A few weeks ago, Julius Peppers was asked if he could some day own the NFL sack record. For Peppers, the Carolina Panthers' third-year defensive end, the idea sounded limiting.
"I want to be the prototype defensive end, not just a guy who gets sacks rushing the passer," he said then. "I want to do everything and show my range as a player."
This season Peppers has 10 sacks and two pass interceptions, including one that went for a touchdown, and 29 sacks for his career. Peppers, who is 6 feet 6 inches and 290 pounds, stunned his teammates when he sprinted across the field and caught Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman from behind during a Panthers victory against the Buccaneers on Nov. 28.
"There is nothing on the football field he can't do," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said after practice Tuesday.
Peppers, who had 12 sacks as a rookie but struggled to produce the same numbers last season, is finding ways to overcome the game plans designed to stop him.
"He's really relaxed," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "He's not looking over his shoulder and he's just going straight forward and he's being relentless.
Carolina is finding new and unusual ways to take advantage of Peppers. In each of the past two weeks, the Panthers have inserted Peppers at wide receiver near the goal line. Quarterback Jake Delhomme overthrew Peppers against New Orleans on Dec. 5. Last Sunday, the St. Louis Rams actually double-teamed Peppers and left the former Pro Bowl receiver Muhsin Muhammad in single coverage. Delhomme's pass to Muhammad was incomplete.
"I'll get one sooner or later," Peppers said.
This is not some gimmick cooked up by coach John Fox and his staff. Peppers played tailback and wide receiver in high school and began as a tight end at the University of North Carolina before moving to defensive end. He also spent two seasons as a power forward on the Tar Heels' basketball team, helping North Carolina reach the Final Four in 2000.
"He's just a great athlete," Fox said. "He has great hand-eye coordination. He can jump, he can run. It's hard to play basketball at the level he did and not have good hands. They're exceptional athletes that play that game at that level. We're just trying to carry that over to football."
Atlanta Coach Jim Mora, who faces the Panthers on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, said he had a plan to stop Peppers. He joked that he would use Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler as a defensive back. Why not? Crumpler was one of the tight ends ahead of Peppers at North Carolina.
The Giants and the Cowboys are both 5-8 but are still in the hunt for National Football Conference wild-card berths.
Yet they are taking different approaches to preparing their quarterbacks of the future.
Giants Coach Tom Coughlin appears willing to sacrifice the short term by staying with the rookie Eli Manning. But Bill Parcells is dropping Drew Henson to third string on the Cowboys' depth chart for their game Sunday against Philadelphia.
Henson, who started against Chicago on Nov. 25 but was replaced by Vinny Testaverde, will be on the bench behind Testaverde and the backup Tony Romo. Asked if that was because Henson is not experienced or because the opponent is Philadelphia (12-1), Parcells said it was a combination.
"He hasn't had enough looks, really," Parcells said about Henson. "That's all."