The quick and the dirty of it is that everyone wants to blame Jake Delhomme for the game. True, Jake did have six turnovers in the game ... wait ... did i just write six turnovers? How is any team going to compete committing six turnovers ... and how does one man get the opportunity to commit six? What is the benching threshold?
While Jake isn't completely to blame -- there are layers of blame that I'll illustrate shortly -- a great deal of it falls on his shoulders. Poor technique has plagued Delhomme throughout his career. He's developed a penchant for locking in on certain receivers on certain routes. Poor field vision and questionable accuracy also play a huge part in what ended up being one of the worst quarterback performances in Carolina Panthers history. Even Delhomme himself saw how monumental of a collapse this was. "Not even close, " Delhomme said when asked if this was his most frustrating game ever. "Yes. Not even remotely close."
I think most fans can live with two to three interceptions ... but five? In a playoff game? Are you serious?
Some fans will snidely remark "Who would you replace him with?!", as if there weren't a QB on the roster capable of not throwing interceptions by the half-dozen. The fact is it doesn't matter who would replace Jake -- it would be the symbolic gesture of going in a new direction with new hope that people want to see. It would be a statement to the team and the fans that committing six turnovers is unacceptable and that they deserve better than what they have been given. Just like Delhomme replaced a wildly ineffective Rodney Peete in the 2003 season opener against Jacksonville, it was time for Delhomme to be benched for someone else to have a shot. That is what this team deserved on Saturday night. They didn't deserve to have their fate decided by a QB who had an off night. They have two other QBs that deserved a shot at winning a game. They are paid too, and are on the team for a reason.
"Jake had a great year for us," head coach John Fox said after the game. "I told those guys to walk out of here with your head high just like I will. It's not where we wanted to end up but it's reality. I think Jake is a hell of a quarterback who had a rough night."
But the horrible QB play is just a layer of blame. There are at least two more. You've got his position coach, Mike McCoy, who masquerades as a QB coach and passing game coordinator for the most non-imaginative offense of the last decade. A QB coach with no pedigree, no major experience and who had his tutelage under a coach -- Dan Henning -- who despite having Barry Sanders and three top notch receivers in the 90's couldn't compete on a regular basis and ruined more quarterbacks with promise than he ever developed. You can see a huge difference in the Delhomme of 2003 and the Delhomme of today, and perhaps that is a result of the coaching he's received in Carolina. The Delhomme of 2003 would fire passes to receivers and hit them in stride. He'd hit the open man. We haven't seen that in Carolina in at least a few years. Can we really blame the QBs here? They all have the same symptoms: locking in on receivers, having poor judgement, holding onto the ball too long. Is this really a staff that we can trust to develop young talent?
On top of the ineptitude of McCoy, there is the Davidson layer, which takes a huge chunk of the blame for last night. Davidson is a relative newcomer to Carolina, and although he's called a few good games this season, the gameplan that unfolded against the Cardinals was mind-blowing. The Panthers have the most explosive running back tandem in the NFL, and yet there are no creative ways to get them the ball. No screens, no direct snaps, no double backfield of Double Trouble. The game started out well with the Panthers running it on the first series, but then turned into a Delhomme fiasco that snowballed because of the constant turnovers and the Cardinals scoring after getting fantastic field position off of them. Steve Smith didn't have his first catch of the game until the third quarter. When Delhomme did look for Smith, it was one of those "chuck and pray" plays where Delhomme chucks it high and hopes that Smith will go up and get it. Meanwhile, the Cardinals had all sorts of routes that sprung their biggest weapon, Larry Fitzgerald, wide -- and I do mean wide -- open. The Panthers showed absolutely no imagination or ability to adapt against the Cardinals. When it was apparent Jake Delhomme wasn't going to get the offense back on track with the same old plays they'd been running, what did the Panthers do? They kept running the same plays that weren't working.
The top layer of blame of course falls on the shoulders of head coach John Fox, who undoubtedly bought himself and his staff another few years in Carolina after going 12-4 in a tough division. Fox is loyal to a fault, sticking with his veteran players often well past their prime. He's a coach that will allow a player to play through their mistakes. Have you noticed how Davidson and Henning's offenses are very similar? They are both vanilla with few wrinkles. I can't remember a time where I've seen the Panthers run a play and thought to myself "wow, that was imaginative", other than a few years ago when the Panthers ran the direct snap to DeAngelo Williams nearly every down against the Falcons. That was the problem Saturday night. The Cardinals knew where Delhomme was going to throw, and they knew how to bait him into throwing it where they wanted him to throw it. That's a symptom of a QB locking in on targets and an unimaginative offense.
But the problem isn't just the offense.
Defensively in the first half, the Panthers were getting no pressure on Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, and Larry Fitzgerald was open on nearly every play. That's also a scheme problem. You see, the Cardinals -- and every other NFL team -- knows what kind of scheme the Panthers run on defense. They know where the holes are in their coverage, and they know how to exploit them. The Panthers did not get pressure on the QB last season, resulting in the wide receivers having more time to get open. That allows a good QB like Kurt Warner to pick apart the defenses and make throws he wants to make, not throws he has to make when pressured.
Fox is the head man, and it's his fault for allowing these break-downs on both sides of the ball to happen. He is accountable for the poor coaching and the poor gameplans. He is accountable for not making changes when changes needed to be made. It is his fault.
So where is the hope for 2009? Fox is going to be back with the same cast of characters. They'll probably resign either Jordan Gross or Julius Peppers -- but probably not both. They have no first round pick, and their second round pick is at the tail end of the round. They don't have a lot of money to spend in free agency. They will be sticking with Jake Delhomme at quarterback and won't be developing a player to take his place. The Panthers will have a much tougher schedule in 2009 than they did in 2008, and if they continue on the course they are on, they likely won't compete in a division where the Falcons and Saints are both teams on the rise.
Julius Peppers, a player that very well might not be in Carolina in a few months, hit the nail on the head. "Really you can point a finger at anybody you want to in any group," Peppers said. "You can point it at the secondary; you can point it at the D-line; you can point it at the O-line, Jake, the running backs, take your pick. It's nobody's fault. It's not one person or one group's fault. We've just got to play better. We just didn't play well today at all – anybody."
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