As if this season's wealth of soul-numbing last minute defeats hasn't been dramatic enough, the Football Gods decided to play one more joke on Browns Nation yesterday.
Marking his return to the starting lineup after a two and a half month absence – ironically enough against his former team – Jake Delhomme delivered the kind of performance that was equal parts exhilarating and completely exhausting.
And unless you have a wickedly cruel sense of humor, one that was not funny in the slightest.
As we're beginning to realize after three performances by Delhomme in 2010, you have to take the good with the bad.
As it relates to yesterday's game, Delhomme himself seemed to unwittingly echo these sentiments.
"We started off fast, but we hit a little wall late in the second quarter and certainly in the third."
In fact, the Browns' entire offense seemed to live and die based on Delhomme's performance. Despite Peyton Hillis' herculean performance, the Browns' offense seemed to reflect the highs and lows of Delhomme's performance.
In what proved to be a quintessential Delhomme performance – meaning plenty of laughter and tears were shed throughout the afternoon - the veteran QB started out hot, completing his first five passes on the Browns' first offensive possession.
On this opening drive, Delhomme's first five completions were the result of quick reads. Delhomme locked onto his target early and threw decisive passes. However, once the Browns entered the red zone, the fatal flaw in Delhomme's game was revealed.
On a second down pass play, Delhomme's primary option was covered, which forced the veteran QB to wheel outside. Chaos ensued as Delhomme couldn't outrun the Panther defenders and then nearly threw a costly interception. This scene simply foreshadowed later events in the game, as Delhomme was terrific when he made a quick decision with the ball and destructive when a play broke down.
On the Browns' next offensive possession, Delhomme threw four straight incompletions, which included a badly overthrown pass to Ben Watson, a miscommunication with Mohammed Massaquoi and a drop by Lawrence Vickers. However, Delhomme and the offense were spared of this inconsistency thanks to a critical Panther roughing the passer penalty.
Throughout the rest of the first half, Delhomme was limited to quick slant routes and a variety of swing passes. When the Browns again took possession after Evan Moore's fumble, Delhomme again flashed his critical weakness by nearly throwing another interception on a designed rollout.
However, the essential give and take nature of Delhomme's game was shown on the next few downs, as he hung in the pocket to connect with Brian Robiskie, followed by a quick strike to Massaquoi for a first down.
With 40 seconds to play in the first half, those familiar feelings first discovered in Tampa Bay began to linger. Channeling his propensity for never giving up on a play and/or making critical mistakes at the most inopportune times, Delhomme waited for a screen to develop and was stripped of the ball.
As Delhomme explained, the chance to make a play outweighed the risks involved given the situation.
"On a screen, they came through, and I was just trying to hold it for a second to get it to Peyton."
Luckily for Delhomme, John St. Clair was pushed far enough into the backfield to recover the fumble.
Of course, the damage had already been done. Arriving with the fumble was that sinister feeling of dread that revealed itself in the third quarter.
Almost on cue, Delhomme's first second half pass was intercepted by Carolina's Jon Beason. Delhomme was looking for Robiskie on another crossing route, but never saw Beason drift into his main passing lane.
Delhomme admitted as much.
"The next series, the first play, I did not see Jon Beason. I'll tell you that right now. We had a play action fake on the weak side to try and get a two-man route. I was concentrating on the safety and the linebacker. I faked and both of them bit. I went to throw and there was Beason."
Delhomme's next pass was an even worse mistake, as he drifted to the right side of the pocket and threw a delayed sideline out to Massaquoi. The telegraphed pass was easily picked off by Carolina's Captain Munnerlyn and returned for a touchdown. Both in terms of decision making and arm strength, the throw was easily the worst of Delhomme's afternoon.
As Delhomme stated, the throw was a mistake.
"I was very disappointed on the next play. I tried to force it too much to Mo. It wasn't good."
However, more significantly, the throw seemed to solidify the limitations of Delhomme as a starting QB option. Delhomme's arm strength simply doesn't match up with his confidence. In this sense, Delhomme thought he could squeeze a pass into a dangerously tight area. Not helping matters was the fact that Delhomme was pushed out of the pocket and limited by his lack of mobility.
After Delhomme's early third quarter meltdown, Brian Daboll limited the offense to a series of short, safe routes, mixed with a heavy dose of running by Peyton Hillis. Delhomme survived this stretch without making a critical mistake, although he again tried to squeeze a downfield pass to a double-covered Evan Moore.
However, the law of averages – at least when it's applied to Delhomme – again returned as the Browns found themselves trailing by two points late in the fourth quarter. Delhomme made an incredible play, scrambling away from pressure and flipping a shovel pass to Hillis. This was followed by a series of quick strikes and dump off passes – which gained enough yardage to put the Browns in field goal position.
In the end, the Browns survived – thanks in large part to Carolina's John Kasay and some tricky late afternoon winds. However, as the look on head coach Eric Mangini's face suggested after Kasay's miss, the Browns should have never been put in a position to lose yesterday.
As for Delhomme, he was equally responsible for the Browns' success and near failure.
When Delhomme was on, the Browns' offense was dangerous. The balance the Browns displayed on their first four offensive possessions nearly led to four touchdowns. However, when Delhomme's evil doppleganger emerged, the entire balance of the game shifted away from the Browns.
And somewhere in the football heavens, a little fun was had at our expense.