Delhomme sees silver lining in long rehab from elbow injury

What might end up being one of the most significant passes in the history of the Carolina Panthers was thrown last Monday.

It traveled only 10 yards and was caught by trainer Ryan Vermillion. Still, quarterback Jake Delhomme's toss of a Nerf ball in the Bank of America Stadium training room might be the first step toward fixing an offense that was dismal in a 7-9 season.

The Panthers rotated through quarterbacks David Carr, Vinny Testaverde and undrafted rookie Matt Moore. The team and its fans -- more than ever -- came to understand Delhomme's value. His healthy return might be the key to getting Carolina back to the playoffs after two disappointing seasons.

Monday's pass was the first time Delhomme had thrown a ball of any kind since having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow 16 weeks ago. Delhomme also threw on Tuesday and Thursday and said he experienced no pain or soreness. For now, the Panthers are limiting Delhomme to 20 throws a day with the light ball.

"We'll keep doing this and, hopefully, go to a big ball out on the field in about a month or so," Delhomme said.

The team and Delhomme, who turned 33 in January, won't set a hard target date for his full return, but there's optimism he'll be ready for training camp.

"I don't want to sound naive about this because I know it was a serious operation," Delhomme said. "But I've seen how baseball players have been coming back from it faster and better in recent years. And I know how hard I've worked on the rehab and how much stronger than ever every part from my hands up through my shoulder has become through that process. I fully believe I'm going to be better because of all this."

Delhomme got off to one of the best statistical starts of his career in new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson's offense last season. But he said he'd been having elbow pain for several years and, in a September game in Atlanta, Delhomme's elbow and Carolina's season collapsed.

At first, the Panthers thought Delhomme might be able to rest the elbow and return in a few weeks. But after trying a few throws two weeks later, Delhomme knew surgery was the only choice. The operation was more extensive than originally thought. Delhomme revealed doctors also removed a large bone spur from the back of his elbow and patched up a hole in a muscle near the elbow.

That led to months of what seemed like inactivity for one of the most rambunctious Panthers. But there was a lot more going on behind the scenes. In addition to being a sideline presence on game days and at most practices, Delhomme went through a grueling rehab process that focused first on getting his extension and flexion back.

Then came the strengthening of his arm, which included a recipe he hadn't tried before. One of Delhomme's regular drills has been to dip his hand and arm into a barrel and scoop handfuls of rice.

"That may not sound like much, but that rice is a killer and I've gotten a lot stronger doing that," Delhomme said.

Delhomme worked on his rehab seven days a week, always taking the first bus from the hotel to the stadium on game days to go through his workout. Team officials have said all along that Delhomme is on, or ahead of schedule, for a player with his type of injury.

As long as his recovery continues to go as planned, Delhomme will head to training camp as the unquestioned starter. Testaverde has retired and Carr, who struggled mightily, is likely to be cut. Moore and Brett Basanez, who missed last season with a wrist injury, are expected to battle for the backup job, although the Panthers could bring in a veteran for insurance.

But if Delhomme can keep progressing the way he has, Carolina might not need a lot of insurance.

"In all honesty, there's a part of me that's happy this all happened," Delhomme said.

"The last couple years, the elbow was really giving me problems and I was playing through them. I'm not sure how long I could have gone on like that. But the elbow's stronger than it was before and it's going to be better than it was before. I think this has probably added some years onto my career."

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.