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ON THE morning after the worst game of his career, a game that fell on his 34th birthday, Jake Delhomme left his family, his friends and his presents at home and took a drive. He ended up at the Panthers' practice facility, where he watched a replay of the 33--13 loss to the Cardinals in the NFC divisional playoffs. In that game, Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble as the NFC South champions were humiliated on their home turf.
"I could have replayed it in my mind, but I wanted to see it," Delhomme says. "I tried to do too much, especially in the second half. [The season] ended on a bad note, and I had a large part to do with it, but I wasn't going to run away from it. I'm embracing the challenge."
At first glance Delhomme and the Panthers should expect nothing less than another strong run after going 12--4 in 2008, tied for the best record in the conference. But even with one of the league's top offensive lines, a two-pronged running game and a skilled defensive line, Carolina's depth will be an issue. That became clear in the early days of camp, when veteran wideout Steve Smith went down with a bruised right shoulder and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu tore his Achilles tendon. While Smith's injury was just a scare, Kemoeatu was lost for the season.
His absence places a burden on a unit with several young, untested players and a new coordinator, Ron Meeks, formerly of the Colts. In particular two defensive tackles—Nick Hayden, a 2008 sixth-round pick who played in only two games as a rookie, and '09 third-rounder Corvey Irvin out of Georgia—will have to get up to speed in a hurry. "[Kemoeatu] was a force in the middle," Hayden says. "We'll have to do the best we can with me and the younger guys."
Hayden actually fits Meeks's preference for quick, athletic defenders better than the 345-pound Kemoeatu did. Anticipating Meeks's arrival, Hayden lost 10 pounds before training camp to get to 290 and spent much of the spring and summer working on getting to the QB quicker. "I'm still learning every day," he says. "I'm trying to improve my penetration and get upfield."
Says Meeks, "Where I came from, we relied on guys who were undersized, could control the running game and were quick playmakers. A lot of the guys [reported] under [last year's] weight. That's good."
Coach John Fox and the team's veterans have proved to be good teachers in the past—so much so that other teams poached Carolina backups who were free agents in the off-season, notably defensive tackle Gary Gibson (signed by the Rams) and offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner (Bills). "We lost these backups because they played well," Delhomme says. "They got rewarded. But if you look at our veterans, if you watch how these guys practice, that carries over to the young kids. Julius Peppers doesn't miss practice. Jordan Gross and Muhsin Muhammad, the same. If you have a young guy who's teetering on the fence and just wanting to get by, if you get enough guys around him [working hard], he's going to jump on the right side of the fence."
For his part, Delhomme doesn't appear to be suffering any lingering effects from his playoff performance. He spent part of his off-season on his southern Louisiana horse farm, clearing his head and preparing for the start of a new season.
In the aftermath of the playoff loss he fielded telephone calls for a week from friends worried about his state of his mind. "It became comical after a while," Delhomme says. "They were pretty much in shock for me and feeling sorry for me. I had to cheer them up: 'Don't anybody feel sorry for me. I'm living, I'm breathing, I'm fine.'"
As long as they don't have to reach too deep into the depth chart, the Panthers should be too.