By David Fleming
Page 2

The first time I noticed it was on Dec. 4, inside Bank of America Stadium, just moments before Carolina QB Jake Delhomme hit wideout Steve Smith on an 18-yard TD pass against the Falcons. Normally, after a score, I'll try to jot down what I think are the keys to the drive -- you know, a corner who got burned, an odd formation or play call, a key substitution, or even a good block. But on this day, my notebook was filled with a series of tiny L's.

While watching Delhomme operate through my binoculars, I had noticed, and then began chronicling, the rather odd and incessant way that he licks his fingers before almost every play. Now I'm not talking about your typical oh-the-pages-are-stuck-together-just-let-me-moisten-my-fingers-a-bit kind of licking. Oh no. This was more like a cat with OCD who had just eaten two tablets of trucker speed and then accidentally stepped into a jar of peanut butter.

Just check out my notes.

Jake Delhomme
AP
A little saliva helps Delhomme keep a good grip on the ball.

Jake, while waiting on the field between plays: lick, lick, licklicklick. Done? Nope. Lick-lick. Liiiiiiiiiiick. Eeeegad.

Jake, inside the huddle: licklick and then, wait a sec, here comes his left hand up under his facemask, lick, lick lick. Ugh.

Jake, now on the way to the line of scrimmage: another double lick, only this time not just the finger tips but the entire palm as well. That's a slurp followed by two short licks. Yeesh.

Jake, surveying the defense: lick, lick. Dear lord I hope he's almost done. Nope.

Jake, now getting under center: licklicklick … shhhhhuuuulick. Can't. Look. Away.

Jake, with one final four-finger super-soaker lick/slurp where the thumb is actually employed under the tongue to provide even more saliva leverage. Followed by a powerful fit of the dry heaves. (Mine.)

After one play and 35 seconds on the play clock, I looked down and added up the L's on my notepad. (First, of course, I paused to consider the blessing and the curse that is this gift I have for observing useless, odd quirks in human behavior.) Then, while giving credit for the double-lick maneuver, the side slurps and the back-of the-tongue palm coverage as well as a triple score every time the thumb entered the picture, I added up the L's and found that Delhomme licked his hands 19 times in 35 seconds.

But here's the thing: This was by no means an anomaly. Over the next six weeks, ending with his magnificent performance on the road against the Bears' poseur defense in the divisional playoffs, I updated my Lick Chart whenever possible. And while I would hardly consider this study to be scientific, it did reveal a rather amazing, bizarre and, well, disgusting pattern of behavior.

On average, Delhomme licks his hands 6.1 times per play. And as far as I can tell, that number increases and decreases in direct relation to game situations. In other words, he licks less on first downs (5.1) and earlier in the game (4.9) and much more on third downs (6.4) and in the red zone (6.6).

Earlier this season I spoke to Jacksonville Pro Bowl defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, and was amazed to find out just how thoroughly they study opposing quarterbacks, looking for any kind of physical "tells" -- head bobs, eye contact, body language and cadence variations -- that might tip off the upcoming play. Knowing that, and understanding how much the pregame scouting and preparation gets ratcheted up this time of year, here's the most disturbing aspect of my super saliva soaker study: According to my calculations, Jake licks almost twice as many times before a pass play (7.2) as he does before a run play (3.7). And of the times when he doesn't lick at all, he is nearly three times as likely to go lickless before a run play than a pass play.

Jake Delhomme
AP
You know where that hand's going next.

As one editor at Page 2 put it, "Holy jeebers! I just realized you can figure out what the Panthers are doing based on the number of licks Delhomme makes!"

Right about now, though, I should point out that the Panthers don't exactly expend a lot of time and effort trying to disguise their passes. (And why should they when Steve Smith, the fearless A.I. in shoulder pads, only seems to get better on the plays when everyone in the stadium knows he's getting the ball?) Most of the time defenses don't need to count Jake's cow licks; they can just look for an empty backfield or a running back split down and wide into an H-back position. Knowing what was coming didn't seem to help the Bears' defense, did it? Let's face it -- odd quirks or not, Jake's been pretty darn finger-licking good this postseason. (He's 5-1 in the playoffs in his career, with a 108.4 passer rating, which is almost 13 points better than some guy named Joe Montana.)

What's more, when I pointed out Delhomme's licking compulsion to my wife, she seemed far more concerned with the health ramifications than the strategic ones. She suggested, with a straight face, that he either carry a moist towelette on his waistband or hang an antibacterial gel dispenser from the center's backside to disinfect his hands before each play. I, of course, scoffed at this notion. (Not because I'm macho or uncaring, but because I knew there simply wasn't enough time for the NFL to draft up a multibillion-dollar 85-year contract with Dial antibacterial soap before Sunday's NFC and AFC championship games. And nothing happens in the NFL without a cash tie-in. Although imagine the other corporate possibilities: Slurpees, the new 39-cent stamp, KISS singing "Lick it Up" at Ford Field.)

Then I realized just what the fingers Delhomme was repeatedly sticking in his mouth were exposed to during a single game: a host of bodily fluids (too numerous and nasty to even mention here), dirt, grass, germs, insecticides such as organophosphates and pyrethroids; fungicides such as thiophanate-methyl and benomyl; a steady dose of the dichlorodiphenyl trichlororethane found in fertilizers; as well as the toluene and acetone in the spray paint used to decorate the field, which have been linked to reduced brain function.

(Insert your own Joey Harrington joke here.)

Now, normally this is where I'd back up my findings with quotes and/or research from around the league. But, as with the story I did last season on why no one wears a protective cup anymore in this league, when I called around on the topic of QB finger licking, most players, coaches and PR dudes just assumed I was part of some new ESPN "Punk'd"-style show and did not return my phone calls.

And let's just say that the usual Internet search engines ended up being completely out of the question. Trust me. You type in the words "Quarterback … Lick … Licking … Fingers" and most of the results you get back make Bret Easton Ellis look like Mother Goose.

And so, for the briefest of moments I thought, "Uh oh, maybe I've finally done it. Maybe I've finally found a topic that is just too odd for the FlemFile audience." Then I considered how this has already been one of the most bizarre postseasons on record, and that was long before Joey Porter became the voice of reason when it came to NFL officiating.

I mean, when did Bill Cowher become a dynamic strategist? When did Adam Vinatieri, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick become mortal? How is it possible that Ben Roethlisberger makes more clutch tackles than Brian Urlacher? How did Lovie Smith, a defensive guru and the NFL Coach of the Year, get caught by surprise by Steve Smith, the NFL leader in receiving yards, catches and TDs? Is it me or is the only thing we can count on anymore in the NFL postseason the utter Urkle-ization and collapse of one or more of the Mannings?

Who knows just how different things might have been in Indy had Peyton simply spit on his fingers instead of his linemen. I mean, look around at the quarterbacks still playing. Even wearing a glove hasn't stopped Big Ben from finger licking. And I'm sure if it wasn't already so dang wet all the time in Seattle, Matt Hasselbeck would be a chronic licker as well.

Jake Plummer? He uses a veritable sea of saliva each game. The guy licks so often he gets cotton mouth and must run to the sidelines in between plays for sips of water. He did it so often during the Giants game this season that TV announcers speculated that Plummer must have been sick because he was drinking so much water.

"They don't know what they're talking about," responded Plummer, repeating the same phrase most of us yell at TV every week. "It was dry. My mouth was dry, I just ran over there to get some water."

Dan Marino
AP
So that's how Marino got so much touch on his passes!

Turns out most of the greats lick before they flick.

Brett Favre? Slurp. John Elway? Lick. Dan Marino? Shlick.

This past summer, near the end of his 19-minute Hall of Fame acceptance speech in Canton, Ohio, Marino started licking his fingers.

"Because you know what happens when I lick my fingers," said Marino who, when conservatively calculated out over his entire 17-year career, probably put his fingers in his own mouth 42,000 times, to say nothing of his foot.

After licking his digits like a lab cleaning cream cheese off the kitchen floor, Marino stepped to the side of the HOF podium and threw a perfect spiral out into the audience to former teammate Mark Clayton.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it? Two more wins and, who knows, maybe some day that will be Jake Delhomme up there on the podium in Canton throwing a bomb to Steve Smith out in the audience.

I can see it now. A gray-haired Delhomme with a bit of a belly, pointing to Smith, then pausing out of nostalgia to lick his fingers … 872 times.

David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, can be preordered through Baywood Publishing. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com




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