CHARLOTTE -- There are times you hang on, and you hang on tight.
There are times you let go, no matter how much it hurts.
In the time the Carolina Panthers have left before the start of next season, they've got to decide what to do with which, but in reality, many of those decisions are already made.
Julius Peppers sounds like a guy whose heart's already someplace else, and if that's the case, all that's left is to cut the best deal.
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But Jake Delhomme's already poured out his entire heart in Charlotte, which is why he stays.
The Peppers situation is layered, as he is.
After all, he's spent his entire life in the state of North Carolina, and there must be a part of him that wants to branch out. One of the awkward aspects of being a hometown star is that you can't go anywhere without being recognized. Anywhere else, he can go to a basketball game, a club or wander around and just be another cat. Not in Charlotte.
I can't claim to know Peppers -- anyone in my business who says he or she does is simply lying, because he's made it that way -- but there are a few things you gather in seven years.
He's given honest effort every year he's been able. He's phenomenally talented, capable of nearly anything. He's also a lot smarter than you'd think, and if this story ends up how I've got a hunch it's going to, he's orchestrated it perfectly and with a grace many of his co-workers lack.
If, as it sounds, he wants out, there's no evidence of it in his play. He's also taken the high road of not demanding a deal, or pouting or malingering.
If he simply wants to go, there's nothing wrong with that.
He's a brilliant guy, with varied interests. Sometimes, you've got to get out and stretch your legs. Doesn't make him a bad person. He's given his seven years, provided 70.5 sacks and enough plays made to satisfy reasonable expectations.
So don't make him a pariah on his way out. It's not fair. Get what you can and move on.
Peppers' situation is complicated.
But what to do with Delhomme is simple.
He is not some aging husk of a player in decline. He's 34, and a year removed from a surgery which made his arm stronger than ever.
For all his years of saying nothing in many words, coach John Fox nailed it Sunday before he turned this team loose for the year:
"He had a bad game. He's not a bad quarterback."
People need to remember that.
Delhomme leads this team, now as much as ever. He has the ear of its best offensive player, Steve Smith. Smith, in turn, has Delhomme's back.
But they know the winds are going to howl this offseason, because of the unbelievable and uncharacteristic way the year ended.
Shouldn't matter, the same way it shouldn't have mattered last year when people whined and cried and stomped their feet waiting for Fox and general manager Marty Hurney to get fired. That, by the way, didn't happen either.
That's why the Panthers have one other contract they ought to work on this offseason, among their other priorities.
Not only do they need to keep Delhomme, they ought to extend his deal (which presently runs through 2009).
Doing so makes clear that he's your guy. If you let the contract ride, you invite questions about his status. Send him into the season on a lame-duck contract, and the players around him will wonder about his future as much as any talk-show screecher or message-board poster.
You erode his authority -- though it's never been in doubt in the huddle -- if you don't back it up.
Like Peppers, this isn't about money with Delhomme.
He's not asking for a raise, and isn't using the media to put out the message.
Taking care of him is simply the right thing to do, because he's taken care of them for so long, and has so much left.
The reason he's a good investment right now is because of his last game, not in spite of it. Backed into a corner, he fights. And he'll demand everyone do the same.
He'll be in the weight room and the film room all offseason, because of his own white-hot desire to fix what he messed up.
Some guys who create a disaster shrink from it, but Delhomme's always risen up, always taken responsibility, then moved forward, dragging the rest along.
One thing you know about Delhomme is that he's given everything to this team, and he'll continue to. He never took a day off last offseason, never wavered in his commitment.
That's why they should do the same for him.
If Peppers wants to walk, hug him and wish him well; thank him and hold the door.
And then come back inside and take care of the ones who want to be here, and want to finish the business they left undone Saturday night.