays particularly well -- though he'll almost always talk after a loss or a bad game.
Wednesday, he stopped when reporters asked, but laughed and looked over his shoulder at the giant schedule on the wall when asked if he had his best performance. "You know, really, we're onto Arizona right now, man," he said. "Last week was last week."
In a similar vein, Peppers seems so much more at ease wearing the yoke owner Jerry Richardson put on his shoulders last summer. The day safety Mike Minter retired, Richardson challenged Peppers to ascend to a leadership role. Peppers admitted he never was quite comfortable with that at the time, because his mentor, Mike Rucker, was still nearby.
Without being prompted of that day last August, he referred to Richardson "calling me out," and said having the veteran who taught him the game next to him was awkward at best.
"You talk about that, but you don't really realize, I'm here and (there's) Mike Rucker, the guy who when I first came here, I hung onto and tried to learn from him," Peppers said. "I respected him as much as you can respect anybody. I can't really be myself around him and try to take over, if you want to call it the 'Big dog' role of the defense with him still in it.
"He's still, ... I respect him that much. I don't want to step on his toes or try to go over him. Last year, I kind of fell back a little bit and let Rucker do his thing. Now, I feel like I've been here the longest, and I feel like I can do that a little more."
Rucker said he wasn't surprised to hear such sentiments from his protégé, though he wished he'd have mentioned them before.
"He never said anything like that to me, but he wouldn't have," the now-retired Rucker said from his office. "If he had, I'd have told him not to worry about it. I'd have said: 'Bro, I've been around a long time, I know what's going on.' I know in the past, we've had guys who wanted that kind of role, cherished that kind of role, but that's not me.
"My relationship with Pep is such he never had to worry about stepping on my toes. I knew what my role was last year. I was trying to have fun, play one more year and win as many games as we could. It was his time to take over."
That kind of loyalty and introspection is the side of Peppers few ever see. Rucker laughed when asked if he thought Peppers would ever reveal his true feelings, saying: "Nah, what you see is what you're going to get. It's not personal, he's just not going to give you everything he has."
What he's giving the Panthers now is much more than he had last season. He leads the team with 4.0 sacks and 12 hurries in seven games, already eclipsing last year's 2.5 sacks.
Rucker said when he watches his friend play now, he sees the small things, the hand placement, the knowing how to fake an offensive tackle into buying one move so he can show another. That kind of knowledge is what Peppers said he gained from Rucker, and he can combine it with the kind of talent few possess.
"It's all those little things," Rucker said. "People keep talking about last year like he had played that way nine years in a row. It's like they forget this man was a double-digit sack guy before."
He's starting to look that way again.
Coach John Fox shrugged as he usually does when asked to compare Peppers' most recent game, leaning back on his general sense of his guy's excellence.
"It's hard for me to put measurables on it," Fox said. "We've had some good games, and when we've had good games, he's had good games. In most games in this league, your big players make big plays in those games, and that's been the case thus far, and I think will always be the case."
Often with Peppers, the sacks and the turnovers aren't the amazing plays he makes. Ask those around the team, and you'll get a laundry list of incredible (there's really no better word) plays he's made over the years. The way he chased quarterback Jake Plummer to the corner in Denver. The way he jerked Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott backward with one hand at the goal line. The way he caught Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey from behind on a screen play last weekend, after he had been blocked to the ground on the other side of the play. Or, best yet, the fourth-down stop of Aaron Stecker that just added to the lore.
"That's better than a sack, really," Peppers said. "A play like that is way more important than getting a sack and getting a stat."
His reaction also showed a hint of his soul, the way he hovered over the chains as officials measured the (not enough) gain, then roared off the field when the result was what he hoped for.
"That's just the excitement of the game," he said in his normal monotone. "The whole team, we fed off each other emotionally. That was one of those things; you've got to play that way sometimes."
Asked if he felt more free to express such emotions this year, he shook his head slightly.
"Not really," Peppers said. "I have at times. It's just not my personality, I'm not that type of guy. There's nothing wrong with it, that's just not who I am. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't."
It's a small step, a little peek behind the door for an outsider. It's not much, but it's more than he's given before, but maybe the first of more glimpses to come.