Jake Delhomme: Playing The "What If?" Game

Ben EllingtonCorrespondent ISeptember 1, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - AUGUST 29: Quarterback Jake Delhomme #17 of the Carolina Panthers stands on the field during their game against the Baltimore Ravens at Bank of America Stadium on August 29, 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The season hasn't even started yet, and already fans have begun criticizing Jake Delhomme.  Darin Gantt reports that in the press box of the Ravens game someone stated that Delhomme wouldn't start for any other team in the league.

Tell that to fans in Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, etc... and see what they think.

Jake bashing has almost become a sport in the Carolinas.  In six years the Panther quarterback has gone from a franchise savior who inspired a line of "Got Jake?" t-shirts to the most often cited reason for failure on the team.  Through it all the quarterback who people love to call inconsistent has posted the following ratings:  80.6, 87.3, 88.1, 82.6, 111.8 (over three games only), and 84.7. 

Aside from his short season, where he was very good indeed, Delhomme has been consistently average as far as stats are concerned.

As far as winning, he's been consistently good with a 49-30 record, but despite the haters' proclivity for blaming Delhomme for losses, he gets no credit for victories at all.

But this isn't about whether or not it's fair to hate Jake, that's been written about to death.

This article is about the "what-if?" game that Panthers fans love to play.  What if Kasay hadn't kicked that ball out of bounds?  What if Collins hadn't had his meltdown?  What if we never traded for Gilbert?  What if they drafted Tom Brady in the fifth?  (That thought is shared by 31 other teams around the league, for what it's worth).  What if...?

There will always be the nuts who say "What if the Panthers had executed a four-way deal with Peppers and Denver and Chicago and whoever and ended up with a stud defensive end and Jay Cutler?" but those scenarios aren't realistic.

How about this one—What if Fox wasn't such a good coach that we would get a top five pick in the draft one year?  Getting a franchise quarterback is difficult even if you do have a high pick to spend.  Without one, the only hope you have is to find a diamond in the rough and spend a few years polishing it on the bench. 

Well, in Fox's first year as the Carolina coach, the Panthers had the second overall pick.  With it they took Julius Peppers, and in doing so passed on the opportunity to draft Joey Harrington.  Even the most bitter fan out there would probably acknowledge that it was the smart thing to do.

The Panthers went out and got some stability at QB with free agent Rodney Peete, and then in the 2003 offseason they picked up Jake Delhomme from the New Orleans' Saints.  Delhomme, of course, led the Panthers to their lone Super Bowl appearance, and was credited with leading many of the Panthers come-from-behind wins that year. 

2003 also represents the first lost opportunity for the Panthers.  After the draft the Dallas Cowboys picked up UDFA Tony Romo and gave him a roster spot.  The Panthers were happy with Peete and Weinke at the time, and no one would have given the Eastern Illinois product a second look had the Panthers picked him up.  He probably wouldn't have made the roster in Dallas had Quincy Carter not had a substance abuse problem.

Regardless, 2003 represents the Panthers first big "What if..." moment surrounding Jake.  If they had given up on Weinke and signed Romo the UDFA, then they would have a potential replacement for Delhomme on the roster right now.  But they didn't, and there was no reason to at the time.

In 2004 Jake Delhomme was the toast of Charlotte.  He had just led the Panthers to the Super Bowl, Carolina had its quarterback of the future, and everyone was wearing shades.  The free agent market for quarterbacks wasn't particularly good anyway (headed by such luminary figures as Billy Volek and Shaun King), so the Panthers did nothing there. 

Frank Garcia was on the street for a day, but he's a west coast offense QB who commanded a four year, 25 million dollar deal.  Fans would have run Hurney out of town if he made that deal, especially given the overall mood towards Jake.  Kurt Warner was available for two days, but he had been terrible in his final two years in St. Louis and was considered lucky to catch on in New York. 

In the draft, Carolina had a shot at Matt Schaub, giving some fans a reach for a "What If?" moment, but had they gotten him it would have probably cost a late selection and they would have missed on Travelle Wharton, who was taken in the same round.  The Panthers elected to stand pat at quarterback, and no one could blame them.

Once the season started, the wheels came off the bandwagon.  Steve Smith, Stephen Davis, and Kris Jenkins all had season-ending injuries early in the year.  The Panthers finished the season with their top four running backs on injured reserve, and a total of 14 of their players made that list.

Through it all, including a 1-7 start, Delhomme showed a marked improvement on the year before.  With no running game and no star receiver, he still threw for 29 touchdowns and reduced his interceptions from the year before.  The Panthers had problems, but he wasn't one of them by a long shot.  Carolina also went 6-2 in it's last eight games, which provided cause for optimism for the 2005 year.

In the 2005 draft the Panthers selected Thomas Davis, which provides our second "What if?" moment.  Carolina joined nine other clubs in electing not to take Aaron Rodgers, who was the second quarterback selected, and who was also expected to be taken in the top ten.  Rodgers landed in Green Bay, where be was allowed to develop behind Brett Favre before finally getting his opportunity in 2008.

In the 2005 season the Panthers were again hit by injuries, but this time overcame them to reach the NFC Championship.  In this game, Jake had his first real meltdown as the Carolina quarterback.  Seattle blanketed Steve Smith with triple coverage, running back Nick Goings was knocked out early with a concussion, and Seattle held the ball for nearly 42 minutes in the contest. 

Delhomme threw three interceptions against one touchdown, and posted a rating of 34.9.  For fans looking for a reason to hate on the quarterback, this was like manna from heaven.  They at last had a real justification to go after the quarterback.  The chants of "Start Weinke" were being prepared on message boards and blogs around the region. 

After the season the Panthers were looking to get depth at wide receiver and running back.  Despite one bad game, Jake was still considered by many to be a clutch performer and a very solid starter.  After all, prior to the Seattle game he had posted great numbers in convincing road playoff wins in New York and Chicago, and he was selected to represent the NFC in the 2005 Pro Bowl.

Sure, there were a handful of haters waiting in the wings, but no one really cared to listen to them.  There was no reason.

But in the 2006 offseason, the Panthers had a pretty big "What if" moment, along with most other teams around the league.  Drew Brees was released by San Diego, and snatched up by the New Orleans Saints.  Granted, Brees was coming off of shoulder surgery.  He had also posted decent, but not great numbers in San Diego.  In five years there he had a 30-28 record with a quarterback rating of 84.9.  By comparison, Jake was 28-19 in Carolina with a rating of 85.3. 

Brees didn't seem like an improvement on Jake to anyone.  Many projected him as the third best quarterback in the NFC South, behind Delhomme and Michael Vick.  Still, given how things have turned out this was a big "What If?" moment for a lot of teams. Hindsight will do that for you.

Once the 2006 season started, the sport of Jake bashing really started to take off.  He was still posting the same basic numbers he had since arriving in Carolina, but fans wanted more.  Enough time had passed for fans to forget the 1-15 season that Chris Weinke had orchestrated as a rookie, and he was often touted as a viable alternative to Jake, even as an improvement.

Helping Jake bashers spread discontent was a general feeling that Dan Henning was too predictable and the team just wasn't dominant on defense.  Keyshawn Johnson was also on the roster, and it may be a coincidence but when Delhomme stepped up to take blame for losses somehow people were more willing to give it to him than they had been in years past. 

In particular, last second losses to Cincinnatti and Philadelphia both happened when Jake failed to connect in the end zone with Keyshawn.  But taking one play and choosing to cast the entire game in it's context is the type of thing done by those who want change, and has no place here.

As the starter Jake went 7-6, but the team just couldn't stop anyone when it counted and the Panthers never really got a running game going.  When they went 1-2 with Chris Weinke under center, Carolina missed the playoffs.  Henning was fired, Keyshawn released, and the fans who had been the loudest with the "Start Weinke" cries and shouts kind of shut up and went back into their holes.

The detractors soon re-emerged though, energized as they had never been.  In the 2007 offseason, Carolina entered free agency and got one of the biggest prizes.  Former number one overall pick David Carr had been released by the Texans, and signed with the Panthers. 

To some, this came with or caused another "What If" moment though, as during the draft Carolina decided to trade down instead of selecting Brady Quinn with the 14th selection.  The picks they traded for resulted in Jon Beason and Ryan Kalil, so this may not be the "What If" that gets people to pay attention, given that Quinn hasn't won anything and the other two are starters. 

But the Panthers had David Carr instead of Chris Weinke, and already people were predicting that he would win the starting job from Jake in no time.  Then Delhomme messed things up by posting a 111.8 rating through the first three games before going down for the year with an elbow injury.  Carr took over, was ineffective in comparison to Delhomme, and battled injuries himself as Vinny Testaverde and Matt Moore finished out the season for the Panthers.

In 2008 the Panthers tapped free agency again, releasing Carr and signing Josh McCown.  They retained Matt Moore as the backup, and prepared for Delhomme's return from Tommy John surgery.  In the draft they inadvertently provided fans with another "What If?" moment by passing on Joe Flacco to draft Jonathan Stewart. 

No one at the time suggested that it was a mistake, and given Stewart's production during the season it's not likely anyone would take them seriously had they done so.  Hindsight may someday change some minds, but for now this isn't a very strong "What If?" to bash Fox and Hurney over.

Through 16 games in 2008 Delhomme posted a passer rating of 84.7 en route to leading the Panthers to a 12-4 record. Matt Moore looked pretty bad in the preseason, and no one wanted to seriously see McCown take over for Delhomme.  Delhomme had a couple of fairly poor games, but overall his numbers were good and he orchestrated several come-back victories for the Panthers.

Then another gift from the sky fell—five of them actually.  Against Arizona in the playoffs, Jake threw five interceptions and lost a fumble in an ugly loss to the Cardinals.  For those who like to criticize the starting quarterback, this was a gift for them to hold on to the entire offseason.

The free agent class included Kurt Warner, who was resigned by the Cardinals, Matt Cassell, who ended up in Kansas City, Jeff Garcia, who is in Oakland, Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman, Kerry Collins, and Kyle Boller.  It's not likely that any of the ones the Panthers had a chance at would have been a big improvement over Delhomme in 2009, but even if they had the Panthers didn't have any money for a big free agent signing.

The Panthers also had no first round pick in the draft, but they traded into the second round to take Everett Brown.  Brown was taken immediately before Pat White, to the angst of wildcat fans, but the jury will be out on the wisdom of that pick for years.  Until then, Jake Delhomme is likely to line up under center for the Panthers, and fans will continue to say "What if?"

What if the Panthers had signed or drafted Tony Romo in 2003?  What if they had drafted Aaron Rodgers instead of Thomas Davis?  What if they had signed Drew Brees?

And those are really the only fair "What if?" questions they have.  In all the years that the Panthers have relied on Delhomme, there have really been only three realistic opportunities to replace him with something better.  Flacco has had one good season, and it wasn't as good as Jake's.  Quinn is still unproven.  There were three, and at the time none of them made much sense.

When you look at the starting quarterbacks around the league, and particularly at those who might represent an improvement on Delhomme, most of them share one of two common traits.  They were either taken high in the first round (Rivers, Pennington, Manning (both Peyton and Eli), Ryan, McNabb, Cutler) or they were given plenty of time to develop before coming into their own as premier quarterbacks (Romo, Brees, Rodgers, Schaub). 

Then there are the free agents that have a little life left after all, like Warner and Garcia, and the occasional surprise, like Jake Delhomme.  But the most common trait of all is that quarterbacks usually star for the teams that take the time to develop them.

Matt Moore is the third quarterback on the Panthers roster.  He's another undrafted free agent, and has already gotten some NFL starting experience.  He's demonstrated some good intangibles, like leadership and a knack for moving the ball, and he has a decent pedigree.  It wasn't enough to get him drafted, but it may be enough to build on as the Panthers attempt to shape him into a NFL-caliber starting quarterback.

In 2010, the draft will be deep at the quarterback position.  The Panthers won't have a first round pick, so don't start thinking of Bradford or Tebow.  But it's conceivable that Colt McCoy, Pat Devlin, Zac Robinson, or someone of similar skill will be available when they do get to pick 

And Jake is locked up as the starter in Carolina for what will likely be the remainder of his career, giving a potential draft pick plenty of time to develop.

So if you like to say we need to get rid of Delhomme now, think about the alternatives.  Over the years, there really haven't been many, and none that made a lot of sense at the time. 

But the future will bring change, just because it always does.  And if Moore develops, or if the Panthers get a future star in the 2010 draft, and have time to bring him along, then the change will be good.

On the other hand, maybe the Jake haters will get their way and he'll somehow be lost for the season again, just like he was in 2007.

But if that happens, be prepared to answer another question when the season goes south.  "What if we still had Jake?"


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