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In Jake we still trustAs he makes his Week 2 picks, Bill dares to defend Jake DelhommeEmail Print Share By Bill Simmons

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One day after enduring Jake Delhomme's second straight nuclear bomb in nine months -- the first against Arizona in last season's playoffs, the second against Philly on Sunday -- an unknown Panthers fan put Delhomme up for sale on Craigslist. The ad only lasted for a few hours before being pulled down, but here's what it said:

NFL QUARTERBACK JAKE DELHOMME

FOR SALE BY CONTRACT -- Jake Delhomme, NFL QB, 11 years, 6'2" 215 lbs. Age 34. 15 TD's in 2008, 12 INT's. Loyal. Needs a Loving Home. Serious Offers, Please. Trades Accepted. Contact: (coach) John Fox.

Funny, right? It's fun to make jokes about Jake Delhomme. Only seven sports jobs open themselves up to ongoing ridicule, and -- in a worst-case scenario -- genuine venom. The first two? Coach and general manager. The third? Baseball closer. The fourth? Hockey goalie. The fifth? Kicker. The sixth? Jay Mariotti. The seventh? Quarterback. You cannot afford to lose the confidence of your fans with any of these jobs. The sequence of emotions is the same every time: disappointment, uneasiness, a loss of trust, bitter disappointment, constant fear, a shattering of trust and then, finally, venom.

Delhomme landed in the Venom Stage after his historic collapse against the Cardinals: five interceptions and a performance so magnificently putrid it prompted me to (A) compare it to the dumps police horses take; (B) add the Jake Delhomme "Seriously, I Might Get Beaten Up In My Own Locker Room After This Is Over" Face to the Mount Rushmore of Memorable Faces; and © write, "I sent a text to my buddy Geoff wondering if we were witnessing the worst performance in playoff history … and he threw three more picks AFTER THAT TEXT!" They couldn't bring him back after that … right?

[+] EnlargeWalter G. Arce/Icon SMI

The one good thing about Jake Delhomme's 11 turnovers in Carolina's past 22 possessions: He can't get any worse.

Nope.

They brought him back. Even gave him a three-year extension with $20 million guaranteed.

I assume the thinking went something like this: "Well, he's 50 and 30 as a starter. He brought us to a Super Bowl once. He led us to a 12-4 record last season. His teammates love him. He had ONE bad game. Sure, it was a historically bad game. But it was only ONE bad game. If we went in a different direction, we'd have to roll the dice with someone who failed somewhere else (Byron Leftwich, Daunte Culpepper, etc.), we'd have to roll the dice with Mike Vick, or we'd have to trade a high pick so we can overpay Matt Cassel. Let's stick with Jake. It makes the most sense."

On paper? Yes. Maybe it made sense. But the Panthers underestimated the relationship between a player and his fan base. Fans are like women. We are loyal. We are passionate. We are (occasionally) crazy. We have long memories, and we cannot forgive being hurt. You can break up with a woman once -- and only once -- and they might take you back, but they will put you through **** first. If you cheat on a woman? They might take you back, but they will never forgive you, and eventually, the whole relationship will self-combust.

Extending that analogy to sports, fans can be hurt to the point that there's no going back. I remember when young closer Calvin Schiraldi helped blow the 1986 World Series for Boston. They tried to make him the closer the following year. Didn't take. We were on pins and needles with him. We always expected the worst. Eventually, he had to go. You might remember Brad Lidge reaching the same point with Houston fans a few years ago. That Pujols homer in the 2005 ALCS got the ball rolling. The wheels came off next season. Eventually, he had to go. If a fan base is constantly expecting the worst, that constant feeling of dread transfers to the athlete -- almost like osmosis -- and you need a miracle to reverse the effects.

Which brings us back to Jake. Even after he reached "had to go" status with Panthers fans, the team brought him back anyway. When I questioned this strategy in last Friday's column, e-mails from Carolina readers started pouring in. They all said the same things. Thank you. I'm glad you noticed. Nobody in Carolina can believe they brought him back. We cannot take it any longer. Jake's ensuing home car crash in Week 1 (four interceptions and a fumble) almost seemed preordained.

I watched Sunday's game and can honestly say that I have never -- not ever, in any sport -- heard a player booed by his fans more lustily than Panthers fans booed Jake. In stereo surround, it almost sounded like the fake booing added to WWE telecasts when they're trying to sell a bad guy. Naturally, I assumed that would be all for Jake. Either he would be benched, or the team would take him behind the stadium and shoot him like an injured horse in the 1940s. Nope. He's starting Week 2.

OK, get ready for a curveball. Take a deep breath. Ready?

I actually think this can work.

In that Philly game, Jake tried something that -- as far as I can remember -- we have never seen happen in professional sports before. He didn't do this intentionally; it's just the way things worked out. Dozens of times, we have seen a player lose the trust of his fans, stick around to everyone's chagrin, show false signs of redemption, then kick them in the teeth again. Well, I can't remember a player losing the trust of his fans, then immediately kicking them in the teeth even harder. With those five turnovers, Jake unwittingly sent a message to his entire fan base:

Look, you were afraid of hitting rock bottom with me again? I'LL SHOW YOU ROCK BOTTOM! I'LL SHOW YOU SUFFERING! LET'S GET THIS OVER WITH!

You have to admit, that was an interesting way to play it. A curveball, if you will. With his second straight police-horse dump, Jake cleverly removed all expectations for the 2009 Panthers. Everyone now assumes that Jake irrevocably sucks, which kills their season because Carolina's backup quarterbacks are even worse. They're stuck with Jake, which means they're stuck with 6-10 or 5-11 or maybe even 4-12.

Or so they think.

Because here's what Jake accomplished in three parts. First, any time he plays well from this point forward, Panthers fans will feel like their ATM just accidentally spat out an extra $20. He can't lose. He's playing with (haunted) house money. Second, nobody believes in the 2009 Panthers anymore, making them the first 12-4 team ever eligible for "Nobody Believes In Us" status. And third, the booing and vitriol only rallied the Panthers around him. Did you read their quotes this week? Everyone had his back. Left tackle Jordan Gross was the most passionate, telling USA Today, "I love that guy. He was one of the main reasons I wanted to re-sign here. I love blocking for him and he's our quarterback."

Hmmmmmm. That sentiment tied into a mesmerizing NFL Films clip near the end of last week's game (fast-forward to the 2:39 mark). It plays out like a movie scene, as if they hired George Clooney and Cuba Gooding Jr. to play Jake and teammate Steve Smith. The scene starts with a crestfallen Jake sitting on the bench, staring blankly toward the field and looking like the victim of a home invasion. Smith comes over and sits next to him. Jake waits a second, then turns.

Jake: I apologize, bro.

Smith (trying to lighten the moment): Hey, I know you feel like crap. I mean, you're not a very handsome guy, anyway, so …

Jake: I know.

Smith (still lightening): But … the performer, the quarterback, I never really liked you as a quarterback. But as a person? I love you as a person. You know what I'm saying?

Jake: I appreciate it.

(Then later …)

Smith: You aw'ight, dog.

Jake: I know.

(And Jake puts his head in his hands.)

[+] EnlargeCraig Jones/Getty Images

Once upon a time, Panthers fans loved Jake Delhomme ...

Here's what I learned from that scene. First, I continue to think Steve Smith ranks among the most fascinating professional athletes alive. He's almost Iversonian. Smith seems like the greatest teammate ever, but he's punched out teammates on two separate occasions. He responds like Keyser Soze any time an opponent talks trash to him, but he's also legitimately funny and thoughtful. He's the emotional center of the Panthers, but again, he's punched out teammates on two separate occasions. I don't know what to make of him. I just know that if I hear the words "Steve Smith" and "miked up," I'm there.

Second, there was something dignified about Jake in defeat. Disappointed, unhappy, shellshocked … but not broken. That makes me think he could come back. During that one-minute exchange with Smith, he never said anything like "I suck" or "I don't know what's wrong with me." He seemed more mad at himself than anything. Like a UFC fighter who couldn't figure out why he stupidly got sucked into a reverse choke and had to tap out. And third, if the team's best player honestly didn't believe in Jake Delhomme, if he didn't think Jake could be redeemed … then he wouldn't have sat next to him, much less joked around with him. Well, Smith sat next to Jake. Even nudged over another teammate to do so.

Which makes me wonder if the Delhomme era is really over. The Panthers are getting six points in Atlanta this weekend. In Monday's B.S. Report, Cousin Sal wanted to make Carolina our Underdog Upset Pick of the Week. I thought he was crazy. "Jake Delhomme? You nuts? I'm not backing him!" There were no other good candidates. Sal was passionate enough that he talked me into it. Begrudgingly.

The more I thought about it, it's actually a brilliant pick. Atlanta's stock is high because it trounced a potentially lousy Miami team in Week 1. (Red Flag No. 1.) Carolina's stock is low ONLY because it stunk in Week 1. (Red Flag No. 2.) This game means infinitely more to Carolina than Atlanta. (Red Flag No. 3.) Atlanta is battling secondary problems that Miami's pathetic passing game failed to exploit … but those problems still exist. (Red Flag No. 4.) Nobody -- repeat: nobody -- believes in the Panthers right now. (Red Flag No. 5.) Every gambler alive will be putting the Falcons in a 6-point teaser on Sunday. (Red Flag No. 6.) And you're laughing as you read this paragraph because you can't believe Simmons is dumb enough to back Jake Delhomme. (Red Flag No. 7.)

Just remember, it's not about backing Jake. It's about riding the wave of a wholly unique sports experience: a quarterback who lost the trust of his fans, and instead of trying to win it back, shattered that trust completely. There's nothing left. It's gone. He can never get them back. And normally, this wouldn't be salvageable. But Jake plays in Atlanta this week, then in Dallas, followed by a bye week. He won't have to face Carolina fans again until Week 5. He knows where he stands with them: If he sucks, they will boo him, and more importantly, they expect him to suck.

Well, what happens to a player if he can't hit rock bottom because it already happened? What happens to a player who doesn't have to worry about regaining the trust of his fans because it's already gone? Maybe that player becomes liberated. It's like Seinfeld's famous joke about why old people back out of driveways without ever looking to see if cars are coming. They don't care anymore. They're old. They're backing up, that's that, and we have to get out of their way. Period. I think Jake reached that point. He has nothing to lose because it's already gone. So why wouldn't Jake just go out there, fling the football and have fun?

Hence, my "We Couldn't Get This Sponsored Underdog Lock of the Week:" Panthers 24, Falcons 17. I think Jake Delhomme wins on the road. And if that makes me the last non-Panther to believe in him, so be it. As for the rest of the Week 2 picks …

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Even on the OFF chance that Delhomme "bounces back", what is Carolina's depleted interior going to do about Turner and Gonzalez and the rest of this Falcons offense? Answer: They still lose.

If this was the Falcons of a couple years ago, then I would say they might come out and lay an egg, but there is no chance this Falcons team comes out unprepared and get's taken by suprise.

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