Humble QB looking to build on '03 success

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- As evidenced by the slightly sweat-stained blue baseball cap, its bill tilted ever so rakishly upward as he addressed the media during the break between Saturday practice sessions, Jake Delhomme hasn't allowed success to go to his head.

The lone luxury the Carolina Panthers quarterback permitted himself after signing a six-year contract extension in June that could pay him as much as $38 million, and included about $12 million in bonuses: A brand-new, souped-up Kubota tractor to help mow the grass at the Lafayette, La., horse farm in which he is a partner.

Had the homespun Delhomme completed the improbable journey for both the Panthers and himself on Feb. 1 to upend the heavily favored New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, he almost certainly would have won a Cadillac as the game's most valuable player. Then again, since Cadillac doesn't manufacture pick-ups, it's a good bet Delhomme would have had a difficult time choosing a vehicle from the company's upscale product line.

He would have probably been about as uneasy tooling around his hometown of Breaux Bridge, La., in a Caddy as he is discussing his new contract, a deal that made Delhomme richer than his dreams and provided him and his family unimagined security. There is a certain discomfort level, one that harkens back to a time when it was considered impolite to ask a man about the size of his paycheck, with which one assumes Delhomme grew up and which he still exhibits.

So is it even remotely possible that success might spoil Delhomme? Uh, probably not.

"Down home, money doesn't define who a person is, and that won't ever change, I don't think," said Delhomme, the latest in a long line of notable quarterbacks from the Bayou State. "Pretty much the only time I have to talk about (the new extension) is when I am somewhere other than home. I mean, I was raised to believe that you try to enjoy yourself as much as possible. You go out and live your life."

Right now, Delhomme is living life, and definitely living it large.

The money aside, Delhomme is in a good place right now, at a level he wasn't certain he would ever get the chance to achieve, at least at the professional level. Along with wife Keri and 19-month-old daughter Lauren, with whom he recently moved into a new house in Charlotte that was purchased even before he got his big raise, there aren't any material needs that seem a priority. Indeed, a guy who appeared in just six games during his first five seasons, who threw only 86 passes in an often frustrating tenure with New Orleans, isn't quite on top of the football world.

But he's darn close. And from where Delhomme is perched, the view, apparently, is pretty good.

"Yeah, I think there are probably some times when he wants to pinch himself," allowed wide receiver Ricky Proehl. "This has all come pretty fast. But he's earned it. Jake is one of those overnight sensations, like they say, who was a lot of years in the making. Jake had to go around the block a few times."

The man most responsible for bringing Delhomme to Carolina, and for signing him to a modest, two-year, $4 million deal in the spring of 2003 as an unrestricted free agent, is Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. For reasons that not even he fully understands, Hurney began to plot the acquisition of Delhomme more than a year before he hit the free agent market. His sparse playing time notwithstanding, there was simply 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.

"All I know is, any time he got a chance to play, he made something good happen," said Hurney. "And even on tape, you could see his passion for the game, and how it rubbed off on his teammates. He just has that kind of spark about him."

The Saints made a lukewarm attempt to retain Delhomme before he bolted for Carolina, 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 last spring.

Noted one league personnel director, who now concedes he "kicks (himself) a lot" for not making a better evaluation of a quarterback most scouts felt would be nothing more than a journeyman backup: "He wasn't exactly at the top of many teams' wish lists."

For that matter, Delhomme, 29, wasn't even at the top of the Panthers' depth chart at the outset of the 2003 regular season. Coach John Fox, who like Hurney had developed a feel for Delhomme's innate moxie just from videotape study, explained Saturday that he had been leaning toward awarding the youngster the starting job. But longtime vet Rodney Peete hadn't played poorly enough to lose the job and the competition in preseason had been very close among all three Panthers quarterbacks.

But with Peete playing poorly in the opener, and the Panthers trailing Jacksonville, the hook came out and Delhomme went in, directing a rally that resulted in victory. From there, he started the remainder of the season, completing 266 of 449 passes for 3,219 yards, with 19 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions.

Along the way, there were some roller coaster moments, and even Fox acknowledged that "it wasn't always peaches and cream." Twice in victories over Tampa Bay, the youngster nearly squandered the game away with bad interceptions. But, for the most part, the good outdistanced the not-so-good. And, of course, in the Super Bowl loss, Delhomme was on fire in the second half, after playing poorly for two quarters.

Truth be told, the performance was vintage Delhomme, who can be as scattershot as Mr. Magoo at a skeet-shooting contest for long stretches, and then become uncannily sharp, especially when throwing the ball vertically. Part of the success is that Delhomme has a positively terminal case of selective amnesia, and doesn't permit poor plays to stick with him too long.

He noted that, while playing in Europe, Warner lectured him on the need to put plays quickly behind him, to relegate interceptions to the dustbin, to purge individual memory banks of the negatives. He learned the lesson well.

"Interceptions, they're going to happen, OK?" Delhomme said. "They're a part of the game. If you've thrown one, trust me, you'll throw another at some point. But you just can't spend a whole game kicking yourself. You let that stuff rattle around in your head too long and you just end up playing (timidly). Hey, I'm no gunslinger by any means, but I've never played the game scared, either."

It might not be to the point yet where Delhomme strikes fear in opponents but, if the second half of last season is any indication, that day could be coming.

In the first eight games Delhomme started last year, offensive coordinator Dan Henning brought him along slowly, calling running plays on 63.3 percent of the Panthers' 199 first-and-10 snaps. For much of that period, Carolina was successful by pounding tailback Stephen Davis at 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 just 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 called pass plays on 44.2 percent of the first-and-10 snaps. The Panthers, in that period, had 23 completions for 20 or more yards on first down and 10 completions of 30 yards or more. There were seven games in that period when 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.

This remains a team, even with its improved weaponry, that plays close to the vest. That said, Fox wants to cut loose a little more in 2004. The self-deprecating Delhomme, who teammates liken, because of his Cajun heritage, to Bobby Boucher, the Adam Sandler character in the '98 movie "The Waterboy," is eager to push the envelope.

"I know I'm not all the way there yet," said Delhomme, "but I also know that I'm getting better every day. Who knows? Maybe this year, it all comes together for me, and we take that one more step and win it all."

Here hoping, if that's the case, that Cadillac is manufacturing tractors by then.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.