Last season, when he was still an obscure backup quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, Jake Delhomme saw something special in the Carolina Panthers. He noticed that they never stopped fighting, even while in the throes of an eight-game losing streak, and he decided that if he ever had a chance to play for a team like that, he'd jump at it. The opportunity came last March when Delhomme, an unrestricted free agent, signed a two-year, $4 million contract with Carolina—and there couldn't have been a better fit. Given the chance to play, Delhomme has shown that he never stops fighting, either.
Last Saturday, Delhomme led the Panthers to a 29-23 double-overtime divisional playoff victory over the St. Louis Rams, hooking up with speedy wideout Steve Smith on a 69-yard touchdown pass to win the game. Facing third-and-14, Carolina had called X-Clown, a play added to the game plan last week after coaches viewed film of the Rams' base cover-two defense, which allowed Smith to get off the line without being bumped and into the secondary quickly. Delhomme hit Smith in stride on a seam route, and Smith raced past safety Jason Sehorn.
A former Louisiana-Lafayette standout who had thrown only 86 passes with New Orleans, Delhomme has quickly developed a reputation for producing late-game heroics. He engineered seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or in overtime, tops among NFL quarterbacks. Small wonder that the Panthers tied league records for most wins by three points or less (seven) and most overtime victories (three). "We've been in so many close games that we just believe we're going to win," says Delhomme, whose next test comes in Philadelphia on Sunday against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. "If we're in the same type of ball game next week, we truly believe that, some kind of way, we're going to get it done."
It's difficult to describe the magic of Delhomme, a lanky 6'2" Cajun from Breaux Bridge, La. He began the season as the backup to Rodney Peete and took over at halftime of he opener, but he didn't put up eye-popping overall numbers for he season—a 59.2 completion percentage, 3,219 passing yards, 9 touchdowns and 16 intercepions. Still, he helped Carolina, 1-15 two years ago and then 7-9 in coach John Fox's first season, finish 11-5 and win the NFC South.
"People criticize Jake because he's not throwing for 300 yards or our touchdowns every game, but hat's not his job," says Panthers Defensive tackle Brentson Buckler. "His role is to move our offense efficiently and give us a chance to win. That's what he's done. I've always said that as long as there's time on the clock and he has that light in his eyes, he's going to come through for us."
St. Louis apparently doesn't have the same confidence in its quarterback, Marc Bulger, who was intercepted three times on Saturday. Down three points with one timeout and 37 seconds left in regulation, the Rams had first-and-10 at the Carolina 15. Instead of taking a couple of shots at a touchdown, normally aggressive St. Louis coach Mike Martz let the clock run down to three seconds and settled for a game-tying 33-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins. "I felt that we would win the game if we got into overtime," Martz explained later.
Instead he left the door open for Delhomme, who has come quite a distance since going undrafted in 1997. The Saints signed him that June, waived him two months later and re-signed him to the practice squad in November. He even rode the bench, behind Kurt Warner, during the first of his two stints in NFL Europe, with the Amsterdam Admirals in '98. He spent the next five seasons in New Orleans, mostly as the inactive third quarterback on game day.
Delhomme had started two games in the NFL when the Panthers showed interest in him. "When I first met Coach Fox," says Delhomme, "he told me he was only looking for somebody to manage the game. He said we weren't going to put up all these numbers, but if his quarterback played smart and did the right things, that would be good enough. That fit into my sense of what I do well. I can manage the game, and when it's my turn to make a play in the passing game, I can do that too."
The Panthers were trailing the Jacksonville Jaguars 17-0 when Delhomme replaced Peete on Sept. 7 After entering the huddle and telling his teammates to get their "f———heads up," he led them to a 24-23 upset that was capped by a fourth-down, 12-yard touchdown pass to wideout Ricky Proehl. Delhomme was equally impressive in Carolina's 27-24 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 9, when Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis was sidelined with a sore ankle and the Panthers blew a 20-7 fourth-quarter lead. Delhomme threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-winning, five-yard pass to Smith with 1:06 to go.
Fox says that performance demonstrated to Delhomme "that we don't have to be good for four quarters—we just have to be good enough to win." That essentially describes Carolina's play in last Saturday's game, the fifth-longest playoff game in NFL history. The Panthers not only squandered an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter but also had a 40-yard field goal by John Kasay in the first overtime nullified by a delay-of-game penalty.