Delhomme still fits Panthers' formula

Bob Donnan/US Presswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Donovan McNabb's new two-year deal made big headlines last week, securing him as a Philadelphia Eagle through 2010. But one of the least appreciated and more significant moves of the offseason was the extension given to Jake Delhomme of the Carolina Panthers.

Delhomme signed a five-year, $30.4 million extension that links the 34-year-old quarterback to Carolina through pretty much the end of his career. With quarterback salaries expected to skyrocket as Eli Manning and Philip Rivers enter the final years of their contracts, Delhomme's deal was rather modest. The team gave him a $3.125 million signing bonus, bringing his 2009 compensation to $6.325 million. The move gave the franchise much-needed cap room but kept his salaries at less than $2 million for each of the next two seasons. McNabb will make more than $25 million in the next two years.

As much as Panthers fans may clamor for the team to find its quarterback of the future, Delhomme is the perfect quarterback for coach John Fox. All Fox wants is an efficient leader who doesn't lose many games. It's a formula that has allowed Fox to become one of the longest-tenured active head coaches in the league. He's entering his eighth season with Carolina. It will be Delhomme's seventh as the Panthers' starting quarterback.

Despite the extension, Delhomme will be scrutinized more than ever this season. He threw five interceptions in a 33-13 playoff loss to Arizona, a game that exposed the only hole in the Panthers' formula of success. When Delhomme is asked to throw more than 30 passes, bad things usually happen to Carolina. Despite a 50-31 career record as a starter, Delhomme is 7-22 in the past five years in regular-season games in which he's asked to throw 30 or more passes.

What I wonder is, how will Matt Ryan's development as the Falcons' quarterback affect the Panthers' formula of success? Ryan won 11 games as a rookie on an offense that averaged 24.4 points a game. Those numbers could increase because Ryan will enter his second season and because the Falcons added Tony Gonzalez to an All-Star offense that has Roddy White at wide receiver and Michael Turner in the backfield.

If Ryan and the Falcons' offense continue to progress, the style of NFC South offenses as a whole might have to change, requiring more 30-pass games. The Saints have Drew Brees' accurate passing and Sean Payton's aggressive play calling. As long as the two are together, the Saints will be among the highest-scoring teams in football.

Having four divisional games against high-powered offenses might affect Fox's formula. After all, the Cardinals, who averaged 26.7 points a game last season, pushed the Panthers to 34 pass attempts during that playoff loss.

"Since free agency began, there is so much parity that causes so many games to be decided by three points or less," Fox said. "Different quarterbacks have different MOs, Jake being one of them. You need that quarterback who can operate in those tight situations. He leads that huddle as well as anybody, and I think he's a huge weapon."

Delhomme's strength is his ability to close. Keep the game close, and he'll find a way to win. Eighteen times in his six seasons as a starter, he has engineered a fourth-quarter or overtime comeback drive to win a game. Twelve times he has done it with two minutes or less remaining.

"Go back to our opening win last year against San Diego, when Jake won on the last play of the game," Fox said. "Quarterbacks' being able to win those games is the difference of being a playoff team and not being a playoff team. Three or four of those games a year come down to those situations, and it's the difference sometimes of being 10-6 or 7-9."

Delhomme won four games in the final four minutes last year, and that success enabled the Panthers to go 12-4.

Make no mistake, the Panthers realize how tough it will be to reach 12 wins this season. Their .592 strength of schedule will be the second-toughest in the NFL and will offer no breaks. They'll play 15 games against teams that went .500 or better in 2008. Their only "breather" is a matchup against a 7-9 Buffalo Bills team that added Terrell Owens.

"We do play a schedule that will be tough, but I'm not making the mistake I made in 2004," Delhomme said. "We were coming off a Super Bowl, and the schedule was supposed to be easy. I remember San Diego being 4-12. They went 12-4 and killed us. You have to just worry about the next game. If you get too far down the line, you make a mess for yourself. You never know what injures will happen."

Fox and Panthers GM Marty Hurney also realize the daunting task of finding that next quarterback. I remember talking to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome in 2007, after the Ravens had realized that Kyle Boller wasn't the solution at quarterback. Newsome spent countless hours reviewing college film and realizing how the college game -- with spread offenses and quarterbacks who don't line up directly behind a center -- has turned the scouting of future NFL quarterbacks into a guessing game.

Although it took a year, Newsome hit on Joe Flacco out of Delaware. The quarterback problem was solved.

In the next two years, Hurney and Fox will spend countless hours looking for the next quarterback. "The quarterback position is so far behind in trying to develop in a traditional offense, and it's becoming even tougher," Fox said.

That's why locking up Delhomme was so important. He buys the franchise time. He's a winner. The five-interception game has been forgotten. Fox will concentrate on running the ball to keep Delhomme from throwing more than 30 passes a game and keep games close enough for Delhomme to pull out a win in the final two minutes.

The Panthers aren't ready to change a winning formula.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.