Jake Delhomme keeps busy with his family’s horse business in Louisiana. He coaches his older daughter’s sixth-grade basketball team. He’s going to turn 40 this month.
Six years ago, though, Delhomme was the quarterback when the Carolina Panthers last hosted the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs. Neither he nor any of the 73,695 fans in Bank of America Stadium that Saturday night will ever forget it.
Because of the game’s importance, Delhomme said this week he would rank it as the worst game he ever played.
“Whatever I did, I did wrong,” he said when we caught up by phone. “I don’t know any other way to put it.”
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Carolina was favored by 10 points in that game and lost by 20 – 33-13. Delhomme had the only five-interception game of his career and also lost a fumble.
Arizona went on to advance to the Super Bowl that season before losing to Pittsburgh. Carolina has not won a playoff game since.
Delhomme still remembers many specific details from the game – a quarterback bootleg call that was altered for the worse during a timeout, a conversation with an assistant coach in the second quarter – but said he is not haunted by it.
“If I said that,” Delhomme said, “I’d have to be haunted by every single bad game I played. I had no injury situation. I did the same thing I did for every single game of my career – the process, the preparation. But it just wasn’t my night. I was terrible.”
The Carolina-Arizona game was played on Delhomme’s 34th birthday – Jan. 10, 2009. Five years before that, he had played another playoff game on his birthday.
That game on Jan. 10, 2004, remains the most beloved win in Carolina history – a double-overtime, 29-23 win at St. Louis that ended on Delhomme’s 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith.
“So it’s a tale of two birthdays for me in the playoffs,” Delhomme joked.
He was 5-3 in the postseason in his Panthers career. He remains easily the most successful quarterback Carolina has ever had in terms of regular-season and playoff wins. The only other Panthers quarterback with any playoff wins for Carolina is Kerry Collins, with one.
The Panthers were 12-4 in the 2008 season and had a first-round playoff bye. Carolina had edged Arizona 27-23 in the regular season.
“We had a good football team,” Delhomme said. “To say we were great – I’m not sure about that. We played a pretty poor schedule that year, the likes of Detroit and Kansas City and Oakland. Things kind of worked in our favor.”
Arizona was 9-7 and had to beat Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs to get to Charlotte. Kurt Warner had once beaten out Delhomme for the Amsterdam Admirals starting job in NFL Europe.
Now Warner was the Arizona quarterback, intent on beating Delhomme again.
Warner had Larry Fitzgerald as his best target. His other Pro Bowl receiver, Anquan Boldin, had a hamstring injury and couldn’t play against Carolina.
Stubbornly, Panthers coach John Fox did not alter his team’s coverage to routinely double-team Fitzgerald – which Arizona did do to Carolina’s best receiver, Smith.
Fitzgerald was the best player on the field that day. He had 151 yards receiving – in the first half.
“I do remember sitting in the second quarter on the sidelines, looking on the scoreboard where they had the stats,” Delhomme said. “Fitzgerald already had more than 100 yards, and I remember saying ‘Holy ----! We’ve got to keep that offense off the field. We’ve got to do something.’ ”
That thought process, Delhomme said, actually made things worse. He started trying to force the ball in places it shouldn’t go.
“I just kept on pressing,” he said, “and kept on playing terrible.”
Beginning of the end
The Panthers scored first, on a 50-yard touchdown drive keyed by a 31-yard run by DeAngelo Williams. Arizona would score the game’s next 33 points. Delhomme can still recall his six turnovers in vivid detail.
For example: “Antonio Smith did a spin move on Travelle (Wharton) and knocked the ball out of my hands (that lost fumble led to an Arizona touchdown).”
And: “We had a play in the red zone, a bootleg. We had it going left, which is the way we did it in practice all week. Then we had a timeout, and we flipped it the other way on the sideline so I would roll out to the right. We ended up going against (Dominique) Rodgers-Cromartie and I threw a pick into the back of the end zone.”
That game was the beginning of the end for Delhomme in Charlotte, although general manager Marty Hurney and Fox famously gave him a five-year contract extension three months after the Arizona debacle, with $12.675 million in new guaranteed money.
“I thought about that Arizona game a lot of that offseason,” Delhomme said. “I kept telling myself, ‘Rich Gannon had a five-interception game in a Super Bowl. Brett Favre had games like that. It happens.’ ”
Delhomme played only one more year for Carolina in 2009, throwing a career-high 18 interceptions vs. only eight touchdown passes. The Panthers reversed course and released him before the 2010 season, betting on Matt Moore to be their starting quarterback instead. You know how that turned out.
Delhomme returned to his home state of Louisiana after his career ended, but he still loves Carolina. He said he relishes seeing the Panthers “whip up on the Saints” like they did in December – he began his career in New Orleans but languished on the bench there for years.
Delhomme said he comes back to Charlotte to see a Panthers game about once a year but watches the team regularly on TV. He also watches all of San Diego’s games because he remains close to Mike McCoy, his former quarterbacks coach with Carolina and now San Diego’s head coach.
Delhomme still wishes he had played better in that Arizona game, though.
“It was just the most deflating thing you could ever imagine,” he said. “But hey – it was what it was. I hope it’s a lot different for Carolina Saturday.”