BEREA, Ohio -- Jake Delhomme has spent much of his first season with the Cleveland Browns in a mentor's role, dispensing sound advice to rookie quarterback Colt McCoy.
This week, he handed down his walking boot.
"You scratch your head," Delhomme said Wednesday about the Browns' rash of QB injuries. "It's kind of crazy. We're passing our boots in the quarterback room."
The dreaded high ankle sprain has become as contagious as a common cold in Cleveland.
With McCoy sidelined this week and possibly for several more with a sprained left ankle, Delhomme, who has played in just two games this season because of a similar ankle ailment, will start Sunday as the Browns (3-7) play host to his former team, the Carolina Panthers (1-9).
In a season of redemptive games for Cleveland, it's Delhomme's turn to face old friends.
Delhomme, 35, hasn't started since the Browns' Sept. 12 season opener, when he rolled his right ankle during the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He hasn't played since Oct. 10, when he came off the bench to replace Seneca Wallace, whose high ankle sprain came against the Atlanta Falcons.
Delhomme has been inactive on eight other Sundays, forced to stand on the sideline in a baseball cap to cheer and coach his teammates.
Like everything else he does, Delhomme handled the down time with class. He grew close to McCoy, teaching the youngster some nuances of the NFL's most demanding position. Delhomme never complained, never stopped working, never put himself about the team.
But he missed playing -- badly. It's no wonder he almost sprinted across the locker room to speak with reporters before practice.
"The last couple of weeks I've had some pep in my step," Delhomme said. "It's very unfortunate the way things have played out. You almost kind of pinch yourself and say, 'Is this a dream?' with all the quarterbacks kind of having some ankle issues. It's just what we have to deal with."
Browns coach Eric Mangini didn't officially pronounce Delhomme his starter, but in a rare admission for one of the league's most tightlipped coaches, Mangini did confirm that McCoy suffered the same injury that sidelined Delhomme and Wallace for more than one month.
"It's different than the ones they (Delhomme and Wallace) had, but it's in that same category," said Mangini, who didn't name McCoy as one of the players he expected to practice this week.
Mangini remains optimistic that McCoy won't be out as long as his other two QBs, but with the way this season has gone, there's no telling what could happen.
"It's been strange," Thomas said.
Delhomme believes McCoy will return sooner than he did.
"He's young and hardheaded," Delhomme said, grinning.
Delhomme appreciates the irony of returning in time to play against the Panthers, who waived the quarterback in March following his worst season as a starter. The parting was amicable, yet painful. Delhomme spent seven years with the Panthers, leading them to their only Super Bowl.
His memories of his days in Carolina blue are fond, and it's just not in his nature to hold a grudge.
Vengeance? Not this time.
"When I left New Orleans for Carolina in 2003, I couldn't wait for that first game against New Orleans," Delhomme said. "I wasn't given a chance to play down there. As any competitor, you want to have that 'I'll-show-you' attitude. This is totally different.
"We had a good run down there, and I enjoyed every single minute. Last year, it was difficult. But sometimes in relationships, there's breakups -- ours needed to happen between myself and the Panthers."
With McCoy out, Mangini's other option was to go back to Wallace, who made four consecutive starts before he was hurt and losing his job.
Mangini said he favored Delhomme because of the QB's familiarity with Carolina.
Wallace was playing well when he went down. He has every right to be upset about Mangini's choice, but he's not campaigning or complaining.
"It's coach's decision," he said. "He's calling the shots."
Delhomme said he, Wallace and McCoy made a pact weeks ago that they would abide by Mangini's word. It has been an awkward season, and the trio didn't want to make it any worse.
"We said whatever combination of three plays and whatever order you are on game day, that's the way it's going to be," Delhomme said. "We're all professionals. I've been around a while, and Seneca's been around awhile, and Colt is the new guy, but when you have a room that has harmony, it makes things better. It makes everybody's job better."
Delhomme is back in the starter's role, where he began the season and where he hopes to finish it. He came into his 13th year as a pro revitalized and ready to put distance between himself and a horrific 2009 with the Panthers. He looked like a new man in training camp and preseason.
The injury was a setback, but now that he's fully healed, Delhomme wants to prove he can still win.
It's another chance.
"I just want to go out and help us win," he said. "That's the honest-to-God's truth."
Thomas believes every word.
"I expect that same Jake to be back out here," Thomas said, "winning over hearts and minds."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press