Starter: Jake DelhommeJake Delhomme has handled nearly every snap since taking over for an ineffective Rodney Peete midway through the 2003 season opener versus Jacksonville. In the first half of 2003, the team relied heavily on the legs of Stephen Davis for wins as Delhomme was slowly worked into the system. He began the year playing inspired but sometimes reckless football, but became a much more dangerous quarterback as the season progressed. Down the stretch and into the playoffs, Delhomme seemed to find a rhythm with his receivers, particularly game-breaker Steve Smith. Had the Panthers been able to defeat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Delhomme would have been the championship game's MVP, as he had statistics at least as good as MVP Tom Brady's. In the off-season, an important goal of the Panthers front office was to sign Delhomme to an extension, preventing him from becoming a free agent after the 2004 season. The media machine jumped to life, loudly proclaiming Delhomme a "one-year wonder" and a waste of the Panthers' limited salary cap space. Throughout the off-season and into training camp, Delhomme, Coach John Fox, and G.M. Marty Hurney faced question upon question about Delhomme's worthiness of what was widely considered to be a large contract.
Pre-season action silenced many critics, as Jake seemed prepared to waltz his team back to the big dance, and the one-year wonder talk died down.
The 2004 campaign turned out to be a bigger test for Delhomme than his Super Bowl season the previous year. Injuries to major Panther offensive contributors (most notably wideout Steve Smith and tailbacks Stephen Davis, Deshaun Foster, and Rod Smart) and an offensive line in flux put pressure on Delhomme to make plays, pressure that led to an abysmal 12-11 touchdown-interception ratio through eight games. The widespread opinion once again had become that Jake was a flash in the pan whose brightest spot was behind him.
As the losses mounted however, Delhomme seemed to develop even faster than he did during the team's impressive Super Bowl run the season before. During the second half of the season, Delhomme was one of the most impressive quarterbacks in the league, amassing 17 touchdowns against just four interceptions. His only "bad" game during this stretch came in the season closer against New Orleans (although much of his problem was an offensive line that finally played at its talent level, to the detriment of the team.) It was also reported after the fact that Jake had slightly hyper-extended his knee early in the game on a sack. Delhomme finished up the season as a Pro-Bowl second alternate, no longer considered a one-year-wonder.
The 2005 season is poised to be an exciting one for Panther fans in general and even more so for fans of Delhomme (which he has tons of, both in the Carolinas and in his home state of Louisiana.) Steve Smith figures to be back from his injury at 100% and ready to make some noise. Although Davis may not return after his micro-fracture surgery, the running back corps should receive a great boost by the returns of Deshaun Foster, who should be 100% by training camp, and Rod Smart, who is reportedly 100% already. Nick Goings and Brad Hoover are capable backups and the offense shouldn't suffer too greatly with either toting the rock. The Panthers may also consider looking for a RB in the NFL draft. A good rushing attack will be important for the Panthers' offensive success, including Delhomme. He plays better when he has a dependable back that defenses must respect.
The only two x-factors on the 2005 offense so far this off-season are Muhsin Muhammad and Ricky Proehl. "Moose" is due to count $12.5 million against a tight salary cap next year, unless a restructure is worked out or he is released. Proehl has hinted at retiring. The Panthers will likely lose at least one of them and possibly both. Standout rookie receiver Keary Colbert could be a capable #2 man, but late-season drops have many concerned. Colbert would benefit from another year in the Panthers' system without the pressures of being the #2 guy. If all three wideouts (in addition to a healthy Smith) are available to Delhomme in 2005, the sky is the limit for him.
Backups: Rodney Peete, Chris Weinke, Rod RutherfordRodney Peete: Rodney finished a perfect season this year (he was 1 - 1 for 3 yards) but only played a couple of series late in a convincing win over the Cardinals. What Peete brings to the team is years of experience and wisdom at the QB position. He has been one of the hidden secrets behind Delhomme's success. Rodney has been a solid mentor, and occasionally a calming presence for the head-strong cajun.
Peete is under contract through 2005 but many expect him to retire from playing. Rodney will be 39 in March, a relic in a young man's game. Offensive Coordinator Dan Henning likes Peete and could offer him a QB coaching position, although Henning has said he prefers to work with QBs one-on-one. There's also the possibility that Rodney's fab Hollywood wife, Holly Robinson Peete, may be ready to head back to the west coast after watching her husband carry a clipboard for two years. All indications are that Rodney's football days are over, at least in Carolina.
Chris Weinke: Former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke spent his second consecutive year as the #3 QB and wasn't activated for a single game all season. In fact, he hasn't played more than a half in a regular season game since the dismal 1-15 2001 season. Many feel that he out-played Rodney Peete for the last two years and deserved the #2 spot. It seems that the coaching staff is still concerned about Weinke's indecisiveness in tough situations.
Like Peete, Weinke is under contract through 2005. Weinke feels he can be a starter in this league, and he may be right, but Delhomme has entrenched himself as the starter for the foreseeable future and only a major injury or a huge 4th quarter lead will get Weinke on the field. If he wants a shot at a starting job in the NFL, he will have to show well in pre-season play this summer. With the retirement of Peete, however, he should finally be elevated to the first backup spot. This should be Weinke's last year with the Panthers. He will test the free agency waters and attempt to find a team where he can compete for the starting job. The Panthers will likely draft a QB in next season's draft, leaving no room for him.
Rod Rutherford: Signed originally as an undrafted free agent, Rutherford impressed the coaches enough in training camp to play a few late pre-season quarters, beating out NFL Europe backup Rob Adamson. Rutherford didn't make the 53-man roster, but did manage to play his way onto the practice squad. He was used a few times this season to prepare for mobile quarterbacks (like Atlanta's Michael Vick) and maintained the coaches' high opinion of him.
In a very telling move, the Panthers signed him to the roster before the final game of the season, making Rutherford an exclusive rights player (which means that no other team can sign him to a contract.) The move ensures that Rutherford will be spending at least training camp with the Panthers.
Rutherford was a standout QB at Pittsburgh, amassing 6,724 yards on 458-of-842 passing with 60 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, despite only starting for two seasons. He also rushed for 880 yards and 12 touchdowns on 419 attempts. His primary target at Pitt was 2004 first-round wideout Larry Fitzgerald. During his play time in the 2004 pre-season with the Panthers, he showed he was able to make plays with his legs, though he's clearly no Mike Vick. Rutherford offers a nice change of pace for the Panthers and may have a future here as a backup, and he may even be a situational player.
This season will be very important for Rutherford. With Peete likely retiring, Rod may find himself as the #3 QB very easily. Weinke is set to depart next year and the Panthers are likely to draft a QB in the 2006 NFL Draft. Which round they go QB will depend on Rutherford's development this season.
Free AgencyThere are not many QBs of interest this offseason in the NFL. The only QB of note looking for a job is Giants backup Kurt Warner. Warner has said he wasn't satisfied being a backup in New York, so it is highly unlikely he would want to back up Delhomme. Expect the Panthers to pass on a FA quarterback.
NFL Draft ProspectsThe 2005 class of draft-eligible quarterbacks is very shallow this year, especially with Heisman winner Matt Leinart of USC not declaring for the draft. The only quarterback of note in this year's draft is junior Aaron Rodgers of California. He may be gone by the time the Panthers pick at #14, but don't expect the Cats to bite even if he's still there. The Panthers have more pressing needs.
It can't be ruled out for the Panthers to draft a late-round QB, but he would likely only be brought in as competition for Rod Rutherford and/or depth insurance.