CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jake Delhomme walked into the interview room with red eyes and sunglasses in his hand, joking that his allergies were bad.
He started crying before he could get a word out.
Acknowledging he was "blindsided" by his release, Delhomme on Friday vowed his career wasn't over in an emotional day that marked the end of an era and left his former bosses in tears, too.
"Six of my seven years playing here have been outstanding. It's been a great run," Delhomme said in between sniffles. "I'm leaving with no animosity whatsoever."
A few hours earlier, general manager Marty Hurney choked up while calling it the toughest decision he's ever made. Coach John Fox welled up with tears while pleading with fans to remember the good moments.
It was something hardly anyone could've anticipated a year earlier, when the Panthers gave the only quarterback to lead the franchise to the Super Bowl a lucrative contract extension. But after one miserable season, the 35-year-old Delhomme was sent packing despite still being owed more than $12.5 million in guaranteed money.
The reason to go with upstart Matt Moore as the starter came down to this: a career-high 18 interceptions in 2009, and 23 in Delhomme's final 12 games.
"I was blindsided, I will say that," Delhomme said. "I think the main reason was I think everybody knows the contract and monetarily those things that went along with it.
"When I got a call yesterday that I needed to call Foxy I thought it was more so that, 'We're going with Matt and you're going to be the backup.' ... But they wanted to go in another direction. It's probably for the best."
And just like that the Louisiana native who toiled as a backup in NFL Europe before bursting onto the scene in Carolina was out of work. After a 58-40 record as a starter over seven seasons, a stunning one-year decline ended his time in Charlotte.
But Delhomme said he's "not ready to go home and play with the horses just yet," and said his agent had already started talking to teams.
"He's done some great things for this team. Two (NFC) championship games, a Super Bowl, all those comeback victories," Fox said. "I'm not sure I've had any more respect for an NFL football player than Jake Delhomme."
None of those moves, however, resonated around these parts like releasing Delhomme.
"I wear my heart on my sleeve and this is me," Delhomme said, tears flowing. "And the reason it's emotional and you walk in here and all the faces and the relationships you have with guys through the good and the bad. That's what you're going to miss. ... We did some good things here."
Delhomme led Carolina to the 2003 Super Bowl, the 2005 NFC championship, made the Pro Bowl, recovered from reconstructive elbow surgery in 2007 and holds nearly every franchise passing record.
But Delhomme began a quick demise in the 2008 playoffs. After helping Carolina to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title, Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble in an ugly 38-13 home loss to Arizona in the NFC divisional playoffs.
Undeterred, the Panthers gave Delhomme a contract extension last spring and brought in no legitimate competition in training camp. Then Delhomme threw four more interceptions and lost a fumble in Carolina's Week 1 loss to Philadelphia.
It was then that his confidence waned.
"When I play I try to sling it around. I wasn't doing that last year," he said. "I was trying not to make the mistake. I don't play that way."
It only got worse, and Carolina was 4-7 when Delhomme broke a finger on his throwing hand. Moore relieved him and threw eight touchdown passes and two interceptions as the Panthers won four of their last five games to finish 8-8.
The Panthers on Wednesday gave the 25-year-old Moore the highest restricted free-agent tender of $3.043 million for one season. The next day, Delhomme was let go instead of having him return as a backup.
"I was taught a long time ago that you have to make the right decision at that time for your football team," Hurney said. "And we just came to the decision that it was time. I think when you come to that decision, that's when you make it."
Fox wouldn't say if they'll pursue another veteran quarterback to add depth. The Panthers will also likely have an entirely new defensive line after releasing Lewis and Kemoeatu, who was recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon.
Hurney said Dan Connor and James Anderson would likely compete for Diggs' old starting job.
"Sometimes you have to force yourself to give those guys that opportunity and that experience," Hurney said. "We wouldn't do these things without those players there."
Delhomme said he couldn't make eye contact with several longtime employees while sitting on the podium Friday because he would break down. The horse owner also vowed his heart will always be with the first franchise that gave him a chance to start.
"My horse racing silks have a Panther blue and black football. I'm not changing my silks," Delhomme said. "I'm always going to be a Carolina Cajun."