May 2016


This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL's past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport's history. I never thought I would see the look that I saw in the eyes of the quarterback that night. The only other time I  saw a player so spooked after a nightmare game was a few years later when Wes Welker, who dropped a pass that might have ensured the New England Patriots of beating the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. Welker was shaken. But Jake Delhomme was something different. I wasn’t at the NFC championship this past January between the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals, but it wasn’t hard to draw a short, straight line between what I saw up close in Delhomme’s eyes back in early 2009 and what unfolded this past January with Carson Palmer. Same teams, same field, same stat line — six turnovers in a playoff loss, each one more haunting than the next. What I saw in Delhomme’s face that night — something odd and eerie — was still different, still unlike anything I had experienced. I have been in plenty of losing locker rooms in my life, but little matched what went down on Jan. 10, 2009. I fear, or wonder, if Palmer will carry that same endless nightmare with him the way I suspect Delhomme did after that game. It was his 34th birthday. He’d never play in a postseason game again. Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers had bounced back after two disappointing seasons to finish 12-4 in 2008, and despite losing at the New York Giants in Week 16, which cost them the top seed and home field throughout the postseason, the Panthers were a strong, balanced team with a strong defense and an opportunistic offense. Meeting them in this divisional round game at Charlotte that night was a 9-7 Arizona Cardinals team that: • Had lost four of six heading into the playoffs • Was 3-5 on the road • Had lost all five games east of the Mississippi River • Was outscored by 83 points in eight road games • And had lost to this same Panthers team in Bank of America Stadium earlier that season “Jake and the Pressure Boys are about to take the playoff stage!” Panthers radio play-by-play voice Mick Mixon said just before kickoff. They clearly felt like the favorites to reach the NFC title game heading into that night. Kickoff was right when I had arrived. A terrible storm had blasted Chicago that morning (lesson learned: never fly in the day of a game) and delayed my flight more than five hours. I finally landed in Charlotte around 6:15 p.m. local time and somehow managed to get my rental car, drive the seven miles through game-night traffic, park in a remote lot, get my credential and make it up to the press box about 10 seconds before Neil Rackers kicked off to return man Mark Jones. And before my perspiration even dried, the Panthers had scored. They marched 50 yards on five plays and took a 7-0 lead on a Jonathan Stewart touchdown. It looked like this was going to be easy, having controlled the line of scrimmage offensively on that possession, as well as defensively, knocking the Cardinals back for three losses on their first drive. But it started to unravel after that. Rather quickly. The Cardinals converted a few Panthers mistakes on defense into a tie game, and then Delhomme was strip sacked on the next play. The Cardinals punched it in two plays later for a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter, and on the first play of the second quarter an unraveling Delhomme attempted a poor pass to Steve Smith, who was bracketed, and it was picked off at the Arizona 1-yard line by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Cardinals then sandwiched two clock-chewing drives ending in field goals around a Panthers three-and-out. With 5:28 left in the first half, down 20-7 but still very much in the game, Delhomme imploded. He gunned a pass over the head of DeAngelo Williams and well behind Muhsin Muhammad, and it was easily picked by Cardinals linebacker Geno Hayes — the fifth (and final) interception in Hayes’ career, which would last 99 games. The first interception was bad. But this one was worse. Delhomme snapped, yelling to himself and clapping his hands in disgust near midfield. He clearly had no solutions nor an idea how to get himself out of the situation. “It was inexcusable,” he’d later say. The Cardinals once again capitalized. Three plays later, Kurt Warner hit Larry Fitzgerald for a crowd-silencing touchdown. Although the Cardinals missed another chance to tack on points before the half with a field goal that came up short, they led 27-7 at half. “Jake wasn’t Jake tonight,” Smith told me in a quiet moment after most of the locker room had cleared out. He continued to defend his quarterback — “ That’s my quarterback. That’s the guy I stand behind. ” But Smith couldn’t help but notice how Delhomme tried in vain to break out of his funk mid-game. “He kept trying to get out of it, but it was like quicksand,” Smith said. “The harder he tried the faster he sank.” Following a Warner pick early in the third quarter, Delhomme came back with one more of his own, trying to force a pass to Smith, who had been held in check to this point. The Cardinals were in Delhomme’s head. They had sniffed out the screen, and instead of just grounding the ball, he tried to fit it into a window that wasn’t there. Wasn’t happening on that night. He was 5 of 12 passing for 35 yards with three interceptions at this point; a Rackers field goal made it 30-7 late in the third quarter. The game was pretty academic, but Delhomme’s nightmare worsened. His fourth-down pass on the following possession was incomplete, and on the Panthers’ next try — their only promising drive in more than an hour — Delhomme followed up his own delay-of-game penalty inside the red zone with a brutal throw in the direction of Smith. Yep, pick No. 4. No. 5 (oh yes, there was more) came a little more than three minutes later. Muhammad had slipped, and at this point Delhomme was seeing red. Five picks — to five different Cardinals — for a player who had thrown only 12 all regular season in 16 games. "I had a hand in six turnovers," Delhomme said with a shrug, not able to look his questioner in the eye. "You’re not going to beat anybody [like that], especially in a playoff game. It’s inexcusable and disappointing.” Prior to that night, Delhomme had thrown only five playoff interceptions in seven games and 192 attempts. Once before on his birthday, Delhomme had delivered one of the biggest clutch performances in franchise history in the Panthers’ double-overtime win (with Stephen Davis injured) over the St. Louis Rams five years prior. Delhomme celebrated his 29th by hitting Smith for the walk-off 69-yard TD. But this night there were no postgame candles to blow out. Delhomme walked off the field, head slung low, and made his way back into the locker room looking unsure of what he’d just experienced. As he entered the room for his postgame conference, he looked milk white. Delhomme had few, if any, answers. “I’m at a loss for words. Usually I’m not,” he said. “For one reason or another, I didn’t give us a chance tonight. “Disappointed. Extremely disappointed. I don’t know what else to say. My fault. I should get the blame.” Delhomme fell on his sword to his teammates after the game, even though none of them publicly blamed their quarterback. “I told them I apologize for not giving us a chance," he said. “That’s just how I felt. I’m not looking for sympathy one bit. That’s the last thing I want. I just wanted to let them know, the work I put in this week, obviously it wasn’t good enough.” Minutes later, he walked through the crowed but pin-drop-quiet locker room with a cell phone glued to his ear and his eyes glued to the ground, navigating through the pile of uniforms, pads and sweaty tape to get out to the players’ lot. I have no idea to this day if Delhomme was actually talking to anyone or if it was a ruse to avoid any eye contact with anyone at that moment. I couldn’t have blamed him if it was. This was a man in shock. I don't know how I knew, but I felt at the time that he might never be the same. Even the five-year, $42.5 million extension he received three months later couldn’t heal those wounds. He led the NFL in interceptions the next season with 18 (with only eight TD passes) and was benched and then released. That also was the beginning of the end for head coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney in Carolina. For every Delhomme-like effect, there’s that of Brett Favre (six interceptions in a playoff loss to the Rams) or Rich Gannon (five in the Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Both of them played well after that. It’s not a guarantee that Palmer, for instance, will go from MVP candidate in 2015 to bum in 2016 because he had a bad game, even if it was a chance. But could it linger? Could that doubt recur all offseason? You can’t rule it out, especially for a player who has won one playoff game in 12 years, had eight turnovers in two playoff games last season (after 13 all regular season) and who is entering a season in which he counts more than $20 million against the salary cap (with a roster bonus in 2017 looming for $8.15 million). That's a lot coming off such a brutal season-ender. Now I wish I had seen Palmer’s eyes after that playoff nightmare. I might have a better idea how things might go for him this season. - - - - - - - Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

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