Jake Delhomme in for ailing Colt McCoy

BEREA, Ohio -- Jake Delhomme has spent much of his first season with Cleveland in a mentor's role, dispensing sound advice to Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy.

This week, he handed down his walking boot.

"You scratch your head," Delhomme said Wednesday about the rash of QB injuries. "It's kind of crazy. We're passing our boots in the quarterback room."

The dreaded high ankle sprain has become as contagious as a common cold in Cleveland.

"It's like a disease," cracked Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. "I don't want to catch it."

With McCoy sidelined this week and possibly for several more with a sprained left ankle, Delhomme, who has played in just two games because of a similar ankle ailment, will start Sunday as the Browns (3-7) host his former team, the Carolina Panthers (1-9).

In a season of redemptive games for Cleveland, it's Delhomme's turn to face old friends.

Delhomme hasn't started since the opener on Sept. 12, when he rolled his right ankle in the first half against Tampa Bay. The 35-year-old hasn't played since Oct. 10, when he came off the bench to replace Seneca Wallace, whose high ankle sprain came against Atlanta.

Delhomme has been inactive on eight other Sundays, forced to stand on the sideline in a baseball cap to cheer and coach his teammates.

Like everything else he does, Delhomme handled the down time with class. He grew close to McCoy, teaching the youngster some nuances of the NFL's most demanding position. Delhomme never complained, never stopped working, never put himself about the team.

But he missed playing -- badly. It's no wonder he almost sprinted across the locker room to speak with reporters before practice.

"The last couple of weeks I've had some pep in my step," Delhomme said. "It's very unfortunate the way things have played out. You almost kind of pinch yourself and say, 'Is this a dream?' with all the quarterbacks kind of having some ankle issues. It's just what we have to deal with."

Browns coach Eric Mangini did not officially pronounce Delhomme his starter, but in a rare admission for one of the league's most tightlipped coaches, Mangini did confirm that McCoy suffered the same injury that sidelined both Delhomme and Wallace for more than one month.

"It's different than the ones they [Delhomme and Wallace] had, but it's in that same category," said Mangini, who did not name McCoy as one of the players he expected to practice this week.

Mangini remains optimistic McCoy won't be out as long as his other two QBs, but with the way this season has gone, there's no telling what could happen.

"It's been strange," Thomas said.

Delhomme believes McCoy will return sooner than he did.

"He's young and hardheaded," Delhomme said, grinning.

He appreciates the irony of returning in time to play against the Panthers, who waived Delhomme in March following his worst season as a starter. The parting was amicable, yet painful. Delhomme spent seven years with the Panthers, leading them to their one and only Super Bowl.

His memories of his days in Carolina blue are fond, and it's just not in his nature to hold a grudge.

Vengeance? Not this time.

"When I left New Orleans for Carolina in 2003, I couldn't wait for that first game against New Orleans," he said. "I wasn't given a chance to play down there. As any competitor, you want to have that 'I'll show you' attitude. This is totally different.

"We had a good run down there and I enjoyed every single minute. Last year it was difficult. But sometimes in relationships there's breakups -- ours needed to happen between myself and the Panthers."

With McCoy out, Mangini's other option was to go back to Wallace, who made four straight starts before getting hurt and losing his job.

Mangini said he favored Delhomme because of the QB's familiarity with Carolina.

Wallace was playing well when he went down. He has every right to be upset about Mangini's choice, but he's not campaigning or complaining.

"It's coach's decision," he said. "He's calling the shots."

Delhomme said he, Wallace and McCoy made a pact weeks ago that they would abide by Mangini's word. It's been an awkward season, and the trio didn't want to make it any worse.

"We said whatever combination of three plays and whatever order you are on game day, that's the way it's going to be," Delhomme said. "We're all professionals. I've been around a while and Seneca's been around awhile and Colt is the new guy, but when you have a room that has harmony, it makes things better. It makes everybody's job better."

Delhomme's back in the starter's role, where he began the season and where he hopes to finish it. He came into his 13th year as a pro revitalized and ready to put distance between himself and a horrific 2009. He looked like a new man in training camp and preseason.

The injury was a setback, but now that he's fully healed, Delhomme wants to prove he can still win.

It's another chance.

"I just want to go out and help us win," he said. "That's the honest-to-God's truth."

Thomas believes every word.

"I expect that same Jake to be back out here," Thomas said, "winning over hearts and minds."