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Ball back in Delhomme's hands ... just the way opponents like it

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The season opener in 2006 between Atlanta and Carolina is when the book on Jake Delhomme, written by opposing teams' scouts, took full form. Newly acquired defensive end John Abraham was having the game of his life, staying in Delhomme's face, sacking him twice and forcing Delhomme to lose two fumbles.

Delhomme was on the sidelines and in the huddle yelling at teammates, coming unglued. While he had every right to be upset, losing it like he did is not how successful NFL quarterbacks perform under pressure.That wasn't the last time Delhomme couldn't keep it together.

And now, more people are starting to take note. Agitate him. Hit him. Bait him. Trick him with coverages.

Put the game in his hands.

The last two times Delhomme has stepped on a football field in meaningful games -- a 33-13 loss to Arizona in the divisional playoffs last season and a 38-10 season-opening defeat to Philadelphia on Sunday -- he's thrown nine interceptions and turned the ball over 11 times.

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The pressure's on more than ever and it's not just Delhomme who's feeling it. After just one game, there's already talk that coach John Fox, who with Delhomme led Carolina to the NFC South title and a 12-4 record last season, could be risking his job because of loyalty to his quarterback. Fox actually benched Delhomme in the loss to the Eagles last week but quickly named him the starter for Sunday's game with Atlanta.

He really didn't have much of a choice. Carolina is committed longterm to Delhomme, who signed a five-year, $42.5 million extension ($20 million guaranteed) in April, just three months after his playoff meltdown, which befuddled fans and league insiders alike. Compounding the problem is the fact that backup Josh McCown is out for an indefinite amount of time after suffering knee and foot sprains on Sunday. The Panthers signed veteran A.J. Feeley.

Fox and Carolina management have cast their lot with Delhomme -- and based on the fact that he tends to win, you can understand the faith; blind faith to some.

The issue is that Delhomme's flaws, exploited by opponents for years, have become public knowledge since the Arizona debacle. Most of the time, the NFL world pays little attention to the Panthers, except for fantasy-gem running back DeAngelo Williams and their incredibly dynamic wide receiver, Steve Smith. But Delhomme's performance in the playoffs against the Cardinals was so brutal and so nationally viewed that every mistake he makes now elicits more angst.

That's not good in an era of improving quarterback play, especially by young quarterbacks the Panthers passed on in the draft (namely Joe Flacco in 2008) in favor of retaining the 34-year-old Delhomme. Yet, Delhomme has rattled nerves before, only to come back and piece together big games and winning stretches and heroic showings. His last-second touchdown pass to Dante Rosario in a 26-24 victory at San Diego to start the 2008 season ignited a 4-1 start and momentum that lasted the entire regular season.

In addition, Delhomme's guidance of the Panthers to the playoffs last season came after he missed most of 2007 with an elbow injury that resulted in him having Tommy John surgery, a fairly radical procedure in which a damaged tendon is replaced. His toughness is unquestioned, as is his resiliency.

What has to be monitored is whether Delhomme simply had a bad '09 start after having a bad '08 finish or whether he's on the decline? Despite him leading Carolina to one of the best records in the NFL last season, Delhomme threw just 15 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions. He'd never thrown fewer touchdowns in any season in which he'd played at least 13 games. It was also his worst touchdown-to-interception ratio for a season in which he's played at least that many games.

From 2003 (when he led Carolina to the Super Bowl) through 2005, Delhomme combined for 72 touchdown passes, with a career-high 29 coming in 2004. Since then, he's thrown 17 TDs in 2006, eight in 2007 and the 15 last season. Carolina is very reliant on its running game and that could be why Delhomme's numbers have dipped. He also has become more of game manager. Still, is that the only reason?

That is why Sunday's game at Atlanta looms much larger than most early-season games for Delhomme and the Panthers.

It's a game that could be ripe for Delhomme, who had a pretty decent outing (21-of-35), 295 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs) the last time these two teams hooked up in Atlanta, a 45-28 Falcons victory last November. While the Falcons are expecting to get a big shot from its NFC South rival and Delhomme, the Panthers tend to respond when things look adverse. Plus, the Falcons aren't overly convinced that their inexperienced defense that looked so good against the Dolphins last week (Abraham had two sacks for a unit that forced four turnovers and held Miami to 259 total yards) will consistently play well.

Falcons coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder showed last year, when they had lesser talent but more experience on defense, that they can scheme with the best, hiding their blemishes and highlighting their strengths.

It's kind of what Delhomme has been able to do, except the flaws have surfaced in a big way the last two tries.

There will be a lot of support in the Panthers' locker room this week for Delhomme, who is genuinely respected and loved by his teammates. To give up on him now when he's done much more good than bad in his career would be out of character for a team that prides itself on character.

Delhomme needs to regain his on-field composure because, whether or not the strategy or scheme calls for it, the game is in his hands -- just the way other teams want it.

Does he?

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