Panthers keep faith in Delhomme

Travel around this city and you’d think Jake Delhomme was not only a turnover machine, but responsible for the double-digit unemployment, the stalled condominium projects downtown and maybe even the relentless humidity.

Carolina Panthers' Jake Delhomme (17) reacts on the sidelines during the first half against the Baltimore Ravens during a preseason NFL football game in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Travel around this city and you’d think Jake Delhomme was not only a turnover machine, but responsible for the double-digit unemployment, the stalled condominium projects downtown and maybe even the relentless humidity.

Radio talk show callers stay on hold for hours to spit venom at the Carolina quarterback. The Jake-hating message board threads are too numerous to count. Then there’s the Craigslist posting claiming Delhomme is for sale:

“Loyal. Needs a Loving Home. Serious Offers, Please. Trades Accepted. Contact: (coach) John Fox.”

After 11 turnovers in the last 6 1/2 quarters, it seems as if everybody has lost confidence in Delhomme — with one big exception: the Panthers locker-room.

Delhomme and the Panthers imploded in the playoffs in January against upstart Arizona and then in the season opener Sunday against Philadelphia. Delhomme has started 22 drives in those two games. Nine ended with interceptions and two more with lost fumbles. Combined score: Opponents 71, Panthers 23.

But walk into the Carolina locker-room this week and this is what’s heard:

“I love that guy,” said left tackle Jordan Gross, one of the highest-paid linemen in the game. “He was one of the main reasons I wanted to re-sign here. I love blocking for him and he’s our quarterback.”

Added centre Ryan Kalil: “He’ll take all of (the abuse) regardless if it’s his fault or not. I think that’s something that’s very inspiring and it’s something that keeps this team together.”

A quarterback who posted a 14.7 passer rating before being yanked Sunday is keeping the team together?

Don’t write it off as simple athlete-speak.

The players, coaching staff and front office still believe in the guy who led them within a last-second field goal of a Super Bowl title in 2003, an NFC championship game appearance two years later and a 12-4 record last year.

They don’t think Delhomme, who made the Pro Bowl in 2005, has turned into Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax or any other athlete who simply lost it one day before disappearing from the stage.

“What he needs more than teammates is real friends and friendship,” said Steve Smith, the speedy receiver and Delhomme’s top target.

They view Delhomme as a natural leader, a hard worker who took all the blame Sunday despite horrible pass protection. They still remember the guy who went from unknown backup in New Orleans to a seven-year starter in Carolina and engineer of 12 game-winning drives in the final 2 minutes or overtime.

Delhomme realizes loyalty can last only so long. He’ll head to Atlanta on Sunday for perhaps the most important game of his career.

“I’d like to erase any doubts,” Delhomme said, his eyes fixed on the other stalls in the locker room. “I don’t think they have any. I really don’t think they do. But I’d like to erase them if there are any at all this weekend.”

Fox and general manager Marty Hurney are all for it. Their futures may be linked to the 34-year-old getting out of his funk.

Three months after Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble in a stunning playoff exit, he was rewarded with a five-year, US$42.5-million contract.

Delhomme’s contract makes it almost impossible to replace him with a big-name, high-priced veteran. And if the Panthers fold this year under the weight of the league’s second-toughest schedule, they won’t even get a chance to draft a potential franchise quarterback. Carolina’s first-round pick in 2010 is owned by San Francisco.

If the Panthers wanted to bench Delhomme now, it would be difficult. Backup Josh McCown was lost for the season Sunday with knee and foot injuries after replacing Delhomme. Carolina brought in journeyman A.J. Feeley, who has filled in for Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb in the past.

Maybe Feeley could eventually replace Delhomme. But, for now, the Panthers have no choice.

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