HOUSTON -- His eyes were wider during an early-week afternoon press conference than some of the winding two-lane blacktop roads that lazily snake their way into his laid-back hometown of Breaux Bridge, La.
Do not mistake the pie-eyed gaze of Jake Delhomme, though, for the kind of paralyzing awe that often overwhelms a player on his first Super Bowl trip.
"Sometimes when he's in the huddle, and starts jabbering away with that (Cajun) accent of his that you can barely understand, his eyes get big like that," said Carolina center Jeff Mitchell of the Panthers starting quarterback. "But it is just Jake being excited, that's all. There's no fear factor with the guy. He's got a lot of (guts) in his pants and not much of a lump in his throat."
And, clearly, Delhomme has a touch of larceny in his heart, as well.
Several notches below anonymous just five months ago, Delhomme has emerged as the Panthers consummate cat burglar, the mastermind who must deliver if Carolina is to steal off with a Super Bowl victory over the favored and more experienced New England Patriots. It is a starring role, he will tell you in a self-deprecating lingo he has recently referred to as "mumble-jumble," he clearly relishes.
Actually, relish is hardly the condiment of choice for a guy with hot sauce on his mind and an even hotter hand over the second half of the season. Teammates liken him, given his Cajun heritage, to Bobby Boucher, the Adam Sandler character in the '98 movie "The Waterboy." Not a bad choice, except that there is nothing simple-minded about the sharp-witted Delhomme, and the only water he is toting onto the field is the icy stuff that has been coursing through his veins in the playoffs.
He is another in the lengthy lineage of Louisiana-bred passers who have made their way into the NFL. But names like those of Terry Bradshaw, Joe Ferguson, Bert Jones and, of course, Peyton Manning, among others, clearly have more profile. All he wants to do, acknowledged the likeable and candid-to-a-fault Delhomme, is carve his own niche. The fact he is here gives him, he grudgingly allowed, a pretty good start at whittlin' out a cranny of his own.
"Sure, I'm proud of what I've accomplished, what this team has accomplished, to this point," Delhomme said. "But there's still another step to take. Yeah, sometimes you have to pinch yourself to believe you're actually here. But only get to go back and enjoy the dream if you're the one still standing on Sunday night."
The survivalist allegories offered by Delhomme, whose personal toughness reflects the gritty approach that Panthers coach John Fox hammers home almost daily with parables and platitudes, are certainly appropriate.
At age 29, and with 18 of his combined 20 regular and postseason starts having come since he replaced journeyman Rodney Peete as the starter in the second game of the year, Delhomme is the consummate late-bloomer. That he didn't blossom much during his six seasons with the New Orleans Saints -- a team that, ironically, sports a fleur de lis on the side of its helmets -- is principally a function of playing time.
Or, more aptly, the good folks of Breaux Bridge insist, the lack thereof.
"I always felt like he was the people's choice and, you know, there was quite a stir among the fans when they let him leave (in free agency)," said Delhomme's uncle, Jack Dale Delhomme, the honorable mayor of Breaux Bridge, a city of roughly 7,600, located just off U.S. Route 10 and about 3½ hours East of Houston. "But around here, the folks just feel like everything works out for a reason, and that's the case for Jake. We're getting a lot of attention around here right now and there's one man responsible for it."
The man most responsible for bringing Delhomme to Carolina, and for signing him to a modest, two-year, $4 million deal last spring as an unrestricted free agent, is Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. For reasons not even he fully understands, Hurney began to plot the acquisition of Delhomme more than a year ago. His sparse playing time aside, there was something about Delhomme that Hurney and the Panthers scouts liked a lot.
On those fleeting occasions in which he played -- and they were few, including two stints in the NFL Europe League, where Delhomme was once the backup to Kurt Warner -- the former Louisiana-Lafayette star stirred things up as if he were mixing a big vat of gumbo. Neither particularly athletic, nor blessed with superior arm strength, there still was more than a hint of passion for the game.
The Saints made a lukewarm attempt to retain Delhomme in the offseason but could not promise him the starting job. Dallas coach Bill Parcells, a big Delhomme booster, flirted with the notion of signing him, then backed off. In the end, the Panthers were really the only team seriously pursuing him.
And now, in large part because of his contributions, they are chasing a Super Bowl title.
That the humble-but-heady Delhomme could be the catalyst for the Panthers' six-game winning streak, a skein that includes three playoff triumphs with the last two of those on the road, could not have been predicted based on the first half of the season. Not even the two palm readers listed in the Breaux Bridge directory could have seen it coming. But, as noted by ESPN.com in a "Tip Sheet" column two weeks ago, Delhomme is a different player, and with different responsibilities, over the past two months.
In the first eight games, offensive coordinator Henning brought Delhomme along slowly, calling running plays on 63.3 percent of the Panthers' 1999 first-and-10 snaps. For much of that period, Carolina was successful by pounding tailback Stephen Davis at opposition defenses, eroding front-seven units and gobbling up real estate with plenty of muscle.
But during those first eight games, Carolina had just six completions of 20 yards or more, and only two completions of 30-plus yards, on first-and-10. And there came a point when defenses consistently brought their strong safety down "into the box," to create an eight-man front, and simply running Davis became counterproductive. In the first eight games, the Panthers averaged but 9.1 pass-play calls (including sacks) on first-and-10. And there were four games when Henning called six or fewer pass plays in first-and-10 scenarios.
At about mid-season, though, confident that Delhomme was starting to emerge, Henning provided the young quarterback a bit more leash.
The result: Counting the final eight regular-season games and the Panthers' three playoff victories, Henning has called pass plays on 44.2 percent of the first-and-10 snaps. The Panthers, in that period, have 23 completions for 20 or more yards on first down and 10 completions of 30 yards or more. There are seven games in that period in which Henning called at least 10 pass plays on first-and-10.
Never one to lavish too much praise on a quarterback, especially one still immersed in the maturation process, Henning termed Delhomme "an excellent fit" for what the Panthers are trying to do offensively. Veteran teammates agree that the square peg has been nicely sanded down now to fit into the round hole.
"For a guy who didn't get many snaps with the first team in training camp, well, it's only natural he wouldn't have the best feel for all the receivers," said Panthers veteran wideout Muhsin Muhammad. "But he's caught up quickly. His instincts for what we're going to do are so much better now. And he really is fearless, especially late in games, when it's all on the line."
Indeed, Delhomme's passer efficiency rating in the fourth quarter and on third-and-long ranks among the best in the league.
Noted the young quarterback, casually, but with nary a hint of bravado, this week: "I don't mind the pressure. In fact, I kind of like it, because it forces you to focus even more than you usually might. The more you play, the more you get used to it, you know?"
They know, for sure, in Breaux Bridge, where telephone poles and street signs have been bedecked in Panthers colors, where a parade is being planned, where they have named a sandwich after Jake Delhomme, and where the quarterback has now become even bigger than the annual Crawfish Festival celebrated in May.
Their native son is the biggest thing in town since Ali Landry won the Miss USA pageant in 1996. There was a flurry during the past year, too, when the locals closely followed the exploits of another Breaux Bridge product, Houston Texans rookie tailback and former LSU star Domanick Davis. But lately all eyes have been on Delhomme and, of course, his big eyes have been on the big prize.
"I know a little bit about (horse) racing," said Delhomme, a partner in a thoroughbred business. "And maybe the 'place' and the 'show' spots would be something I could take in a race. But in this game, the 'win' slot is the only one that counts, and the only thing we're shooting for."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.