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CLEVELAND — When quarterback Jake Delhomme stepped inside Cleveland's huddle at practice this week and barked out a play, it was as if he had never left.
The Browns had come full circle in 2010.
“It was like friends reuniting,” left tackle Joe Thomas said.
The Carolina Panthers will feel the same way Sunday. They still consider Delhomme one of their own.
Waived by Carolina after seven seasons, Delhomme will go against his former team for the first time as the Browns (3-7), needing a victory after consecutive heartbreaking losses, host the Panthers (1-9), who may need a miraculous finish to save coach John Fox's job.
This will be Delhomme's first start since Sept. 12. It has taken the 35-year-old quarterback the better part of two months to recover from a high ankle sprain he suffered in the opener at Tampa Bay, then reinjured four weeks later when he replaced Seneca Wallace, who went down with the same dreaded injury.
Now Delhomme is starting again, but only because impressive rookie Colt McCoy suffered a — you guessed it — high ankle sprain and is out indefinitely.
“We might be cursed,” Wallace said, half-joking.
Cleveland's opening-week lineup: Delhomme as the starter, Wallace as his backup, and McCoy as the inactive understudy is again in place.
The Browns' QB carousel has made a full, albeit unorthodox, rotation.
Stepping way out of character, Cleveland coach Eric Mangini did not wait until game time before making Delhomme his starter. Mangini typically holds off as long as possible before announcing his starter. It's his way of keeping the opposition off balance and not allowing them to prepare for a quarterback they may not know very well.
That wasn't going to work this week. Delhomme is part of the Panthers' extended family.
“Jake was one of my best friends when he was here as a Panther,” said Carolina tackle Jordan Gross. “He just did so many things right, practiced hard. He answered so many questions and played well. I wish he was still here with me, selfishly, just because of the friendship we had. But it's different now and he's up there doing well. It's good for him.”
Delhomme cried when he left Carolina, a breakup that ended a seven-year relationship that included three playoff appearances and a Super Bowl trip.
The Panthers didn't want it to end the way it did, but Delhomme's performance in 2009 — a career-high 18 interceptions, a 59.4 QB rating, incessant booing at home games — left them little choice but to part ways with the popular leader.
In March, Delhomme, whose final season with Carolina ended after 11 games because of a finger injury, believed he was only being demoted behind Matt Moore when Fox called and told him his services were no longer needed.
“For me, it was one of the hardest conversations I've ever had in my life,” Fox said on a conference call with Cleveland reporters. “He won a lot of football games here. We experienced a lot of great things together. He's as fine a player, both personally and professionally, that I've ever been associated with.”
It would be understandable if Delhomme wanted revenge. You could imagine him wanting to get some payback on the Panthers for showing him the door. But as anyone who has spent any time with Delhomme will attest, it's not in him to hold a grudge.
Delhomme doesn't just take the high road, he lives on it.
“Things had to end in Charlotte and I mean that in the most respectful way,” he said.