I took a look at Jake Delhomme in action vs. the Philadelphia Eagles this past Sunday. Much like his performance vs. the Arizona Cardinals in last seaon’s playoff game, Delhomme was terrible. Last December, the heavily favored Carolina Panthers (12-4) were defeated by the Arizona Cardinals (9-7). The Cardinals went on to face the Steelers in the Super Bowl. The Panthers went to the off-season with questions that no one bothered to answer.
Delhomme was rewarded for his career service to the Carolina Panthers with a new 5-year contract. The pinnacle of his service, however, was during his inaugural season in Charlotte (2003). With coach Jon Fox and then-offensive coordinator Dan Henning, Delhomme followed Stephen Davis’ lead to the Super Bowl. The Panthers were defeated by the Patriots on the strength of an out-of-bounds kickoff by John Kasay and a long field goal by Adam Vinatieri.
That was a long time ago.
In looking at Delhomme, I noticed a few things. Let’s take it slowly – in fairness to him, his teammates, and the question at hand.The Road to Ruin
The Carolina Panthers have an excellent football team. Last season, they won 12 games. They have elite talent at the wide receiver position (Steve Smith), running back (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart), the offensive line and throughout their defense (Julius Peppers, Jon Beason, Chris Gamble).
The team, however, has underperformed since its surprising Super Bowl appearance in 2003. The team has not had consecutive winning seasons. They are 2-2 in the post-season over the past five seasons. The two losses came at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals by similar scores of 34-14 and 33-13, respectively.
In 2005 vs. the Seahawks, Delhomme was 15-35 for 196 yards. He threw one touchdown and 3 interceptions. Most of those interceptions were due to his vain attempts to force the ball to Steve Smith. Smith, who had been dominant during the regular season caught only 5 balls for 33 yards. Last season vs. Arizona, Delhomme once again tried to force feed Steve Smith and the results were similar. Smith caught 2 balls for 43 yards and a score, but Jake was 17-34 for 205 yards, with 5 interceptions.
In the 2009 season opener, Steve Smith caught 3 balls for 21 yards. Delhomme went 7-17 with 4 interceptions before being benched. So what gives?
Delhomme has poor footwork. On any number of his interceptions, you note that he doesn’t step into his throws. Unlike like strong-armed gunslinger Brett Favre, Delhomme doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of throwing off his back foot. Instead, he often throws flat footed or off balance. He is not a great pure passer. When his form suffers, his accuracy suffers. Delhomme has a career passing percentage of less than 60% — and this is while spending most of his career with excellent receivers like Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad. Both provide great targets through precise route. Moreover, Delhomme had benefited from playing for several years in an offense run by Dan Henning that prioritized ball security and a balanced running game.
Delhomme’s foot work hinders the Panthers is some unique ways. For example, the Panthers were fairly aggressive in their play-calling vs. Arizona and Philadelphia. When those two teams began to key on the run and shut down Williams and Stewart, there was added pressure on Jake to convert second and long. He needed to be accurate and on time with the ball. His foot work needed to be right. It wasn’t.
With the Panthers trailing 17-7 vs. the Eagles, Delhomme faced a 2nd and 7. Jake executed a poor play action fake (more on that to come) and threw the ball into double coverage without stepping into the throw. The result: an overthrow pass to Muhsin Muhammad – 3rd and 7. On the very next play, Delhomme was intercepted by Sheldon Brown trying beat a zone. Steve Smith was circled by 5 Philadelphia Eagles. He had no chance to catch the ball. The Eagles rushed 3, dropped 8, confused Delhomme and were on their way to a 24-7 lead.
Poor Play Action Fakes
The Carolina Panthers have a talented offensive line (Ryan Kalil, Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah) and they have been relatively healthy. They have excellent runners and they often use a two tight end set to maximize their effectiveness. The Panthers, because of Smith’s route running and receiving skills, also have the latitude to use 1-WR sets for running or passing. All of these tools should provide a considerable benefit to Jake Delhomme, but they do not.
Delhomme may be the worst QB in the league at making the play-action fake on passes. I watched the Arizona and Philadelphia games and noticed that each play action fake was executed the same way. The fakes were never convincing. The fakes never caused the linebackers to rush toward the line. This past Sunday, Delhomme’s first interception was caused by a tipped pass from the linebacker. Delhomme executes his play action fakes too quickly. He doesn’t sell the fake by extending his arm to show the ball to the defense or by turning his back from the defense (trusting the blocking prowess of tackles Travelle Wharton and Jeff Otah). Delhomme is simply in a hurry to turn around, face the defense and get the ball to Steve Smith. Defenses know this and sit in zones waiting for easy interceptions.
Delhomme’s first interception vs. the Arizona Cardinals occurred in the Red Zone. Dominique Rogers-Cromartie sat in a zone waiting for Delhomme to throw a pass to Smith in the corner of the end zone. The fake fooled no one. This pass turned the tide in the game.
Jake Delhomme compounds his problems with interceptions by fumbling the ball. Last week vs. the Eagles, Delhomme was blitzed right up the middle by Trent Cole. Cole took a standing rush from an LB position and hit Delhomme causing a fumble. The line failed to block Cole, but Jake did not get rid of the ball on time to avoid the sack. None of his receivers read blitz and shortened their routes to provide a release. Jake’s only option was to get rid of the ball. But how did it come to this?
On first down, with the ball at the 25 yard line, the Panthers came out in a powerful 2 tight end, 2 wide receiver set. The Eagles countered with 8 in the box and a safety blitzed off the edge. Muhsin Muhammad ran a quick out pattern, but was in no position to receive an off-balance pass from Delhomme. Jake rushed his throw and threw wide of Muhsin. He had time to set his feet. He even had time to double clutch. 2nd down.
On second down, the Panthers ran the ball and were stuffed. This became a theme throughout the game as the defense committed to making Jake win the game with his arm and any receiver other than Steve Smith. The Eagles knew that the Panthers, for all their talent, lack the type of passing game required to consistently beat corners like Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and Sheldon Brown.
Delhomme doesn’t have a strong arm. At one point during the Eagle game, Dick Stockton said:
“Even that pass wasn’t really that crisp…not to come down hard on Jake.”
Jake doesn’t have a rocket and this limitation is magnified when he fails to set his feet. When Delhomme was signing his new deal, he noted that the fans didn’t come down too hard on him for how the 2008 season ended. Fox has changed that dynamic with this early benching of the face of the franchise.
The Panthers have a great many things to build on. Delhomme has had some great seasons in the league. Last season was the first season since the departure of Stephen Davis that the Panthers have had double digit TDs on the from a single back (DeAngelo-18, Stewart-10). Delhomme has to get back to basics. Based on the video, I believe that he still does a good job of calling out protections and recognizing the blitz. The Panther receivers have to do a better job of blitz recognition. The backs have to do a better job of blocking in the backfield. And, the offensive coordinator should consider maximizing Jake’s execution by going to the shotgun. During one sequence, the Panthers went four wide (with a no huddle) and were able to connect on 4 consecutive passes.
For his career, Jake Delhomme has a very respectable passer rating of 84.2. He’s thrown for 115 touchdowns and 80 interceptions. He has the same career interception rate as Brett Favre. He’s only thrown 500 passes once in his career, so he has always been a caretaker in this offense. He has to get back to his principal occupation and protect the ball.
On defense, the Carolina Panthers have been ranked in the top 15 (points allowed) for each of the past seven seasons. A quarterback doesn’t have to win every game. He doesn’t have to score 30 points each week. The team is solid in the trenches. They can recover and have a productive season, but their hopes for success hinge on the ability of Jake Delhomme to fix these glaring weaknesses in his game.