They entered this season as the unlikely, and only, survivors of the 2002 draft — one a pass rusher who could end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the other a journeyman quarterback whose grit and resourcefulness have made him a survivor in a league that quickly chews up and spits out even its most worthy combatants.
Julius Peppers is still sacking quarterbacks at age 37 and Josh McCown is still throwing passes at age 38. Both have overcome the odds and continued to pursue their NFL dreams at a time when nearly their entire draft class is deep in retirement.
On Sunday at MetLife Stadium, Peppers and the NFC South-leading Panthers will visit McCown’s Jets, who somehow are fighting for a playoff berth despite nearly unanimous predictions of failure coming into the season.
“It’s pretty cool,” McCown said. “We hopped on a bus 16 years ago out in Los Angeles at the rookie premiere, and I hopped on and sat next to Julius and I’ve known him ever since. It’s an honor to look around and be the last two guys still rolling, and it’s still alive with him. To be alongside him, it’s an honor. I love that guy. He’s a great player, great teammate, and I look forward to competing against him.”
Added McCown, “Heck of a guy and it doesn’t shock me. It’s cool to still see him going, for sure.”
McCown’s meandering career has brought him into contact with literally hundreds of different teammates in his 15 NFL seasons — he also spent one year playing in the now-defunct United Football League — so it’s not entirely unusual that he got to play alongside Peppers. Their paths crossed in Chicago and Carolina, where McCown served mostly as a backup and Peppers was the top pass rusher for the Bears and Panthers.
With football still a burning passion for both players, they now will meet on their own field of dreams with a chance to take a decisive step forward in their dreams of winning a championship.
It’s a dream that has long been extinguished for most of their 2002 draft peers, among them quarterbacks David Carr (Texans), Joey Harrington (Lions), Patrick Ramsey (Redskins), and David Garrard (Jaguars) as well as defensive ends Bryan Thomas (Jets), Charles Grant (Saints) and Kalimba Edwards (Lions).
McCown and Peppers entered the season as the only remaining players from the 2002 draft. Defensive end Dwight Freeney, also a first-round pick in 2002, was out of the league at the start of the season and only recently signed with the Seahawks. He has since been released and joined the Lions.
McCown and Peppers have drawn admiration from the coaches who will oppose one another on Sunday.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said of Peppers, who leads the Panthers with 7 1⁄2 sacks. “He’s playing like he’s 25 years old. That’s a credit to him and keeping his body in great condition, not taking the game for granted. Obviously, he studies and he’s a great technician. That’s just who he is.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera marvels at the fact that McCown still is able to play at a high level. McCown has completed 69 percent of his passes, which ranks third in the NFL, and has a solid quarterback rating of 93.7.
“For his age, he still throws a very good ball,” Rivera said of McCown, a Panthers backup in 2008-09. “His timing is good, he’s smart and he sees things. He’s a savvy veteran and he’ll take his shots [downfield]. He’s shown he’s not afraid to.”
It was a far more unconventional journey for McCown than for Peppers, who was a consensus blue-chip pass rusher out of North Carolina and was taken second overall by the Panthers. McCown, who played at Sam Houston State, went in the third round (81st overall) to the Cardinals and spent most of his career hopscotching across the league as a backup. There were stops with the Lions, Raiders, Dolphins, Panthers, Bears, Buccaneers, Browns and finally the Jets. He signed a one-year, $6-million deal and has been well worth the investment.
McCown and the Jets find themselves at a pivotal time in the season, with their playoff hopes very much on the line in the coming weeks. At 4-6, they’re still on the outer edge of the AFC wild-card race (it’s a virtual lock that the Patriots will win yet another divisional title), so their margin for error is minimal.
“I think that you are coming down the stretch — you have to play with that mindset,” McCown said of the must-win mentality. “It’s that time of year and I still think that with the way this thing is shaking out, it’s going to remain pretty open as we go, but we don’t want to leave ourselves any room for error. It will be a tough one going against Carolina, but when your mindset shifts to this mode that you have to play in down the stretch, when you’re trying to make a run, what better way than to go against a top defense and a top team and get your mind, and your team, focused on going in the right direction.”
It will be the perfect test for a mostly young Jets team led by a decidedly older quarterback. That he gets to go against a Panthers team featuring his draft classmate from 15 years ago is a nice piece of symmetry. Especially for a team that inspired zero thoughts — at least outside the locker room — that a playoff run was possible.
“When we came together in the spring, that was our goal,” McCown said of aiming for the playoffs. “Outside expectations are exactly what they are — they’re outside. And I don’t fault anybody for prognosticating how they think the season is going to go — everybody has a job to do — but for us, inside, we have goals and things that we set for ourselves as a team. We’re sitting here right where we wanted to be with six games left to play as far as [being] in the playoff hunt, and so that’s all you can ask for. Now the challenge is up to us, and we have to go meet it.”
How the careers of 2002 rookies Julius Peppers and Josh McCown have intertwined:
Panthers 2002-05 Cardinals
Panthers 2007 Raiders
Panthers 2008-09 Panthers
Bears 2010 Out of NFL
Bears 2011-13 Bears
Packers 2014 Buccaneers
Packers 2015-16 Browns