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Who among Carolina Panthers’ brain trust made the call to draft Julius Peppers?

There’s no question that Julius Peppers, who played 17 seasons, was a great draft pick. The question apparently is this: who made the call to draft him?

The Panthers selected second in the 2002 draft, and former Panther receiver Steve Smith said on the NFL Network that coach John Fox wanted to select Texas cornerback Quentin Jammer.

Fox says that’s not true, that he wanted Peppers.

If you followed the Panthers then, you’ll recall that they selected so high because in 2001 they went 1-15. Their quarterback was Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke.

In the 2002 draft, two highly regarded quarterbacks were available – David Carr of Fresno State and Joey Harrington of Oregon. They were going to be stars. Everybody could tell.

Fox was Carolina’s new head coach, and he had never been a head coach before. Marty Hurney was the team’s new general manager, and he had never been a general manager before. Hurney was director of player operations under Fox’s predecessor, George Seifert.

So: What would Fox and Hurney do? Go safe, and draft a quarterback? Or choose Peppers, a defensive end from North Carolina?

Investing a high pick on a disruptive defensive end was not uncommon. In the previous five drafts, the first defensive end had been selected: fourth (2001); 12th (2000); 16th (1999); third (1998); and 14th (1997).

Fox undoubtedly was high on Peppers. Hurney undoubtedly was high on Peppers.

Jerry Richardson, who owned the Panthers, was enamored with Peppers. Richardson had even befriended Peppers’ mom, Bessie Faye Brinkley.

Late one morning, I walked with Richardson through the team’s offices, and he told me that he’d seen one employee (not Fox) assessing information about Jammer.

“I don’t know why you’re looking at him,” Richardson says he told the man.

Was this another episode of the long running series that still plays in Dallas and Cleveland: Meddling NFL Owners and the Employees Who Pretend to Love Them?

Nah. Richardson had studied Peppers, who grew up in Bailey, 3½ hours east of Bank of America Stadium, and played collegiately in Chapel Hill, a little more than two hours northeast of Charlotte.

Peppers stood about 6-feet-7 and weighed close to 300 pounds. He had the body fat of a cornerback, and was athletic enough to play basketball for the Tar Heels. To stand next to him was to think: “How could a human being block him?” Over the next 17 seasons, many NFL offensive coordinators asked that question.

Carr the quarterback was the first player selected. He played 10 seasons for four teams, among them Carolina. He started the first five.

Harrington the quarterback was the third player selected. He played six seasons for three teams, and started at least 10 games in each.

Jammer the cornerback was the fifth player selected. He played 12 seasons, 11 for San Diego and one for the Denver Broncos, and started in all but his first and his last.

So, yeah, Peppers won. The owner won. The Panthers won.

Panthers a Super Bowl long shot. But it’s early.

The end of Super Bowl 53 means the start of the Super Bowl 54 betting season. Odds have been posted. The sports book I use when I pick one game against the spread in my weekly NFL picks is

The New England Patriots open as Bovada’s favorite. They are 650. That means, if you bet $100, and the Patriots win the Super Bowl, you collect $650.

The other teams you’d expect to be favored are favored. The Los Angeles Rams are 700, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers 800, and the New Orleans Saints 1,000.

Where are the Carolina Panthers? They are 5,000. The odds against them winning Super Bowl 54 are 33-1. So, if you really believe in Cam Newton’s shoulder, the resurrection of the defense and the offensive line, here you go.

I’m not encouraging betting. Although many states are. North Carolina is not yet one of them.

That number, 5,000, puts the Panthers in a three-way tie for 19th place with Jacksonville and the New York Giants. Odds will fluctuate between now and May 1, the last day for this particular futures bet. (A futures bet is a single wager on an event that, well, takes place not immediately but in the future.)

Many Carolina fans believe in their team’s young receivers, and expect D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel to play larger roles this season. I do, too.

But as younger players acquire experience and often improve, older players often acquire injuries and suffer an absence of quickness and speed. There comes a time for veterans when experience and athleticism come together, and they are something to behold. But that threshold inevitably is followed by decline. Last season, it was as if many of the team’s veterans got old on the same day.

Again, the Patriots, Rams, Chargers, Chiefs and Saints make up Bovada’s top five. After that comes: Indianapolis (1,100), Chicago (1,200), Pittsburgh (1,600), Green Bay (1,800), Dallas (2,000) Minnesota (2,000), Philadelphia (2,000), Atlanta (3,000), Baltimore (3,000), Cleveland (3,000), Houston (4,000), Seattle (4,000) and San Francisco (4,500).

This doesn’t mean Bovada is an instrument of evil. It means, simply, that in the opinion of the bookmaker, fans will be more optimistic about the chances of say, Cleveland and San Francisco winning Super Bowl 54, than of Carolina winning it. You can bet on your team until May 1.

The Super Bowl will be Feb. 2 in Miami. The team with the longest odds of winning it is the Miami Dolphins. They are 30,000. So, if you bet $100…

My soccer pick this weekend is …

The absence of the NFL means more time for the NBA and college basketball. Major League Baseball teams begin to report for spring training Feb. 10 – if you like the sport, or spring, or escape, go – and NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, is Feb. 17. I’ll also watch boxing, local and national. Christy Martin is promoting a card Feb. 23 at CenterStage@NoDa.

But the NFL, like no other sport, commands and even demands our time. It’s Sunday, so where you going to watch – from the 50, the upper deck, your house, or the sports bar?

The Monday Night Football crew had a rough debut, but the game still is an event. So is Thursday night football. Any time there’s only one game being played, you’re going to watch, and if your team is involved, you’ve decided where days before kickoff.

The NFL generates a rhythm no other sport can replicate. The game usually is Sunday. Fans get Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to talk about what happened, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday to talk about what will happen.

If your fantasy football team won, you’re figuring ways to sustain the streak, and if they lost, you’re searching for ways to end it.

And who doesn’t play fantasy football? If you don’t, you know somebody who does. Why do stadiums such as Bank of America upgrade their Wi-Fi access, and make sure everybody knows it?

Because you can’t watch the home team’s game without checking on your team’s game(s). Fans are more likely to hold a phone than they are a beer. In fantasy football, we get to be general managers and coaches. The power, finally, is ours.

Gambling is easier than it has ever been. If it’s not legal in your state, there likely is a law yet to be ratified that will make it so. Or, go to an online site and place a bet against the spread. Or enter a pool with coworkers, or friends and family in the city in which you once lived, and pick winners.

The NFL is less a sport than a lifestyle. And we are in so deep.

The day after the Super Bowl should be a holiday because we need a day to come down.

The 2019 season doesn’t begin until Sept. 5. But the scouting combine starts Feb. 26, the deadline to apply the franchise tag is March 5 and the start of free agency is March 13 (although teams can begin to negotiate March 11).

Offseason workouts begin April 1 if you have a new head coach, April 15 if you don’t. The NFL draft begins April 25.

The NFL is a year-round sport. But still. I pick the winners of NFL games in this space every week, and I can’t just quit.

So, in the English Premier League Saturday, I like Manchester United over Fulham by two. Run it up, mates.

Peppers, Smith ready for Panthers’ Hall of Honor

Peppers had a great, sprawling, three-team NFL career, and is one of the best players the Panthers have ever had. I think Smith was better. But since Smith was a receiver and Peppers a defensive end, it’s tough to prove that Smith meant more to Carolina.

In a related development, it’s tough to prove that Smith didn’t.

What we can agree on is that they are the two greatest players to play for the Panthers.

When I walk into NFL stadiums other than the one in which Carolina plays, I see the names of the franchise’s great players celebrated where everybody can see them.

I always look. It’s interesting to think about the players who did their work on the field in front of you, or wore the same uniform the players on that field do.

Ever see the star of a former team show up where fans of the current team can see him? History comes to life. It’s as if half the fans take pictures and pose for autographs, and the other half unfurl a red carpet, or whatever the team’s colors might be.

The names that are commemorated belong to players who helped make the franchise what it is. Or, if the team is struggling, helped make the franchise what it was.

Panthers owner David Tepper said he would expand his team’s Hall of Honor, which at the moment features only one former player, Sam Mills. Mills was a Panther linebacker with fantastic instincts and a warm personality. When he finished playing, he coached Carolina’s linebackers. In 2003, Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. The Panthers made the Super Bowl that season.

Mills would go to chemotherapy, and then to practice. The team knew how sick he was. But he wasn’t going to call in sick. It is because of Mills, and a talk in which he addressed the team, that the Panthers have their “Keep pounding” mantra. Mills passed in 2005.

Mills was inducted when his three-season career for the Panthers ended.

Carolina has been playing football since 1995, and Mills should have company in the Hall of Honor. Coming up with worthy candidates won’t be a problem. The problem will be deciding which names to omit.

The first players to join Mills should be Smith and Peppers.

Short takes: Prince over Maroon 5; a Peppers head shake

▪ Maroon 5 was predictably bad during the Super Bowl’s halftime show. Most Super Bowl halftime shows are predictably bad.

When you’re there, you watch the extras, who play fans, run to the stage before the show begins. Their job is not only is to look happy and excited, but to act happy and excited. Adam Levine and Maroon 5 made that difficult. But those extras are pros, and they proved it.

Even U2 (my second favorite band of all time) underwhelmed when it performed at halftime (2002), and so did Bruce Springsteen (2009), and the Rolling Stones (2006).

I remember only one superior halftime show, and that was Prince (2007). At one point, the Florida A&M marching band joined him. Prince commanded the stage and our attention. It was as if everybody else conformed to the Super Bowl’s standards. Prince, however, held on to his own…

▪ Sometimes we get to know the athletes we write and talk about. But I don’t know anybody in the media who claims to know Peppers. He is the ultimate introvert. A private person can play a public game and Peppers proved it.

This season was Peppers’ 17th and his last. He’s 38, and there will be no comeback. We all know that.

Some players generate as many stories as they do tackles or touchdowns. But with Peppers, I can think of only one.

A man in the Carolina Panthers’ media relations department called me to say that Peppers did not like a column I had written, and probably was going to talk to me about it.

That’s fair. The subject of a column has as much right to criticize me as I do him. I walked into Carolina’s locker room the day after the call, and as I did Peppers walked out. He looked down at me – he’s 10 inches taller– and almost imperceptibly shook his head from side to side. He shook it once.

I understood the message. A head shake from Peppers is like a scream from some people.

Peppers didn’t return to the locker room, so I asked the man in the media relations department to give my cell phone number to Peppers, and to call if he wanted to talk.

He never did. You can’t hear a head shake over the phone…

▪ Defenders of the NFL criticize those of us who didn’t like Super Bowl 53. I’m sorry, dad. I’ll never criticize the NFL again. And how ‘bout that halftime show?

For me, it wasn’t the absence of points that detracted from the game. It was the absence of drama. The Los Angeles Rams, who trailed by seven, had a chance to tie the score with seven minutes remaining. They failed; they were intercepted at the New England 4. The Patriots began their drive there, and held the ball for approximately 45 minutes, ending it with a field goal. No way were the Rams, who had scored only three points, going to suddenly score 10.

Those drives were predictable. The Rams were going to fail and the Patriots were going to succeed. The end.

I like defense. I admire the creative and innovative defense New England played.

But I like drama, too. Maybe next year…

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