Delhomme's game to try to become a household name

Panthers QB knows win over Eagles would bring him much more attention

Nfl Playoffs

January 17, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Among the remaining playoff quarterbacks, there are the household names and there is Jake Delhomme.

Peyton Manning has earned a Most Valuable Player award. Tom Brady has earned a Super Bowl championship. Donovan McNabb has earned annual Pro Bowl invitations.

As for Delhomme, he didn't earn the Carolina Panthers' starting job until after the season opener. Few NFL fans knew about him at the start of the season, and fewer still can correctly pronounce his name to this day (Duh-LOAM and not DELL-home).

In tomorrow's NFC championship game, a relatively unknown 29-year-old who epitomizes the Panthers' comeback season might bear more weight than any of those quarterbacks when he faces an aggressive Philadelphia Eagles defense.

"I'm not going to try to compete with those other quarterbacks. I am who I am," Delhomme said in a news conference this week. "I'm just going to try to do what this offense wants me to do."

The Cajun from Breaux Bridge, La. - a town known for being the crawfish capital of the world rather than a quarterback hotbed - has found a home with a Panthers team that prides itself on a physical defense and a powerful running game.

Now, with Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis possibly sidelined with a quadriceps injury, the pressure falls on Delhomme, who will see an onslaught of blitzes from Philadelphia.

But pressure has never been a problem for him this season.

Nine of Delhomme's 12 wins have been decided by six points or fewer, including last week's 29-23 double-overtime win in St. Louis against the Rams. In those two extra quarters, he completed five of eight passes for 136 yards and hit Steve Smith for the game-winning, 69-yard touchdown strike.

Coming through in the end is the root of Delhomme's slowly growing reputation.

He can be nonexistent for three quarters and then take over a game, coming up with just enough mobility and arm strength to find a way to win. Seven of his 19 touchdown passes in the regular season came in the fourth quarter for the Cardiac Cats, who have scored the winning points on their final possession eight times.

"He does not feel pressure," Carolina coach John Fox said. "He applies it. The bigger the game, the better he gets."

All of this drama wasn't scripted from the beginning.

Delhomme signed with the Panthers as a free agent from New Orleans with nearly as many stints in NFL Europe (two) as career NFL touchdown passes (three) before this season.

He began the season backing up 15-year veteran Rodney Peete and wasn't called upon until the Panthers trailed the Jacksonville Jaguars 17-0 at halftime of the opener. Instantly putting his imprint on the team, Delhomme delivered three second-half touchdown passes to spark Carolina to a 24-23 victory, winning him a permanent job.

When asked if this is what he envisioned when he decided to put Delhomme in to replace Peete in Week 1, Fox said after Saturday's divisional win, "If you want me to answer honestly, no, I didn't see this. I was just trying to do something that would hopefully add a spark and help us win a football game.

"If you want me to say I saw him taking us to the NFC championship game this season, no, I can't say that."

The moment is equally surreal for Delhomme, whose most extensive action last season came in a 103-yard passing performance against the Ravens.

"Honestly, I'd be lying if I tried to give you a straight answer right now," Delhomme said of his expectations when he joined Carolina. "When I signed here, did I think we'd be playing in the NFC championship game? Probably not. I was just looking for an opportunity, take it and run with it."

That run has led to becoming one of the hottest quarterbacks in the playoffs. His 563 yards passing and 100.8 quarterback rating rank behind only Manning this postseason.

Still, Delhomme trails Manning, Brady and McNabb in notoriety. But whenever he has trailed this season, he usually finds a way to come out on top.

"Certainly those guys have earned [the hype]," he said. "Starting with this guy [McNabb] we're playing this week. He's fabulous. You talk about a guy that wills his team to win. He's been doing it for a few years now.

"Then you look at Peyton, he's unconscious. And then there's Brady, who has a Super Bowl ring, so that's all you need to say about him. And I'm maybe the other guy. I'd love to be considered one of those guys."

Conference finals

Tomorrow's games

Indianapolis at New Eng. (-3), 3 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Carolina at Philadelphia (-4), 6:45 p.m., chs. 45, 5

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