CHARLOTTE -- The one thing that's certain about the performance Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme turned in Saturday night is that no one will be harder on him than himself.
In fact, he was apologizing to teammates before the end of the Panthers' 33-13 loss to Arizona in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Delhomme, who has led the Panthers to great heights in the past, who has symbolized their own climb up from obscurity, let them down this time.
His six-turnover performance (five interceptions and a fumble) made their other efforts moot Saturday night, and stood as the reason they were packing their things and heading for vacations Sunday morning.
Throughout the night, his teammates tried to encourage him, but Delhomme's body language told the whole story. He was off, and it cost them, and he knew it.
"Those are my teammates," Delhomme said after the game. "One thing we do well is that we aren't a bunch of individuals in that room. I think that's why we won 12 games this year. I was apologetic to the guys. Even in the fourth quarter in the huddle I told them that I would protect them with the ball and I apologized for not giving us a chance.
"That's just how I felt. I'm not looking for sympathy one bit. That's the last thing I want. The work I put in this week was not good enough."
He hadn't changed much as he left Sunday afternoon, saying he knows he's going to be made the scapegoat by many, and he deserves to.
"Honestly, will that make me feel worse than I feel now? Absolutely not," he said. "What I feel inside, the work that I put in. ... The thing I look at is why, I never anticipated in a million years that we would go out and play that way or I would have a hand in playing the way I did last night and you kind of wonder, was it worth watching all that film last week? Was it worth studying? That is part of it.
"You have those days and you'd like to come few and far between. It's unfortunate that it came at the biggest game of the year."
Delhomme's been known to dive on grenades for his team in press conferences before, even for things that weren't his fault. So when it was, everyone he's touched in that room was trying to help him.
Wide receiver Steve Smith, who was unable to help much because of the Cardinals' coverage, shook his head quietly when asked what his quarterback was going to put himself through the next eight months.
"Man, Jake, I feel bad for him; I feel bad for my buddy," Smith said. "It's a bad dream, the only difference is, you know you're wide awake."
Smith knows what's coming, too.
Before the game was over, the howls had begun. That Delhomme was able to walk out of the stadium on his own two feet Sunday is the first testament to his resilience, since the torch-and-pitchfork crowd hadn't gotten him yet.
He's 34 years old on a team that's getting younger. He has one year left on a contract extension he signed in 2004, which makes questions about his future inevitable.
But as certain as he was about his own role in the defeat, his teammates, the ones who fought beside him, circled around quickly to support their leader.
"Well you know what, they can," Smith said when asked about the criticism Delhomme will hear. "The people that's going to be complaining about him are the people that can't throw a football, can't catch a ball, can't run a route, and who ain't Jake.
"Wait in line. And you can complain all the way to September."
Coach John Fox kept emphasizing the "bad night to have a bad night," for nearly every aspect of his team's play, but it rang no truer than when he spoke of his quarterback. "He had a bad game," Fox said flatly Sunday. "It was not a bad season, he's not a bad quarterback. ... He had a bad game. It happens."
In Delhomme's defense, he had plenty of help in the loss. After an impressive first drive which yielded a touchdown, the Panthers stopped running the ball, the staple of their offensive philosophy. They had just nine carries at halftime and finished with 15, after averaging 31.5 per game in the regular season.
The game reached a point in the second half when they were forced to throw, but it's clear the Panthers pulled the plug on the run too soon.
"It's hard, because that first drive is really how we saw the game going," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We ran the ball, little bit of play action and keeping it out of (Kurt) Warner's hands. After that, it just went downhill. They're a really good team and a good offense, and you can't really win getting in a hole early.
"Yeah, that's rough. That's not our style. We put ourselves in that situation, though. You get down 20, you can't keep running the ball and expect to come back. I thought we had an opportunity in the second half, our defense stops them on their first two drives. If we score some points, that might have changed the momentum a bit and given us a chance to run our normal offense. But we couldn't, and look what happened."
What happened is Delhomme kept getting chances, and he kept throwing to the Cardinals. Five different visitors caught his passes.
"I'm at a loss for words," Delhomme said as he began his last postgame press conference of the year. "For one reason or another, I didn't give us a chance tonight. It's disappointing. I don't know what else to say."
There's nothing else, really. After coming back from Tommy John surgery last offseason, this one is going to be harder to overcome, and much more painful.
The time is all that will help, and it begins now.Arizona Carolina