Great­est play in Pan­thers his­tory: X-Clown, on the 15th an­niver­sary

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JOUR­DAN RODRIGUE jro­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

One of the great­est plays in Carolina Pan­thers his­tory reads so sim­ply in the game’s of­fi­cial playby-play.

It was Jan. 10, 2004. The Carolina Pan­thers were at St. Louis in the di­vi­sional round of the play­offs.

And the play-by-play reads:

“OT, 15:00. Down: 3. ToGo: 14. Lo­ca­tion: CAR31. Jake Del­homme pass com­plete to Steve Smith for 69 yards, touch­down.”

It was called “XClown.” But it was so much more than that one lit­tle line of text.

That play, the first play of dou­ble over­time at St. Louis, was a sim­ple twist on a “7” route, caught by re­ceiver Steve Smith, that turned into a 69-yard, game-win­ning Pan­thers touch­down. It beat “The Great­est Show on Turf” 29-23 and sent Carolina to the NFC Cham­pi­onship Game, where the Pan­thers beat Dono­van McNabb in Philadel­phia to get to Su­per Bowl XXXVII.

The leg­end of “XClown” lives on 15 years later, re­told of­ten by play­ers and fans.

But no­body re­counts it bet­ter than three peo­ple who were a part of “XClown,” from its de­sign in prac­tice the week be­fore to the call it­self, to the block­ing and the throw.

This is the story of “XClown” from for­mer quar­ter­back Jake Del­homme, for­mer guard Kevin Don­nal­ley and Carolina’s head coach from 2002-2010, John Fox, like you’ve never heard it be­fore.

THE EN­VI­RON­MENT

This was St. Louis at home in a dome in 200304. This was the Rams just after the true era of “The Great­est Show on Turf,” a 12-win team by the time they faced the Pan­thers on Jan. 10, 2004. Mar­shall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were all still on the team and though Rams quar­ter­back great Kurt Warner was hurt, backup Mark Bul­ger threw for 3,845 yards that sea­son.

Carolina in 2003 was sim­ply a team“full of scrap­pers,” Del­homme, him­self still un­proven at the time, says.

John Fox: “In that dome, they were jump­ing our snap count pretty good.”

Kevin Don­nal­ley: “They had won like 14 in a row at home . ... For of­fen­sive linemen, it’s kind of panic. Be­cause when you’re in that dome ... it had been deaf­en­ing at times.”

Jake Del­homme: “It’s still that ‘Great­est Show on Turf’-type regime. (Warner) was in­jured and not play­ing, but Mark Bul­ger was putting up these video-game num­bers with all these re­ceivers.”

Fox: “The real tough matchup was go­ing to be for our de­fense. We had a good de­fense, but I mean, they were the “Great­est Show on Turf” and our of­fense knew that. We saw them and we knew we had to keep pace, and not get caught up in that. It’d be like ask­ing a pro­fes­sional golfer, ‘What’s it like stand­ing over a 3-foot, four-foot putt to win the U.S. Open?’ ... You have a chance to play into the epit­ome of the pro­fes­sion. You can’t do it with­out win­ning some cham­pi­onship games. This is the road to it.”

Del­homme: “We were out there on the road. I think they were the No. 1 seed. And we were just out there let­ting it all hang out.”

THE PLAY

In prepa­ra­tion that week, Del­homme and Fox knew that the Rams would play a lot of “Cover 2” against the Pan­thers (two deep safeties with five play­ers ‘un­der­neath’ ). It was their bread and but­ter of that de­fense at the time. So Fox and of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dan Hen­ning went dig­ging into the Rams’ film to find a play that could beat it, and make the Rams de­fense re­spect Carolina a lit­tle bit.

Del­homme: “It was ac­tu­ally some­thing we had put in for that par­tic­u­lar game. It was not some­thing we had run all year long. It was some­thing we saw the Cincin­nati Ben­gals run against (them) that year. We saw them run it (with) Chad John­son. Car­son Palmer hit Chad John­son on a big play against them, and we knew we were go­ing to get clas­sic Cover 2 type of de­fense, which we knew (Rams de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor) Lovie Smith en­joyed play­ing.”

Fox: “’X-Clown’ looked like a ‘7’, or a cor­ner route, and Steve took it to that, to get the safety lean­ing out­side, and then you bang a post (route), an ‘8’ route.”

Del­homme: “Iron­i­cally, we ran it in prac­tice mul­ti­ple times that week and Steve (Smith) and I never con­nected on it. He’d run up, like, start to run to­ward the cor­ner and then put his foot in the ground and start to cut right across the safety’s face back to the post. In that Cover 2 area, that’s a huge void in the mid­dle. And I would think he was go­ing to take a high ap­proach, so I’d go high. And he’d kind of flat­ten it. Then the next time he would take it re­ally high and I’d flat­ten the throw. So we never hit it, and we were both frut­strated on our end . ... Dan Hen­ning just knew, though. He said, ‘Y’all are gonna con­nect on it in the game, I’m not wor­ried about it.’”

Don­nal­ley: “Coach Fox’s mantra in prac­tice that week was, ‘Worry about us. Keep do­ing what we do. There will be a chance for some­body, some­where to make a big play. When that mo­ment hap­pens, you’ve got to con­vert it. Get it done, and we’ll come out of this thing with a win.’”

Fox: “The fo­cus is on the task at hand. It’s the process, not the re­sults . ... You can’t be think­ing about, ‘What if I miss this, or what if I make this?’ You have to think about ev­ery­thing you’ve done since you were 8 years old, and the me­chan­ics of (it). It’s sim­ple but not easy.”

Hen­ning and Fox were so con­fi­dent in “X-Clown”, they ran it twice against the Rams de­spite not hit­ting it once in prac­tice that week. What made them so sure of them­selves? Del­homme and Smith’s con­nec­tion, for one.

THE QUAR­TER­BACK AND THE RE­CEIVER

Smith played for the Pan­thers for 13 years and will likely be a first-bal­lot Hall of Famer when he’s el­i­gi­ble. He en­joyed a 1,110yard sea­son in 2003, his first with Del­homme at quar­ter­back. In 2014, Smith called Del­homme the best quar­ter­back he’s ever played with — be­cause they ul­ti­mately went to a Su­per Bowl to­gether. Ahead of the fi­nal game of Smith’s 16year ca­reer, he wrote Del­homme’s name on his cleats, among oth­ers. Smith caught 510 passes for 7,304 yards dur­ing his seven years with Del­homme at quar­ter­back.

Del­homme: “That’s just kind of how things were with Steve and I. We both prac­ticed hard, but we played dif­fer­ent. It just seemed like our con­nec­tion was very good, for what­ever rea­son, dur­ing the course of the game.”

Fox: “I’ve al­ways preached ‘it’s play­ers, not plays’ (that bring suc­cess). Steve was kind of the epit­ome of that. He was ex­plo­sive and com­pet­i­tive. I mean, my man came to play ev­ery snap. Whether that was catch­ing passes or block­ing, he was just a fierce com­peti­tor.”

Del­homme: “I could read his body lan­guage ex­tremely well. And he knew ex­actly if I was go­ing to back-shoul­der throw him or if I was go­ing to go down the field and some­times, he knew bet­ter than I did . ... I was very com­fort­able read­ing his head car­riage.

“And what I mean by that is that Steve car­ried his head a cer­tain way. I knew if his head was kind of cocked up, he was about ready to make a break. And if he had a lit­tle kind of a tilt more down, he was run­ning. He wasn’t stop­ping.”

Don­nal­ley: “What re­ally made (Steve Smith) great was ob­vi­ously his God-given abil­ity, but also his con­stant com­pet­i­tive edge. He might not have been his best, or his fastest that last play of the game. But he was go­ing to be able to dial up more than what you ever had left in your tank.”

‘X-CLOWN,’ AND A WALKOFF WIN

The Rams fought back from a nine-point deficit cour­tesy of a Faulk touch­down with 2:39 left in the fourth quar­ter, and kicker Jeff Wilkins hit a 33-yard field goal as time ex­pired to tie the game at 23. No­body scored in the 15 min­utes of the first over­time — both teams’ kick­ers missed field goals, and Bul­ger was in­ter­cepted by Ricky Man­ning with 1:12 left. The Pan­thers had the ball as dou­bleover­time be­gan, and it was third down and 14.

The call came in: “134— X—Clown.”

Del­homme: “Well, we had con­nected on (the same play) ear­lier in the game (on third and long). And it was the ex­act same look, same cov­er­age. So my mind­set was, ‘I’m go­ing to put it ex­actly where this void in the de­fense is. Right in the mid­dle, be­tween the lineback­ers and the safeties. And I’m go­ing to be able to throw it early with air, and let him get to it, make an ad­just­ment if it was a lit­tle off.”

Fox: “I’d be ly­ing to you if I thought it was go­ing to be a slam-dunk touch­down. The key for me at that point in the game was pro­tec­tion, be­cause they were pres­sur­ing us pretty well. (Del­homme had been sacked on the pre­vi­ous play, in the first over­time pe­riod).

“And they had their ears back be­cause of the down and dis­tance. Re­ally, what I was look­ing for is whether a re­ceiver would be open, but for me it was whether we were go­ing to get the ball off. I was more con­cerned with the pro­tec­tion, be­cause this is a slower-de­vel­op­ing play . ... I re­mem­ber we were go­ing left to right on the field. I can see it like it was yes­ter­day.”

Del­homme: “We’d played, what, 75 min­utes of foot­ball. This game should’ve been over a long time ago. Why haven’t we just put this team away? You’re so not think­ing at that point. You’re just out there, they’re call­ing plays and you’re run­ning plays.”

Don­nal­ley: “They were pre­pared for a deep pass. They only I think ended up rush­ing three guys. For me, be­ing in that hud­dle and we called that play, I’m think­ing, ‘Oh, gosh. Third and long. They could pos­si­bly bring the house.’

“And as the play un­folded, we get to the line of scrim­mage and there’s re­ally no one over me. So I’m think­ing about who I can help. I go out and help (left tackle) Jor­dan Gross, but Jor­dan’s block­ing his man just fine. I’m look­ing for work, look­ing around try­ing to find some­one to block. And that gave me the chance to kind of watch this play un­fold.”

Del­homme: “I can see (Smith) make his stem to the cor­ner, and then he puts his foot in the ground. I know which an­gle he’s go­ing to come back in and hop­ing it’s 45 de­grees. That’s kind of where I let it go. You don’t want to line-drive it, I kind of just put some air on it early to let him ad­just if there was any ad­just­ment needed.

“Lis­ten, you can be as sound as you want. But good ex­e­cu­tion some­times can score points. We had very good ex­e­cu­tion all around. One, with the pro­tec­tion. Two, with the play-fake to be able to pull the lineback­ers ever so slightly up a lit­tle bit. And then ob­vi­ously, to throw it and catch it, and run after the catch.”

Smith’s “X-Clown” route spun safety Ja­son Se­horn around just enough to breeze past him, tak­ing Del­homme’s pass 69 yards to the end zone — on the first snap of dou­ble-over­time. His team­mates sprinted to the end zone to cel­e­brate.

Fox: “It was ironic, it was ac­tu­ally Ja­son Se­horn, who I had coached in New York prior to be­com­ing the head coach at Carolina. And he was play­ing free safety at that point. And that’s who Steve beat on that play . ... Ba­si­cally a walk-off touch­down win.”

Del­homme: “I think about the pure ex­cite­ment of run­ning down the field — after look­ing to see if there was any type of flag — and then just pan­de­mo­nium.”

Don­nal­ley: “I look up, and I just see Steve streak­ing down the field. And then that bomb dropped right in there, per­fectly. Such a sense of re­lief. And then pure joy.”

Del­homme: “Why did we call it ‘X-Clown?’ We tagged it an in­di­vid­ual route, that was the ‘clown’ route . ...

“In all hon­esty, it was to make the safety look like a clown.” Jour­dan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @Jour­danRo­drigue

AP

Pan­thers wide re­ceiver Steve Smith cel­e­brates while scor­ing on a touch­down pass from QB Jake Del­homme on the first play of the sec­ond over­time against the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Di­vi­sional play­offs in Jan­uary 2004 in St. Louis.

TOM GANNAM AP

Quar­ter­back Jack Del­homme said the Pan­thers had never run X-Clown, but the team be­lieved it could be used to ex­ploit the St. Louis Rams’ Cover 2 de­fense.

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