CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Julius Peppers described his offseason departure from Carolina as "a little sour" on Wednesday, claiming the Panthers tried to paint him in a bad light after deciding to let him leave in free agency.
In a conference call with reporters ahead of Peppers' return to Charlotte on Sunday with the Chicago Bears, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive end said he was under the impression the Panthers decided to "do away with anybody who is making a significant amount of money" as part of a roster overhaul that's produced the NFL's youngest team.
"That's a business decision. I can understand and respect that," the 30-year-old Peppers said. "The problem that I had was they tried to turn the tables and make it look like I wanted out no matter what. Really, I didn't have the option to stay. It was never offered to stay."
"So when I say it ended a little sour, I felt like it could have been a little more respectful. At least a phone call to say, 'It's been good. We're going in a different direction. We're going to let you go.' They couldn't even give me that."
Peppers also disputed Panthers general manager Marty Hurney's earlier claims that they twice tried to make him the NFL's highest-paid defensive player. Peppers said that happened only once, after the 2007 season, a deal he rejected.
Hurney didn't return a message seeking comment, releasing only a short statement that didn't address Peppers' criticism.
"Julius gave us eight great years and we appreciate everything he did for us," Hurney said.
The Panthers and Peppers were locked in a lengthy contract dispute that included his pleas to allow him to leave in free agency after the 2008 season The Panthers refused and used the restrictive franchise tag, requiring a mammoth one-year deal that paid Peppers $18.2 million last season.
The Panthers could have used the franchise tag again this season, but at the cost of at least $20.1 million. The Panthers declined and let the 6-foot-7 Peppers, the franchise's career leader with 81 sacks, leave without compensation.
The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft signed a six-year, $91.5 million deal with the Bears in March. While he said he's happy in Chicago — he has two sacks, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal for the Bears (3-1) — he's puzzled with how things ended in Charlotte.
"I was kind of surprised because I was expecting to hear something from them," Peppers said. "I didn't understand what was going on. But as the weeks and the months went by, I started getting the picture of the direction they were going in and I knew I wasn't a part of it."
Now Peppers, a Bailey, N.C., native who starred in college in North Carolina, will return home to play the struggling Panthers (0-4) for the first time on Sunday. After the two years of rocky contract negotiations, Peppers said he has "no idea" how he'll be received by fans.
But Peppers was clearly frustrated at the perception he doesn't play hard on every down. The reputation has stuck with him since college and was fueled by games in Carolina in which the freakishly athletic Peppers had little impact.
"I just see that as people not being able to form an opinion for themselves," Peppers said. "People will hear one thing and just run with it. ... A couple people started saying it for whatever reason, and then it followed me. And then people just kept repeating it, even though it wasn't true."
Peppers, who also ranks first in Carolina history with 29 forced fumbles and nine blocked kicks, is proud of his time with Carolina despite the criticism and messy ending.
"Look at a guy like Dwight Freeney, who had (84) sacks or whatever it was in eight seasons. I'm right there behind him at 81," Peppers said. "If people look at the numbers and stop just making up stuff about how I played, you'll realize I've done well and really I think I exceeded expectations when I was brought to that team."
Notes: Panthers WR Steve Smith was on crutches in the locker room after missing practice with a high ankle sprain. Smith is expected to miss at least one game. ... S Sherrod Martin (concussion) sat out practice, but is holding out hope he'll be cleared to play Sunday. ... RB DeAngelo Williams (illness) and RT Jeff Otah (knee) didn't practice, while LB Jamar Williams (neck) was limited. ... The first court appearance for Dwayne Jarrett, cut on Tuesday after he was charged with driving while impaired, was postponed from Wednesday to Nov. 12.