Jake Delhomme is hoping to revive his career in Cleveland. New president Mike Holmgren and embattled coach Eric Mangini are counting on it.
The veteran quarterback leads his new team into the 2010 season Sunday when the Browns play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Delhomme became available after a disastrous last year with the Carolina Panthers. He threw 13 interceptions in the first six games, continuing the hangover effect of Carolina's divisional playoff loss to Arizona in which he was picked off five times. Delhomme was intercepted four times in a Nov. 29 loss to the New York Jets and did not play the rest of the season due to a hand injury.
The Panthers cut Delhomme in March, one year into a five-year extension he signed before the 2009 season, despite owing him $12 million. Holmgren, who joined the Browns in January, quickly signed the 35-year-old Delhomme to a two-year contract as part of an offseason quarterback overhaul in which Derek Anderson was released and Brady Quinn was dealt.
"My own belief is this team needs an aging veteran," Holmgren said at the time of the signing. "They need a guy that is going to grab everybody by the throat and say, 'Follow me through that door.' I don't look at him as an aging veteran, I look at him as the leader I wanted."
The quarterback dilemma was one of many problems for Cleveland in its first year under Mangini, whose team opened 1-11 before winning its final four games. He survived a power struggle that led to the firing of general manager George Kokinis - picked by Mangini - during the season, and players bristled under him throughout the season.
While a more relaxed Mangini appears to have a better relationship with Holmgren, Delhomme also seems a lot happier. The change of scenery, along with being 100 percent healthy, has Delhomme convinced he can return to the form that helped him lead Carolina to a Super Bowl and three playoff appearances in seven years.
"This has been perfect for me," the quarterback said. "I really tried to take the world on my shoulders last year and that didn't do any good. But starting over at a new place has really helped. I keep saying it over and over, but it's been fresh, it's been fun. That's what makes it so enjoyable for me."
Delhomme's top target is wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who shared the team lead with 34 receptions. Running back Jerome Harrison is out to prove his stellar late-season performance was no fluke. He set a team record with 286 rushing yards Dec. 20 and finished with 561 on 106 carries in the final three games.
Peyton Hillis, acquired from Denver in the Quinn deal, also will see time in the backfield as will James Davis, a sixth-round pick in 2009 from Clemson who was limited to two games with a shoulder injury. Joshua Cribbs, who had four TDs on kickoff and punt returns, is expected to be used more on offense.
While Delhomme may accelerate Cleveland's rebuilding, Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris begins his second year hoping to make steady steps with Josh Freeman as his quarterback.
Freeman went 3-6 as a rookie after taking over the starting job midway through last season. Morris expects there to be better continuity after the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski late in the 2009 preseason essentially scuttled Tampa Bay offensively.
"You do what you think is right at the time and then if it's not, you make changes. Those were growing pains," said Morris, who went 3-13 in his first year. "I wanted to make this year better, and I believe that's what we've done."
Freeman - expected to play despite a broken thumb on his non-throwing hand - has a standout target in Kellen Winslow, whose 77 catches nearly doubled his next-highest teammate's total. Carnell Williams should be the featured back after proving his surgically repaired knee could stand up for a full season, rushing for 823 yards in 2009, and second-leading rusher Derrick Ward was released last week.
Defensively, the Buccaneers played better after Morris took over play-calling duties for the final six weeks following the firing of defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy - the third overall pick in the draft - will be a starter to help linebacker Barrett Ruud anchor the defense.
Delhomme is 5-1 at Tampa Bay and 9-2 overall versus the Buccaneers as a starter, but he threw for only 65 yards in Carolina's 28-21 win last year as the Panthers rolled up 267 rushing yards.