Of all of the budding quarterback controversies garnering attention throughout the league, the most compelling drama might be taking place in Carolina, where Jake Delhomme is enduring a horrific season, and his poor play is killing the Panthers' chances of making the playoffs.
Delhomme, the Panthers' starting quarterback since 2003, ranks 32nd with a 56.5 passer rating after tossing his league-leading 11th, 12th, and 13th interceptions on Sunday in a home loss to Buffalo. He also has just four touchdown passes, fewer than any full-time starter, has fumbled twice, and contributed mightily to the team's minus-14 turnover margin in their first six games. This abysmal stretch comes on the heels of a divisional playoff performance that included five interceptions and a fumble in Carolina's shocking home defeat to Arizona.
Martz: Might be time for a change
I think the first thing the Panthers need to look at is what's happened to Delhomme, why these turnovers are happening and look at it from an analytical angle and make sure Delhomme is the problem (before benching him).
If you look at it over the long haul, and these issues keep surfacing, then perhaps it is time for a change. But if you keep seeing other issues that are involved that are out of Delhomme's control, you need to change what you're doing and go with him.
I do know this: Turnovers will demoralize a team faster than anything else. Right now, this is a huge issue for the Panthers.
-- Mike Martz
" Video: Martz on QB situations
While such a stretch of ineptitude would land most starting quarterbacks on the bench, John Fox has been reluctant to pull the plug on his signal-caller. While admitting on Monday that he is contemplating making a change, Fox wouldn't commit, saying he still believed Delhomme was the team's best option to win.
Some would suggest Fox's reluctance to make a change is based on his unwavering loyalty to the quarterback who led the franchise to its lone Super Bowl appearance in 2003 and a NFC title-game showing in 2005. The Panthers showed their gratitude in the offseason by giving Delhomme a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension, with $20 million guaranteed.
But looking at the Panthers' quarterback depth, the most logical explanation for Delhomme's continued reign as the starter is the lack of a suitable replacement. Matt Moore and A.J. Feeley are not exactly franchise-caliber quarterbacks, and neither would offer much of an upgrade over Delhomme at this point.
Moore, who compiled a 2-1 record in three starts for the team in 2007, has completed 62 percent of his throws throughout his career and enjoys a respectable 3:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, his inexperience at the position would likely lead defenses to attack the Panthers with a host of blitzes designed to neutralize the team's potent running game, and put the balance of the game on his right arm. Although it would be hard to play any worse than Delhomme, his insertion into the game would force the team to further scale back an offensive plan that has already been simplified to account for Delhomme's struggles.
In Feeley, Fox would turn the team over to an eight-year veteran with only 15 career starts. Although he was once regarded as a rising star at the position, Feeley has also been plagued by turnovers throughout his career. He has thrown 29 interceptions in 23 appearances, and failed miserably during his brief stint as a starter in Miami during the 2004 season. In addition, he has only been with the Panthers for a little over a month, and obviously lacks a solid grasp of the offense. The team would need to scale back its playbook to give him a chance of succeeding.
Given those bleak prospects, it is not surprising that Fox is hoping that Delhomme can find his rhythm without having to spend time on the sidelines. Pressure is mounting on the head coach to dump his long-time starter with his own job seemingly on the line, but Fox's decision to dance with the one who brought him still appears to be the best alternative in Carolina.
Has L.T. lost his mojo?
Although LaDainian Tomlinson enjoyed his most productive rushing game of the season Sunday against the Chiefs, the five-time Pro Bowl running back is clearly showing signs of slowing down in his ninth season. His 71-yard effort in the Chargers' 37-7 win marked his 12th consecutive game with fewer than 100 rushing yards, and he has only topped the century mark twice in his last 20 starts.
Tomlinson has also lost his ability to find the end zone in goal-line situations. The former league MVP has only one rushing touchdown this season and he failed to score against the Chiefs despite logging a whopping nine carries inside the 7-yard line. This comes a week after Tomlinson was infuriated by being lifted in favor of Darren Sproles on a critical fourth-and goal against the Broncos.
For a player that once tallied an NFL-record 28 rushing touchdowns in a season and ranks as one of the most prolific scorers in league history, the inability to find paydirt is another indicator that Tomlinson's skills are quickly eroding as a featured back.
Jets running like Raven lunatics
When Rex Ryan took the Jets' coaching job he promised to bring his dominant defense with him from Baltimore, but little did anyone know that he would bring an offensive game plan that mirrored the Ravens' script from a season ago. Relying on a powerful rush attack that ranked fourth in the league (148.5 rush yards per game) to complement their ferocious defense, the Ravens bullied their way to an 11-5 record and a surprising appearance in the AFC title game.
With that blueprint in mind, Ryan has built his own dominant rushing attack in New York. Led by Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and rookie Shonn Greene, the Jetslead the league in rushing (184.9 yards per game) and are bludgeoning opponents with a downhill attack that works primarily between the tackles. Although Washington was lost for the season after breaking his leg against the Raiders, the Jets' running game should continue to thrive with Jones and Greene pounding the rock.
Given the up-and-down season of their rookie quarterback (Mark Sanchez), Ryan's decision to rely on an imposing running game is not only a wise one, but one that may spark a playoff run. The formula worked for the Ravens last season with a rookie, Joe Flacco, at the helm and it could produce similar results in Ryan's first season in New York.
Like father, like son
Gil, who spent 10 seasons manning the corner in San Diego (1983-92), amassed 42 interceptions on the way to earning two Pro Bowl nods during his illustrious career. While Jairus has a ways to go before passing his father on the league's interception list, the rookie ballhawk has undoubtedly boosted the Bills' defense with his penchant for producing game-changing plays.
The Bills are currently tied for the league lead with 13 interceptions, and Byrd's back-to-back games with two picks have keyed their emergence as one of the league's most opportunistic defenses. Given his lineage and reputation for being a playmaker during his college days at Oregon (17 interceptions in three seasons), it shouldn't be surprising that Byrd has made an instant impact in Buffalo's secondary.
Taming the Wildcat
Defensive coordinators looking for an answer to the Dolphins' Wildcat should closely watch the tape of New Orleans' defense facing the formation. The Saints limited Miami to just 30 yards in 10 plays in the formation, and made the single-wing series a non-factor due to a clever schematic adjustment made by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Unlike previous defensive play-callers who attempted to play the formation with a conventional read-and-react approach, Williams attacked the Wildcat by checking to a double cornerback blitz whenever the Dolphins lined up in the formation.
The key to stopping any running play is getting a numerical advantage at the point of attack, and Williams' decision to essentially ignore the Dolphins' receivers in the formation gave the Saints two extra defenders against the play. With New Orleans enjoying success against Miami using the tactic, it will be interesting to see if others copy the approach in upcoming weeks.
On a handful of snaps against the Bears, the Bengals ran the ball from a series of formations that placed two tackles on the same side. While a conventional unbalanced line (TE-G-C-G-T-T) looks like a regular formation, the advantage for the offense lies in the physical mismatch created on the edge with the extra tackle. (An average offensive tackle typically weighs more than 300 pounds while a defensive end routinely weighs between 250-265 pounds).
However, the Bengals are taking it a step further by using a "super unbalanced" look on some occasions. The team has aligned in several funky formations that put as many as five blockers on the strong side (WR-G-C-G-T-T-TE-TE). The complex look makes it difficult for the defense to align correctly and often results in big gains for the offense. Such was the case when Benson churned out a series of explosive runs (plays of at least 10 yards) against a Bears defense reeling from the constant switching upfront.
Cincinnati's surprising record has been keyed by its exceptional offensive balance, but it has been the increased use of unbalanced sets that has ignited the running game and turned Benson into the league's leading rusher.