NFL: Jake does it his way

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 3, 2009

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Jake Delhomme’s critics have plenty of material to work with.
His arm isn’t that strong. He doesn’t move well. He seemingly throws balls up for grabs and Steve Smith bails him out. He always has a mediocre passer rating.
And why is he yelling at his teammates?
All that, and the fiery Delhomme is 54-32 in six seasons with the Carolina Panthers, including 5-2 in the playoffs. He’s engineered 13 winning drives in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime, and has the Panthers (12-4) awaiting a home playoff game Jan. 10 ó Delhomme’s 34th birthday ó as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
He’s done it this year with a piece of his left hamstring holding his right elbow together, too, as the highest-profile quarterback to undergo Tommy John reconstructive surgery.
Yes, the unorthodox QB with the Cajun accent finds a way to win ó his way.
“You’ve seen a difference between last year and this year, having him and not having him,” said left tackle Jordan Gross, who endured a 7-9 season with Delhomme sidelined last season. “He’s definitely our leader and the whole team revolves around him.”
Delhomme’s return has been overshadowed by other key moves the Panthers made last offseason after consecutive years out of the playoffs. Fumble-prone DeShaun Foster was released, Jonathan Stewart was drafted in the first round and former backup DeAngelo Williams emerged as one of the NFL’s top running backs.
The Panthers overhauled their offensive line and re-signed Muhsin Muhammad to give Smith some help at receiver. But the issue that brought the most unease was how Delhomme would respond to the reconstructive surgery. After being in pain for years ó it would hurt just to brush his teeth ó Delhomme’s troublesome elbow finally gave out in Week 3 last season.
He underwent the surgery, more common for baseball pitchers, where the shredded ligament was replaced with a tendon from his thigh. He then embarked on a long rehab process that started with Delhomme throwing a small Nerf ball.
After watching three quarterbacks struggle in his place last season, the Panthers gambled that Delhomme would return without problems, even though QBs Rob Johnson and Craig Erickson had limited success following the same surgery.
While his teammates suggested his arm was stronger in training camp than it was before the surgery, it took Delhomme until the third preseason game to convince himself he was OK.
“I needed to get hit,” Delhomme said. “The Washington game, I missed a hot read early in the game and got hit a couple of times. Things started to feel good in the second quarter and into the third. For me, that was it. I felt comfortable going into the San Diego game.”
That was the season opener, when Delhomme did something he’s made routine since coming out of nowhere to lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season: stage a late-game comeback. Delhomme led Carolina on a 68-yard drive, throwing a 14-yard winning touchdown pass to Dante Rosario as time expired.
Delhomme later threw a 54-yard pass to Smith to set up the winning touchdown with 1:30 left at Green Bay.
Delhomme closed the regular season by tossing one of his classic, off-the-back-foot passes that a leaping Smith grabbed in double coverage for a 39-yard gain. It set up John Kasay’s winning 42-yard field goal with 1 second left that secured the NFC South title.
Yet his detractors howled. Delhomme just chucked it up there again, right?
“I don’t think we talk about it that way,” coach John Fox said. “There’s no question, at the end of the day, it was a pretty good ball and an excellent catch, and those two guys have done that over time this season and in seasons past.”
Delhomme and Smith have a special relationship. The highly emotional players will bicker and shout at each other during games, but have a chemistry that allows for ugly looking plays to work, especially in the playoffs.
Delhomme’s 69-yard pass to Smith won a double-overtime game in St. Louis en route to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season. In the 2005 playoffs, Delhomme and Smith hooked up on two touchdown passes in a win at Chicago that put Carolina in the NFC championship game.
Just like in the fourth quarter of close games, Delhomme’s numbers improve in January. His playoff passer rating of 95.0 is better than any of the other 11 quarterbacks in the postseason this year.
“Don’t make it bigger than what it is,” Delhomme said. “It’s still another game and you still have to do what you did during the season ó because obviously you did some decent things ó and carry it over.”
Yet those stats don’t stop the critics. Keyshawn Johnson, who played with Delhomme in Carolina in 2006, recently referred to his passes as “hand grenades.” Delhomme is still criticized for his ugly 7-for-27, four-interception performance in a win over Oakland this season.
Delhomme threw 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in the regular season, and had a ho-hum 84.7 passer rating. Delhomme received only six of 50 votes for The Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year award, losing out to another quarterback, Miami’s Chad Pennington.
“He doesn’t scramble and make big plays with his legs, and he’s not someone you want to have the camera on,” Gross said. “But he does the right things and he’s tough and he leads our offense. He’s a guy that’s not flashy, but definitely does the job as well as anybody.”
And Delhomme has embraced the role of sacrificing stats for wins. Delhomme knows he’s not going to put up gaudy numbers in a run-oriented offense. It began when he met with Fox before signing with Carolina in 2003.
“He said, ‘I don’t believe in stats. I’m just telling you right now,”‘ Delhomme said. “And he’s right. It’s all about winning in this league. I love that we’re able to run the football.”
And his teammates are happy to have the Louisiana native with the odd style and reconfigured elbow “chucking it up there” when the game’s on the line.
“I don’t know if it’s just that he’s so excited and so pumped up that he doesn’t even realize what’s going on around him,” Muhammad said, “But for some particular reason, Jake has been so poised in those situations.”