Henning had right approach with QB
The Panthers have excelled this year in part because of how Dan Henning has slowly brought along Jake Delhomme.
During his 25-year NFL career spent with nine different franchises, there have been a lot of adjectives used to describe crusty ol' Dan Henning, but nurturing hasn't been cited very often, if at all.
That the Carolina Panthers are playing in the NFC championship game, however, is due in significant part to the manner in which Henning has so adroitly nurtured the development of quarterback Jake Delhomme in his first year as a starter.
"When you look at them now (on tape), they aren't the same team we played earlier in the year," said Eagles free safety Brian Dawkins. "They're making more plays in the passing game. They aren't as one-dimensional. You can really see them emerging. They're really coming up big on third down."
That's because Henning, having shepherded Delhomme through a period in which the play calls were about as rudimentary and low-risk as possible, began opening up the attack on first down. The Panthers still aren't as daring and on-the-edge as some offenses on first-and-10, but the package clearly has been expanded.
In the first eight games, Henning called running plays on 63.3 percent of the Panthers' 199 first-and-10 snaps. For much of that period, Carolina was successful by pounding Davis into opposition defenses, eroding front-seven units and gobbling up real estate with plenty of muscle. But during those first eight games, Carolina had just six completions of 20 yards or more and only two completions of 30-plus yards, on first-and-10. And there came a point when defenses consistently brought their strong safety down "into the box," to create an eight-man front, and simply running Davis became counterproductive.
Over the first eight games, the Panthers averaged but 9.1 pass-play calls (including sacks) on first-and-10. There were four games in which Henning called six or fewer pass plays in first-and-10 situations.
At about midseason, though, confident that Delhomme was starting to emerge, Henning provided the young quarterback, who had started only two regular-season contests in his first six NFL campaigns, a bit more leash.
The result: Counting the final eight regular-season games and the Panthers two playoff victories, Henning has called pass plays on 45.3 percent of the first-and-10 snaps. The Panthers, in that period, have 21 completions for 20 or more yards on first down and nine completions of 30 yards or more. There are seven games in that period in which Henning called at least 10 pass plays on first-and-10.
If the Panthers still don't remind anyone of the pass-oriented St. Louis Rams, the team they defeated in the divisional round, neither are they confused anymore with a single-wing offense. The rise in confidence on offense in general, and specifically in Delhomme, has been palpable. Clearly, the clever Henning has done a textbook job of bringing along a quarterback, sheltering him at first and eventually allowing him more latitude. To say that Delhomme has responded nicely would be an understatement.
Credit head coach John Fox, too, for heeding his instincts in the first game of the season. With the Panthers trailing by 17 points against Jacksonville in the opener, Fox yanked starter Rodney Peete, and replaced him with Delhomme. The youngster has started every game since then.
"What they have done," said Delhomme, "is to put me in an (environment) to succeed. I understood why the play-calling was the way it was early in the season. And as a team, we were winning games with that formula, and playing well. But I think everybody here, as the season wore on, gained confidence in me. And I gained confidence in myself. It's really worked out well."
It will, at some point in the offseason, work out even better for Delhomme, who is certain to get an upgrade on the two-year, $4 million deal he signed last spring as an unrestricted free agent. But before he goes to the bank, Delhomme wants to go to the Super Bowl, and because of the nurturing of Henning, he and the Panthers have a shot.
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.