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Panthers: Love him or hate him, Jake’s the man

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
SPARTANBURG, S.C. ó A sweaty Jake Delhomme headed toward a screaming crowd behind the fence surrounding Carolina’s practice field. Many of the autograph-seekers Monday were dressed in No. 17 jerseys, and all were clearly on the same side of the divisive issue that has no middle ground.
Jake Fan or Jake Hater?
The two groups have been bickering for years, but this offseason was unlike any other. All it took was one ugly, six-turnover performance in a stunning playoff loss.
“The last one I played wasn’t too darn good,” Delhomme deadpanned.
Delhomme threw five interceptions, lost a fumble and produced a 39.1 passer rating in the Panthers’ embarrassing 33-13 home loss to Arizona in the NFC divisional playoffs. The worst performance of his career ó he was one interception shy of the dubious NFL playoff record ó came on his 34th birthday, too.
“That’s something that will always stick with me, even 10 years from now,” Delhomme said. “That’s part of the deal.”
It overshadowed his return from reconstructive elbow surgery, his 54-33 record as a starter and the slew of fourth-quarter comebacks that earned him loyal supporters.
The fans who can’t stand his unorthodox style and gambling nature roared, demanding Carolina make a move in the offseason.
The Panthers responded by giving Delhomme a five-year, $42.5 million extension that locks him up through 2014. And they didn’t sign a QB, leaving Delhomme clearly ahead of holdovers Josh McCown and Matt Moore.
No question, coach John Fox, general manager Marty Hurney and Delhomme’s teammates are members of the Delhomme fan club.
“He’s our quarterback. I love him. I’m so glad we re-signed him to a longer deal,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “He’s got a lot of criticism from everybody from that game, but you won’t hear any of it in the locker room. He’s the epitome of a leader. … I have total confidence that he’ll come back as a better player this than he was last.”
Delhomme’s success story, going from NFL Europe to New Orleans Saints benchwarmer to Super Bowl quarterback in his first year with Carolina made him a local star, a locker room favorite and a leader his teammates trust.
But his style isn’t always easy on the eyes. He’ll throw off the wrong foot, make a bad decision, yell at his teammates.
He’s also prone to be Bad Jake. It happened in Oakland last season when the Panthers won despite him completing only 7 of 22 passes with four interceptions.
Then it happened again at the worst possible time, helping Carolina end a 12-4 season with a thud.
“He was down after that game and he apologized to us,” Gross said. “We all told him to knock it off. He doesn’t want us apologizing to him when we have a bad game. Since then he’s just been anxious to get started again.”
Delhomme expressed gratitude that the Panthers extended his contract, which also created needed salary-cap space this season. But Panthers management never wavered that he was their guy. Fox repeatedly brings up 2007, when Delhomme was lost to his elbow injury and the Panthers went through four quarterbacks, including 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde, in a 7-9 season.
So there was Delhomme back under center for Carolina’s opening practice Monday morning, eager to create distance from the Jan. 10 disaster.
“Certainly it was tough because we had such a great year,” Delhomme said. “For myself it was tougher than the other guys, because they gave us more of a chance to win than I did.”
If Delhomme’s confidence is shaken, it didn’t show. His teammates still believe in him, and Delhomme seems unconcerned with the negative message board threads, the angry talk radio callers or the critics who question if Carolina can win a Super Bowl with him.
“I’ve always thought I had thick skin, but I just added another layer on top of it,” Delhomme said. “You’ve got to go with the ups and downs. Certainly it was a down, and I’m looking for more ups.”

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