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Quarterback Jake Delhomme set for new start with Cleveland Browns

Resting on the top shelf of Jake Delhomme's locker are a ratty set of shoulder pads, hand-me-downs from New Orleans teammate Billy Joe Tolliver.

Delhomme brought the well-worn equipment with him to Cleveland after seven seasons in Carolina. He wears them during training camp because they're much lighter than new ones, and any break from the summer's heat helps.

Veteran move. Delhomme laughs.

"When I'm done, I'm going to give them to Colt," Delhomme said Wednesday, referring to Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy. "They don't make 'em like that anymore."

The same could be said of Delhomme.

Like his used shoulder protection, the 35-year-old quarterback has seen better days but can still get the job done.

On Sunday in Tampa Bay, he'll begin a new chapter — and maybe the final one — of an NFL career that peaked with a Super Bowl trip and bottomed out last season amid a flurry interceptions with the Panthers, who waived Delhomme when it ended.

He's got a fresh start, and so far it has gone better than Delhomme or the Browns could have imagined.

"It has gone somewhat smoothly," he said before practice, as if almost surprised.

It's been better than that.

Delhomme played exceptionally well during the preseason. So well, in fact, that skeptical Browns fans, who wondered what the team's new front office was doing when it signed Delhomme to a 2-year deal, have become cautiously optimistic that the franchise's dark era is history.

Badly needing a proven leader at QB, Delhomme has filled that role, and in essence, taken control of the Browns. His teammates selected him a captain for the upcoming season, which kicks off against the Buccaneers, a team Delhomme is 9-2 against as a starter.

"That's always an honor," Delhomme said of his selection as an offensive captain along with tackle Joe Thomas. "To be elected captain means more to me than almost anything else because it's voted on by the people who know you best. It's special."

Even more so because he was chosen before playing his first game in an orange helmet. But since the day he arrived, Delhomme has exuded confidence and commitment. Excited by the opportunity to jump-start both his career and the Browns, he has blended in effortlessly.

It's as if he and the Browns were made for each other.

A perfect fit.

"It's a fresh start for me," Delhomme said for the umpteenth time. "It's new. It's exciting. I enjoy the guys. I enjoy the locker room. I enjoy coming to work. This atmosphere doesn't happen at all places like this."

He got kicked out of his last place.

After a horrid 2009, the Panthers passed on Delhomme. Shaken by a six-turnover performance against Arizona in the 2008 playoffs, Delhomme threw a career-high 18 interceptions last season. Whenever he made a mistake, he tried too hard to make up for it and made another one. His bad football snowballed.

Looking back, Delhomme, who has thrown 23 interceptions in his last 12 games, believes he knows what he did wrong and won't do it again.

"I'm just going to go out there and have fun," he said.

Delhomme could have re-signed with the home-state Saints — his first pro team — to back up Drew Brees. But he still wanted to play, and Cleveland provided him with a chance to step into the starting lineup right away. It's up to him how long he stays.

Before signing with the Browns, Delhomme did some investigative work. He had heard stories about coach Eric Mangini being overly demanding and difficult. Delhomme didn't want to have any regrets if things didn't work out in Cleveland. The opposite has been true so far.

"I came here with an open mind," he said. "I asked a lot of questions. I didn't want to have my behind kissed. I wanted to come to a place where I could be a part of helping turn something around."

Mangini grinned when told Delhomme checked up on him.

"I did my background on Jake as well and everything that people said about him was positive," he said. "You couldn't find a disparaging word."

Hardworking and humble. Positive and fearless. The praise for Delhomme is both effusive and ubiquitous. It's hard to find anyone to say anything bad about him.

"I can't," said Thomas. "He's a natural leader. He's a great guy and a great quarterback. He's got great command of the huddle. He's not afraid to stand up and say something if a guy is not in the right spot or not doing something the right way."

Delhomme seems to have learned from last year's failures. During the exhibition season, he completed 79 percent (38 of 48) of his passes, threw 2 TDs, no interceptions and had a 110.5 rating. The Browns don't expect those numbers to continue, but they are counting on Delhomme to avoid turnovers.

In five victories last season, Cleveland completed just 33 passes — combined.

Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn were on the field, but it was if the Browns played without a quarterback.

They've got one now.

Just thinking about Sunday tingles his spine with excitement. He has savored openers since his rookie season and knows this one has more meaning.

"It's always special because you don't know if it's going to be your last season," he said. "That's how I've approached the past couple years. Emotions do fly, there's just something about it, being a part of an NFL team. It's great. It's opening day."

A new start.