Carolina QB Jake Delhomme has been hurting the Buccaneers since he was a backup in New Orleans in 2002
In 2007, the Carolina Panthers got off to a hot start. Led by veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme's eight touchdown passes – against only one interception – the Panthers jumped out to a 2-1 record and looked like a serious NFC playoff contender.
That ride would come to an abrupt end, however, as an elbow injury robbed Delhomme of the rest of the season and put Carolina on a disappointing QB carousel. The Panthers struggled to find any consistency at the position – starting David Carr, Vinny Testaverde and Matt Moore at points – and the team struggled to a 5-8 record the rest of the way.
Now back at full strength, Delhomme once again has the Panthers rolling in 2008. Off to a 4-1 start and a first place seat in the NFC South, Carolina has benefited significantly from Delhomme's comfort within the Carolina offense, according to Head Coach John Fox.
"Not slighting any other positions on the field, because they're all important, but the quarterback position is arguably the hardest and most important position," said Fox. "That guy is a leader and he leads that side of the ball. I think that's critical. I know what we went through last year. The unique part was that after Jake, we didn't have a quarterback that we played with that was even with the team a year ago. I think sometimes part of that continuity is how long a guy has been there.
"In our case a year ago, Vinny Testaverde and Matt Moore weren't even in camp with us and David Carr wasn't even on our team the year before. Not only is it a key position to lose, but it helps that a guy knows the system."
Delhomme not only knows the Panthers' system, but his own body as well. Continually peppered with questions about his elbow during the early parts of the 2008 campaign, Delhomme said he hasn't felt even a hint of uncertainty in his surgically-repaired arm.
"I've been asked that a ton and honestly, there was no apprehension," Delhomme said. "Having surgery in October, I knew when I did tear the ligament, I had extreme relief right then and there in the elbow. We knew that was the source of most of the problem. We fixed about three other things in the elbow that needed to be taken care of. It was more or less a happiness of feeling good again when I go out there to throw."
Delhomme's stats certainly reflect a return to health. Through five games, Delhomme has completed over 60 percent of his passes for 1,096 yards with five touchdowns and only two interceptions, good for a 90.6 passer rating.
For Fox, it was a welcome return to normalcy after surviving without his starting quarterback for nearly all of the 2007 season.
"I think up until earlier this year I'd forgotten [how good he is]," Fox said. "He hadn't been with us 16 out of 20 games over the last two years, prior to this season. Way back in the first week of camp, to watch him go out there and operate, it was like, 'This is pretty fun.' He's a guy that I missed a lot and I know the rest of our team missed and we're all just happy to have him back."
Delhomme had already been put on the shelf for the season last year by the time the Panthers' two contests against the Bucs came around, but he knows the Carolina offense will face a tall task against a stout Tampa Bay defense.
"They'll put Jermaine [Phillips] down in the box a little bit more," Delhomme said. "They'll send a little more pressure, but still, you just watch Derrick Brooks play, you watch Cato June and now Barrett [Ruud] – he's been in that system a while – you know those linebackers, they are exact in where they need to be.
"And certainly when they go to nickel, when Ronde [Barber] comes inside, you just have to be alert for him at all times. Gaines Adams, you can tell it's year two for him. He's really just flying around, and Kevin Carter, it seems like the fountain of youth might be down in Tampa because he's playing extremely good. It's a team that can create havoc and they can create havoc with their front four also."
The ability to reel off name after name when discussing the Bucs defense is a hint at the familiarity Delhomme has with his upcoming opponent. His play in the last six years of the Bucs-Panthers series has also shown Delhomme's confidence against Carolina's number-one NFC South rival.
Delhomme has performed a number of late game magician's acts against the Bucs in recent years, earning plenty of respect from Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden.
"He's a great competitor," Gruden said. "He's a very clutch performer. He's the best when the chips are on the table. He hangs around, hangs around, hangs around, and just when you think you've got him, he shoots you dead. He just jumps out and gets you. He's just a great clutch player and he's a tough dude, man. He's a tough guy and I've got a lot of respect for him."
Even dating back to his days as a New Orleans Saint, before he joined the Panthers, Delhomme made it a point to stick it to the Bucs. A backup to New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks back in 2002, Delhomme came on late in a game to put the final nail in the Bucs' coffin.
"I sure do [remember that game]," Gruden said. "He's beaten me a lot, Jake has. He came in off the bench, I think. Aaron Brooks got hurt and [Delhomme] made a big play to seal the victory. Two years ago, we had them down by two, the game Chris [Simms] got hurt in, and he made a scramble. He beat us in Carolina on a last-second throw – twice, I believe. I tip my hat to him. He's a great pro football player. I've got a lot of compliments for him."
Even if another opportunity to come up with some late game heroics against the Buccaneers presents itself on Sunday, there isn't any real secret to Delhomme's clutch play down the stretch.
"I can't answer that because I try to just be myself," Delhomme said. "That's the biggest thing. When you get in the huddle and it's an important drive you just kind of say, 'Alright guys, one play at a time.'
"You can't just go out and say we're going to get it right here. It's one play at a time – take what the defense gives you and then move on. I think that's the biggest thing. Be who you are, don't try to be somebody else."