CHARLOTTE -- A year ago this time, people were wondering what happened to Julius Peppers.
Now, he's back among the best.
On Thursday, the Carolina Panthers defensive end was named NFC defensive player of the month for November. He's the second straight Panther to take home the monthly honor, after linebacker Jon Beason picked it up for October.
Last month, Peppers led the league with seven sacks and tied for the league lead with three forced fumbles. For the season, he has 11 sacks. That has quieted some of his critics after last year's 2.5-sack disappearing act.
"Contrary to some of the things you read, he's played pretty good," Panthers coach John Fox said. "He's been a big reason why our defense has played pretty consistently over the season. I think he's probably had in this stretch his highest sack total, not that that defines a guy being a good player.
"I think he's been very good, a big reason why we're 9-3."
This Peppers' third player of the month honor, after winning in November 2004 and October 2006.
• GRUDEN ON A ROLL: Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden is one of the best interviews among NFL coaches, partly because he's not afraid to overtly praise that week's opponent.
This week, he was heaping plaudits on Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, among others.
He's also made glowing statements about Peppers (earlier this year) and former Panthers safety Mike Minter before he retired. Previously, he referred to mild-mannered Panthers kicker John Kasay by saying: "Man, I hate that guy."
Among his other one-liners Thursday, he called Beason "an every-down buzzsaw."
"I don't know if people are getting national ink for him either, but Jiminy Christmas, he never comes off the field, he plays with such intensity," Gruden said. "I've seen him win games for them with effort and his physical play and instinctiveness. I just think that he's one of the ring leaders of the franchise. I think he's an inspiring football player and we really like watching him. He's really something."
Gruden also went on and on about the Panthers in general, despite the fact his team rolled them 27-3 earlier this year.
He said the Panthers are "a team that could really have 11 or 12 wins right now," interesting considering how far they were from that one in central Florida on Oct. 12.
• THINKING GOOD THOUGHTS: Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas said Thursday he was excited last week when he heard the news about teammate Chris Gamble's contract extension. But he was careful to say he's not worrying right now about what it means for his own future.
Gamble inked a six-year extension worth $54 million last week, which will keep him in Charlotte through the 2014 season.
"First of all, I'm very happy for Chris," Lucas said. "He's been playing lights-out this year, and he deserves every penny that he signed for. I'm just happy for him. He continues to go out there and make plays. At the same time, it says something about what they're trying to do as a team to keep this team together.
"I'm just happy, and I don't know what the future holds for myself or the other guys on this team, but for now, we know that we have our left starting corner coming back next year."
Lucas is under contract through 2010, but at his age (he'll turn 30 in January), the economic realities aren't lost on him either. He said he isn't worried about his own status, and hasn't asked.
"No I don't, I don't worry at all," Lucas said. "I just try to prepare myself for the next opponent. My goal is to help this team go to the Super Bowl. That's my goal every year, to go to the Super Bowl and try to win it.
"In my eight years of playing, this the best record I've had. I just want to seize the moment and make the most of this season. You might go 1-15 next season, so you've got to make the most of this opportunity."
• EXTRA POINTS: The Panthers were only missing two players from practice Thursday. Linebacker Adam Seward (ankle) and defensive end Hilee Taylor (calf) were the only players held out of the entire session. Linebacker Na'il Diggs was limited with a calf cramp, while Lucas (head) practiced fully. ... Tampa Bay defensive tackle Jovan Haye (knee) was held out. If he can't play, the Bucs will have to go with former first-round pick Ryan Sims.