By this time next week, Julius Peppers will be 34 years old.
In the real world, it’s no big deal to be 34. You’ve escaped the angst of your teens and the turbulence of your 20s. Maybe you’re married. Maybe you have kids. Maybe you’ve earned a promotion. Maybe you’ve changed careers.
But we all know that the NFL is not the real world.
In the NFL, players in their mid-30s might as well be dinosaurs. They tend to fall into three categories: Quarterbacks (see: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning), specialists (see: Adam Vinatieri, Patrick Mannelly) and breaking down position players.
Peppers isn’t a quarterback or a specialist.
The Bears have a tough decision to make this winter regarding Peppers’ future. General manager Phil Emery must decide whether he thinks the eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end can bounce back from an inconsistent season to merit a salary-cap hit in the neighborhood of $18 million.
Perhaps the Bears could try to restructure Peppers’ deal for the second consecutive season. Or perhaps they could cut Peppers with two years remaining on his deal.
Then again, the Bears could try to squeeze at least one more season out of Peppers under his current deal hoping he has more success at age 34 than Brian Urlacher.
Emery, as always, has remained tight-lipped about his plan.
First, the Bears must decide whether to retain defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Then, they must determine whether to preserve a 4-3 defensive scheme, switch to a 3-4 scheme or implement some sort of in-between hybrid option.
And then comes Peppers’ contract, which could affect other free-agent signings.
“I’m not going to get into contracts,” Emery said earlier this month when Peppers’ name came up at the Bears’ season-ending news conference. “He’s under contract.
“Julius had an 8-8 year, like all of us, like I did, and that’s where he’s at.”
Peppers is paid to have 13-3 years, not 8-8 years. But Emery was careful to point out that an “8-8 year” did not mean that Peppers had become an average player.
“I didn’t say he was an 8-8 defensive end,” Emery said. “I said he had an 8-8 season, to correct that. That’s a whole lot different.
“Obviously, Julius had a lot of good games like a lot of our players, and he had games that he would want back, and I think Julius would say that, too. We will work through each and every player on our squad and to determine where we’re going with him in the future, and that process is going to take time.”
Peppers’ time as a dominant player might have run out.
Twelve years ago, he entered the NFL as a 22-year-old and registered a dozen sacks with the Carolina Panthers. He enjoyed eight seasons with double-digit sacks between 2002 and 2012, adding 37 forced fumbles during that span.
But Peppers’ production plunged in 2013. He finished the season with 7½ sacks and two forced fumbles, and his 19 quarterback pressures were only one more than embattled teammate Shea McClellin, whose future likely is at another position.
Back in training camp, Peppers insisted his age was a non-story. He was excited about the Bears’ chances to win. He said he didn’t feel like he was getting older.
“No. Not at all,” Peppers said. “I’m serious, I don’t. I feel like I’m 25.
“Age is just a number that gets put on players. It’s real, but it’s really in your heart and your mind how you feel. I feel young in those places, and I think it’s showing.”
And then he had an 8-8 season.
And now he’s turning 34.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.