Carolina had the same intentions last year but found itself at 1-7 before the leaves were off the trees. A Charlotte reporter told Fox that local fans thought the Panthers might be the worst team in football. And that week, against a San Francisco squad that was also 1-7, Carolina looked like it, falling behind 17-3 in the first half. "At halftime that day," Fox said, "I thought, Maybe that guy's right."
Delhomme remembers thinking, We've gone from the Super Bowl to maybe not winning another game the rest of the year. But Henning shifted to more of a passing game, putting the season in the hands of Delhomme, who threw for 17 touchdowns--three in the second half of a 37-27 win over the Niners--and four interceptions the rest of the way. The Panthers won six of their last eight but missed the playoffs by losing to the Saints the final week of the season.
Carolina has had to face heartrending challenges this year. Linebacker Mark Fields, who missed the 2003 season with Hodgkin's disease, is fighting a recurrence and will miss another season. Assistant coach and former linebacker Sam Mills, the emotional pillar of the team, died of intestinal cancer on April 18. "I think what Sam meant to us will still be with every player," general manager Marty Hurney says. "Do everything the right way. Overcome adversity. It's what he did every day, even when he was sick."
Delhomme has tried to embrace Mills's don't-waste-a-day attitude and has always shared the late linebacker's competitive spirit. On Saturday afternoon Delhomme sat glued to a TV in the ballroom reserved for the Panthers' brunch. The Little League World Series was on, featuring Lafayette, a team from his native Louisiana, against a squad from Maine. "Let's get something going here!" Delhomme said, exhorting his boys before they batted in the sixth. Then he had to leave for a quarterbacks meeting.
As fate would have it, Lafayette rallied for three in the bottom of the sixth to win. That night, after his own game, Delhomme, down from losing and throwing those two interceptions, brightened when told of the comeback. "I heard about it," he said. "That's something. Maybe that's a good sign for this Southern boy. We could use some good luck." He shouldn't worry too much: Good teams make their own luck.