One of the greatest plays in Carolina Panthers history reads so simply in the game’s official play-by-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.”
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It was called “X-Clown.” 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 “X-Clown” lives on 15 years later, retold often by players and fans.
But nobody recounts it better than three people who were a part of “X-Clown,” from its design in practice the week before to the call itself, to the blocking and the throw.
This is the story of “X-Clown” 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.
This was St. Louis at home in a dome in 2003-04. 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.”
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 1,110-yard 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 16-year 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 double-overtime 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.”