CLEVELAND – Not all relationships end with nasty text messages and restraining orders.
Some separations feature mutual respect. Tears are shed in remembrance of the good times, not from lies and broken promises.
The Carolina Panthers cut quarterback Jake Delhomme in March after seven seasons, including a Super Bowl trip. He left in tears but has no hard feelings.
“Sometimes in relationships there are breakups,” said Delhomme, who will start today for the Browns. “Ours needed to happen.
“We had a good run down there. I enjoyed every single minute. I do still have so many close friends on that team, coaches, personnel, everybody.”
The Delhomme-Panthers reunion today on the lakefront will be more like a cast get-together after a sitcom’s been off the air for 20 years, rather than a reality show finale where no punches are pulled.
Delhomme started for the Panthers from 2003-09 and is the franchise leader in attempts (2,669), completions (1,580), passing yards (19,258) and touchdowns (120). They won the NFC in 2003 and he made the Pro Bowl in 2004.
“It was fun, and I’ll always consider myself a Panther, but I think getting a fresh start helped me more than anything,” he said. “It kind of worked out best for everybody.”
That doesn’t mean Delhomme won’t be extra excited to start today. He was supposed to be 10 games into his season of redemption, but played less than one healthy half before suffering a high right ankle sprain in the opener.
He was forced to play on a gimpy leg against Atlanta on Oct. 10, aggravated the injury and has been out since.
His return to health just happened to coincide with rookie Colt McCoy’s high ankle sprain. Delhomme said it was “ironic” it happened in the week when the Panthers were coming to town.
“Certainly I will be fired up to play because I am sitting back and watching a young kid play who is pretty good, and I am thinking, ‘Have I played my last down?’” he said. “I understand that, so it’s a great opportunity. I’m excited for that.”
Delhomme, 35, has heaped praise on McCoy and called him Cleveland’s quarterback of the future, so he could be auditioning to stick around as the backup in 2011. As fits his personality, he embraced the mentor’s role while sidelined.
“Colt for years to come will remember the time he’s spent with Jake Delhomme and the importance of that and learning what it means to be a pro,” coach Eric Mangini said.
“He’s been great with Colt,” coordinator Brian Daboll said. “He’s just a selfless, selfless guy. He cares about one thing and one thing only and that’s the team and winning.
“It’s been really great to have him. Just wish you had him – he only played one half of football.”
It’s hard to remember, but Delhomme was off to a strong start as he tried to use the fresh start in Cleveland to rebound from a dreadful final year in Carolina. He threw 18 interceptions in 2009 and was cut with the Panthers owing him $12.5 million guaranteed.
He quickly became the undisputed leader of the Browns and earned the trust of the offense. A solid preseason was quickly forgotten with a game-turning interception against Tampa Bay on which his ankle was rolled. He struggled on a bum ankle in the second half, and the fans couldn’t move on quickly enough, whether it was Seneca Wallace or McCoy. Delhomme is 33-for-60 for 324 yards, a touchdown, four interceptions and a 59.2 rating.
“I thought that he had a really good preseason,” Mangini said. “I was excited about the things he had done. It’s just unfortunate that he got hurt when he did. We would have liked to have seen more of that during those early games, more of where he was and more of where we were.”
Delhomme downplayed the subplots surrounding this game. He was focused on the chance to finally play again.
“It was so fun this offseason, this preseason just being out there,” he said. “I’ll just try to go out there and just be me and not try to be anybody else. I’m looking forward to going out and just playing, just doing whatever this team needs to help us win.
“We’ve had two very tough losses in a row. We are just looking for any kind of way to bounce back and get a win.”
The momentum gained from wins over New Orleans and New England has been lost in late losses to the Jets and Jaguars. There’s no doubt the Browns have improved drastically since last season, but they need wins to convince president Mike Holmgren they’re far enough down the proper path. Holmgren hasn’t set a number, but Mangini likely needs to go at least 4-2 over the last six games to return for 2011.
The Browns (3-7) are desperate for a victory against the 1-9 Panthers.
“The only way you gauge things in this league is by production,” linebacker David Bowens said. “That’s the true measure of a person. It’s not about how close you were, it’s about if you can actually pull out these wins.”
The long-term future of the Browns won’t be decided until the calendar flips to 2011. For 60 minutes this afternoon, the focus will be on Delhomme as he faces the Panthers’ seventh-ranked pass defense.
“Jake’s been doing it for so long he can kinda do a lot of the things he needs to do in his sleep,” said receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who grew up cheering for Delhomme in Charlotte, N.C. “He’s going to take control of the offense, he’s going to lead us the way that we need to be led.
“If you know Jake and if you see him play, he’s a guy that loves to play the game, he’s like a big kid when playing the game.”
Carolina fans know the enthusiasm with which Delhomme plays. They also are well aware of the struggles of the last-ranked Panther offense since his departure.
“I’m sure that for him it probably feels a little good almost that we’ve had some quarterback troubles,” Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross said. “He doesn’t wish it on anybody personally, but it shows how big of a part of this team he was for so many years.”
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JUST THE FACTS
• WHO: Browns vs. Panthers
• WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium
• WHEN: Today, 1 p.m.
• RECORDS: Browns 3-7; Panthers 1-9
• LAST WEEK: Browns lost 24-20 at Jacksonville; Panthers lost 37-13 vs. Baltimore
• SERIES: Panthers lead 3-0
• SERIES AT CLEVELAND: Panthers lead 2-0
• LAST MEETING: Panthers won 20-12 on Oct. 8, 2006, at Carolina
• COACHES: Eric Mangini is 8-18 with Browns, 31-44 overall; John Fox is 77-70 with Panthers and overall
• TV/RADIO: Channel 8, with broadcasters Chris Rose and Torry Holt; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM
• NFL RANKINGS (OUT OF 32 TEAMS): Browns – offense 28th (15th rushing, 30th passing), defense 23rd (22nd rushing, 22nd passing); Panthers – offense 32nd (23rd rushing, 32nd passing), defense 14th (24th rushing, 7th passing)
• BROWNS UPDATE: Carolina is the only current NFL team the Browns haven’t defeated.
• Browns’ turnover ratio is plus-10 over the last four games, tied for best in the league with Green Bay.
• Rookie S T.J. Ward got his first two interceptions last week.
• Browns have faced both NFL teams (Patriots, Jets) with a league-best nine wins, and both eight-win teams (Falcons, Saints).
• TE Evan Moore is averaging a team-best 21.9 yards per catch on 14 receptions. He’s third on the team with 306 receiving yards.
• S Nick Sorensen leads the team with 12 special teams tackles.
• Browns have allowed 20.6 points per game, tied for 10th in the NFL.
• The defense allowed four touchdowns in 18 red zone trips in the first five games. It’s allowed 11 touchdowns in 18 trips over the last five.
• P Reggie Hodges leads the league with 11 punts inside the 10-yard line. He ranks seventh with a 39.5-yard net.
• This is Cleveland’s last home game before a three-game road trip, the first since 2001.
• LB Marcus Benard has a team-high 6½ sacks and 10 in 15 career games.
PANTHERS UPDATE: Panthers didn’t have double-digit losses in Fox’s first eight years as coach. They’re one of four NFL teams without a 10-loss season during that period. Another loss would end that streak.
• QB Brian St. Pierre threw two interceptions for touchdowns last week in his first NFL start. It was just his third game in eight seasons.
• Panthers have lost four in a row.
• K John Kasay, 41, is seventh in NFL history with 423 field goals and eighth with 1,785 points. It’s his 20th year.
• Panthers quarterbacks have been sacked 30 times.
• Panthers have been outscored 252-117. They’ve scored just 15 points in the first quarter.
• Opponents have returned four interceptions for touchdowns.
• Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd has sent 25 of 32 kickoffs into the end zone with nine touchbacks.
• RB DeAngelo Williams leads the team with 361 rushing yards but is on injured reserve.
• Offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson was Browns offensive line coach in 2005 and coordinator for the final 10 games of 2006. He worked with Mangini and Cleveland offensive coordinator Brian Daboll as assistants in New England.
• Quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Rip Scherer coached in Cleveland from 2005-08.
• BROWNS INJURY REPORT: Out: LB Scott Fujita (knee); Doubtful: QB Colt McCoy (ankle), CB Eric Wright (knee); Questionable: DB Mike Adams (abdomen), LB Eric Barton (shoulder), DE Kenyon Coleman (knee), WR Joshua Cribbs (foot), DL Shaun Rogers (ankle), TE Benjamin Watson (ankle); Probable: OL Floyd Womack (knee)
• PANTHERS INJURY REPORT: Doubtful: S Marcus Hudson (ankle), S Jordan Pugh (hamstring), RB Tyrell Sutton (ankle), G Travelle Wharton (toe); Probable: QB Jimmy Clausen (concussion), CB Chris Gamble (personal), WR Brandon LaFell (concussion), CB Captain Munnerlyn (shoulder), QB Tony Pike (shoulder), QB Brian St. Pierre (shoulder), RB Jonathan Stewart (concussion)
• THE PICK: The Browns usually struggle as an overwhelming favorite, but they get the win necessary to keep the season from going down the drain. Browns 27-17.