There's an unspoken bond between an NFL starting quarterback and the fans of his hometown team. Jake Delhomme, the Carolina Panthers starter since Week 2 of the 2003 season, may have broken that bond forever with his horrific performance in the Divisional Playoff game loss to the Arizona Cardinals this past Saturday night.
Fans entrust their team's starting QB with one simple expectation: first and foremost, always give your team a chance to win. Interceptions happen, fumbles happen, and sacks happen. We, as fans, understand this, and we accept them as part of the game. Mistakes can be overcome. Adversity is expected. We know it's ridiculously hard to win games in the NFL.
But the starting quarterback of a 12-4 division champion that earns a coveted No. 2 seed, plus the bye week and the home game that comes with it, simply cannot, under any circumstances, play that game as poorly as Delhomme played against the Cardinals.
To do so stretches the bond of trust to the breaking point, and perhaps snaps it forever. We've all seen Jake throw picks before, and they've come in bunches before, too. We've all seen him fumble in the pocket, too. It happened against Minnesota in Week 3, and cost the Panthers that game as well.
Panthers fans have accepted the risk of "Bad Jake" showing up from time to time. We accept the risk because the "Good Jake" has been so spectacular so many other times.
From the very first miracle comeback against Jacksonville in 2003 to his transcendent fourth quarter against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, to his many highlight-reel throws to Steve Smith, including the division clincher against the Saints two weeks ago, Jake has been a thrill ride unlike any other Panthers quarterback.
But this sudden, shocking, and completely unexpected reappearance of "Bad Jake" at the worst possible moment, on the most opportune stage, with seemingly all the stars aligned for a deep and satisfying Panthers playoff run, is simply unacceptable. Even Jake's most loyal supporters are alarmed and concerned that what was once considered a strength for the Panthers, has been instantly turned into a possibly fatal weakness.
Because, in the ultimate analysis which may unveil the most painful truth, if the coaches determine that Jake Delhomme can no longer be trusted with the simplest and most basic commandment of quarterback play, then it is indeed time for the Carolina Panthers to find someone else to play this critical position.
This is what Jake Delhomme has done to his career here in Carolina. In the space of 60 agonizing minutes of horrific play, Jake Delhomme showed that he can no longer be trusted.
And that may very well be the single most painful aftermath of this terrible season-ending loss.
There will be another season next year. There will be other playoff runs in the Panthers' future—the team is deep and talented. But it may have to face that future with a decision to turn over the most important position on the team to someone else—someone who can be trusted.
And speaking for all Jake Delhomme fans, that is a pain I'd never thought I'd see.