Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Carolina Panthers

Yes, well, I missed last night. Occasionally it happens... sometimes, clearly. I've been reading a lot of stuff about the combine, and was debating writing a post about all that, but decided against it... I'll definitely have some stuff closer to the draft. In the meantime, the Panthers, who may very well be looking for one of the quarterbacks from that draft, get their day in the sun today.

Carolina Panthers (7-9): Jake Delhomme/Matt Moore

Carolina, the other feline-themed expansion team introduced in 1995 (aside from the Jaguars) had terrible trouble keeping one guy behind center for 16 games; they ended up using a combination of four. Starter Jake Delhomme suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3, David Carr was ineffective, Vinny Testaverde was old, and Matt Moore, a rookie installed in Week 15, at least managed to win two of three, although doing so with a certain amount of bumps. However, if Delhomme is healthy following Tommy John surgery (more common in baseball) he projects to be the starter. This is a big if, as it's a finicky procedure to come back from in the best of times and Delhomme is already 33. Moore is 10 years younger at 23, but not a finished product, and Carr and Testaverde have been shown the door, probably to the relief of Panthers fans. The organization can't count on Delhomme coming back and being the same as ever, nor Moore suddenly stepping up and being ready for full-time duty, so I imagine they'll be checking out what's on the board quarterback-wise at some point in April.

Jake Christopher Delhomme, despite his very whitebread-sounding name, is actually the son of two Cajuns; his last name translates to "the man," which is what he is to Panthers fans. Born in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, he grew up very immersed in Cajun culture -- he has 21 first cousins who form a cheering squad for him and has the support of his hometown for being proud of his heritage; Breaux Bridge has plenty of products and signs supporting Jake and the Panthers. Jake and his father take a keen interest in horses, and once he's finished with his playing days, he'll go home to Louisiana and continue raising them. Delhomme attended private Teurlings Catholic High School in Lafayette, and although Peyton Manning was playing high school ball at Isidore Newman in New Orleans at the same time, the two future NFL pros didn't face each other.

Delhomme played defensive back in addition to quarterback and got named All-State -- but on defense, not offense. But as a senior, back to his original spot, Delhomme threw for over 3,300 yards and 32 yards; he parlayed this momentum into enrollment at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). He was the starter as a true freshman in 1993, the only Division I freshman starter, and finished with a winning record three of the four years he was taking the snaps for the Ragin' Cajuns. Despite finishing as the all-time leader in yards and TDs, and playing 43 straight games (before his injury problems showed up) he went undrafted in 1997. This, however, was not all to the bad, as it enabled the New Orleans Saints to pluck the hometown kid out of their backyard and send him to play in the (now-defunct) NFL Europa after a brief taster on their practice squad.

Delhomme found himself overseas playing one season for the Amsterdam Admirals, back to Louisiana to play on the practice squad, and then back to Europe with the Frankfort Galaxy. He was allowed to see much more playing time in Frankfort than he had in Amsterdam, and after putting up a line of 1,410 yards, a 67.3 CP, 12 TD, and 5 INT in their World Bowl-winning season, the Saints decided to bring him back home for full-time third-stringer duty. Delhomme certainly would have preferred to be playing, but waited for his opportunity and didn't ultimately get it in New Orleans. He played in four games in 2002, none starts, and became a free agent that offseason. Ultimately, the Saints cut and reinstated him five times; Delhomme must have felt a bit like a ping-pong ball.

Still staying close to home in the South, he ended up signing with the Panthers, hoping to help the team improve on what had been a grueling 1-15 showing the year before, back when they were playing the part of the 2007 Miami Dolphins and set a record for consecutive losses. Starter Rodney Peete played just one half of one game, the season opener against their fellow big cat Jaguars, and with the Panthers down 17-0 at halftime, Delhomme got the call. He proceeded to lead them to a comeback victory with three touchdown passes, including one on fourth down with 16 seconds remaining in the game, and thereafter was firmly installed as the starter.
He steered the team on an improbable run through the playoffs, and got them all the way to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where the plucky but doomed Panthers were beaten on one of Adam Vinatieri's three Super Bowl-winning field goals, 32-29. (What generated much more clucking than the actual game was the fact that this was the Super Bowl where "wardrobe malfunction" entered the American lexicon, and the puritanical viewing public went to town with their caterwauling hysteria). It was a remarkable and meteoric turnaround for a team that had been a punchline just a year before to get to the big game, and they seemed to suffer from a bit of a letdown the next season. Injuries ravaged the Panthers' O-line, contributing to a 1-7 start, but Delhomme got the ship righted by winning six of their last eight games.

The Panthers missed the playoffs in 2004 (ironically, thanks to Delhomme's old employer the Saints) but made it back in 2005, getting all the way to the NFC Championship game again before losing to the Seahawks (who later lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl). That was the year Delhomme had one of his most successful personal seasons to date, as he completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 3,421 yards, 24 TD, and 16 INT, and a 88.1 rating. He had similar or better numbers in 2004 -- 58.2 completion, 3,886 yards, 29 TD/15 INT, and an 87.3 rating, but pushed the team farther in '05. But in 2006, his injury demons started to show up; it was his eighth pro season and he was already 32, and despite starting 47 of 48 contests in the past three seasons, he injured his thumb and had to sit out for three games. He was still statistically successful, if not quite what he'd accomplished before -- 61.0 CP, 2,805 yards, 17 TD, 11 INT, and 82.6 rating, and was preparing to improve on those numbers this year before the elbow injury, incurred in Week 3 against the Falcons, ended his season. Until then, Delhomme had come out of the gate like a gunslinger, with 8 TD, 1 INT, 624 yards, and a 111.8 rating to start out the season, winning two of his first three games.

Delhomme signed a 5-year, $38 million extension with the Panthers in 2004, meaning that he's under contract for this and next season, but his long-term prognosis with the club is uncertain due to his age (he'll be 35 when it's through) and his suddenly uncertain status injury-wise. In his absence, the team tried a whole roulette of replacements, and finally settled on Matt Moore as the most suitable one. The two have several interesting things in common. Also like Delhomme, Moore played both quarterback and defensive back at William S. Hart High School in Newhall, CA, although when he got named to All-State, it was on the offensive side of the ball. He steered his high-school team to an undefeated record as a senior and opted to become a UCLA Bruin, where he also was a true-freshman quarterback starter. He started four of eight games for UCLA his sophomore year, but after being injured, ended up transferring to community college in Santa Clarita, which did not have a football team. When he returned to football, it was a decision between Colorado State and Oregon State; he ended up at the latter and got the Beavers to the Rose Bowl. He averaged 271.1 yards a game, second in the Pac-1o conference behind (no surprise) USC's Leinart. In his senior season, 2006, he led the Beavers to a Sun Bowl win over the Missouri Tigers.

Also like Delhomme, Moore was not drafted out of college, but signed as a rookie free agent; in his case, it was by the Dallas Cowboys. He performed well for them in preseason, but was waived anyway, and the Panthers, perhaps foreseeing the quarterback mess that was going to result shortly, picked him up off the wire. Moore got his first taste of starter action in Week 5 against (ironically) New Orleans, who the Panthers beat 16-13. He entered the game after Delhomme's first replacement, David Carr, got hurt after a sack, and completed one of two pass attempts for 43 yards. However, Carr returned shortly thereafter, and Moore was consigned to the bench until Week 15, in which the Panthers had finally run short of patience with Carr's timid incompetence and Testaverde's advanced age.

The 23-year-old Moore got the call against the Seahawks, and completed 19 of 27 passes for no touchdowns or interceptions, 208 yards, and a 92.8 rating. A Week 16 20-13 loss against the Cowboys saw him finish only 15 of 28 against a strong defensive unit, with one TD and interception and a 70.8 rating; it also saw him get sacked five times. But he recovered to lead the Panthers to victory in their final game of the season, a 31-23 triumph against the playoff-bound Buccaneers, with 15 completions in 24 attempts, 2 TD/1 INT, and 174 yards to go with a 94.8 rating. His final numbers were 3 TD/5 INT (twice earlier in the season, he was inserted in the game for a few pass attempts -- 2/5 with a pick, and 0/1 with his only attempt being picked), 730 yards, and a 67.0 rating despite his passable success as a starter.

The Panthers finished 7-9, second in the relatively soft South, and will certainly be hoping that Delhomme is ready to go back to work; healthy, he's among one of the better QBs in the league. Their offense could use some help across the board, as it ranked 27th in points scored (16.7 average) 29th in yards per game (284.9 average) 29th in pass yards (170.9 average) and 14th in rushing yards (114.0). Their defense ranks about the middle of the pack -- the four categories named above see them neatly lined up 15th-16th-17th-18th. Their top receiving threat, Steve Smith, had 87 receptions for 1,002 yards and 7 TDs, but behind him by a fair margin were Drew Carter (38 catches/517 yards/4 TD) and Jeff King (46 catches/406 yards/2 TD). Running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams combined for 391 touches, 1,593 yards, and 7 TD (and Foster was just released). But since the Panthers lagged behind their opponents in almost every offensive category in '07, they'll want to work on improving their attack. If Delhomme is healthy and back to his old self, great, but don't count on it.

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