ON THE morningafter the worst game of his career, a game that fell on his 34th birthday, JakeDelhomme left his family, his friends and his presents at home and took adrive. He ended up at the Panthers' practice facility, where he watched areplay of the 33--13 loss to the Cardinals in the NFC divisional playoffs. Inthat game, Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble as the NFC Southchampions were humiliated on their home turf.
"I could havereplayed it in my mind, but I wanted to see it," Delhomme says. "Itried to do too much, especially in the second half. [The season] ended on abad note, and I had a large part to do with it, but I wasn't going to run awayfrom it. I'm embracing the challenge."
At first glanceDelhomme and the Panthers should expect nothing less than another strong runafter going 12--4 in 2008, tied for the best record in the conference. But evenwith one of the league's top offensive lines, a two-pronged running game and askilled defensive line, Carolina's depth will be an issue. That became clear inthe early days of camp, when veteran wideout Steve Smith went down with abruised right shoulder and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu tore his Achillestendon. While Smith's injury was just a scare, Kemoeatu was lost for theseason.
His absenceplaces a burden on a unit with several young, untested players and a newcoordinator, Ron Meeks, formerly of the Colts. In particular two defensivetackles—Nick Hayden, a 2008 sixth-round pick who played in only two games as arookie, and '09 third-rounder Corvey Irvin out of Georgia—will have to get upto speed in a hurry. "[Kemoeatu] was a force in the middle," Haydensays. "We'll have to do the best we can with me and the youngerguys."
Hayden actuallyfits Meeks's preference for quick, athletic defenders better than the 345-poundKemoeatu did. Anticipating Meeks's arrival, Hayden lost 10 pounds beforetraining camp to get to 290 and spent much of the spring and summer working ongetting to the QB quicker. "I'm still learning every day," he says."I'm trying to improve my penetration and get upfield."
Says Meeks,"Where I came from, we relied on guys who were undersized, could controlthe running game and were quick playmakers. A lot of the guys [reported] under[last year's] weight. That's good."
Coach John Foxand the team's veterans have proved to be good teachers in the past—so much sothat other teams poached Carolina backups who were free agents in theoff-season, notably defensive tackle Gary Gibson (signed by the Rams) andoffensive lineman Geoff Hangartner (Bills). "We lost these backups becausethey played well," Delhomme says. "They got rewarded. But if you lookat our veterans, if you watch how these guys practice, that carries over to theyoung kids. Julius Peppers doesn't miss practice. Jordan Gross and MuhsinMuhammad, the same. If you have a young guy who's teetering on the fence andjust wanting to get by, if you get enough guys around him [working hard], he'sgoing to jump on the right side of the fence."
For his part,Delhomme doesn't appear to be suffering any lingering effects from his playoffperformance. He spent part of his off-season on his southern Louisiana horsefarm, clearing his head and preparing for the start of a new season.
In the aftermathof the playoff loss he fielded telephone calls for a week from friends worriedabout his state of his mind. "It became comical after a while,"Delhomme says. "They were pretty much in shock for me and feeling sorry forme. I had to cheer them up: 'Don't anybody feel sorry for me. I'm living, I'mbreathing, I'm fine.'"
As long as theydon't have to reach too deep into the depth chart, the Panthers should betoo.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
63--49 in NFL, eighth season with Panthers
Jonathan Stewart(184 att., 836 yards) tied for rookie lead with 10 rushing TDs; third WR DwayneJarrett (10 rec., 119 yards) will push Muhammad for playing time.
Godfrey (brokenhand) and Beason (sprained knee) both were battling injury and could miss thestart of the season.
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2008 RECORD 9--7
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 3 > 19 > 10
DEFENSE 20 > 16 > 18
20 at Atlanta
28 at Dallas (M)
18 at Tampa Bay
1 at Arizona
8 at New Orleans
19 MIAMI (T)
29 at N.Y. Jets
6 TAMPA BAY
13 at New England
27 at N.Y. Giants
3 NEW ORLEANS
NFL Rank: 2
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .592
Games against playoff teams: 7
A four-game sweep of the AFC West helped Carolina winthe NFC South—and earn the league's second-hardest 2009 schedule. The Panthersare strong at home (8--0 in '08) but face a tough road slate with cold-weathergames against the Pats and the Giants. Week 8 offers Jake Delhomme a shot atredemption for his playoff meltdown against Arizona.
DeAngelo Williams, Running back
IN HIS third season out of Memphis, the 5'9",217-pound Williams was one of the breakthrough players of 2008, barrelingthrough defenders and blazing into the end zone to score a league-high 20touchdowns. Now can he keep it going?
Williams was slowed in his first two seasons byinjury—and by a less-than-sterling approach to the game. That changed lastyear. Says quarterback Jake Delhomme, "He changed his practice habits. It'snot that he didn't practice [before], but for some players it just takes timeto be a pro. The good ones want to be the best."
Williams might have gotten extra motivation fromCarolina's selection of Oregon's Jonathan Stewart in the first round in '08.But rather than have them compete for the starting tailback job, the Panthersturned Williams and Stewart into one of the best rushing tandems in theNFL—they combined for 2,351 rushing yards, with the veteran getting 54% of thecarries and the rookie 37%—and coach John Fox says he'll continue to use themthat way.
It's natural for young backs to want the ball, tocompile the eye-popping stats of an Adrian Peterson or a LaDainian Tomlinson,but the maturing Williams is fine with sharing the load. "If we keepwinning, do it," he says.
FOR JAKE'S SAKE Delhomme has one of the NFC's more potent attacks—if everyone is healthy.