In this very space, way back before anyone outside of the Carolinas or Louisiana had any idea how to pronounce his name, these were some not-so-kind words used to describe Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme.
He was called Jake the Fake, a media-made phenomenon who had no business getting the attention he was receiving as a free-agent quarterback.
Jake Delhomme steps into the bright of the Super Bowl spotlight. (AP)
Some eight months later, Delhomme is proving all doubters -- led by the guy writing this story --- wrong in a big, big way. On Sunday, Delhomme will start for the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium against the New England Patriots, one victory away from another where-did-this-guy-come-from story.
It will cap a wild season that has seen him open on the bench behind Rodney Peete and included his leading the Panthers to a 7-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less. Delhomme threw seven touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of games during the regular season, prompting the idea this was his magical season.
We know the kind. A guy comes from nowhere, battles all kinds of odds, plays in any league for any team that will have him and then winds up as a Super Bowl quarterback. And the hero of his hometown -- in Delhomme's case that means Breaux Bridge, La.
It happened with one Kurt Warner, and then Tom Brady. Who says you need to get your passers in the first round of the NFL Draft?
"That quarterback will still cure a lot of ills," one NFC personnel director said. "But you can bet with what's happened the past couple of years, teams will study the not-so-premium quarterbacks, too.
"What Brady and Delhomme have done is going to make a lot of people take note."
The feeling here is premium passers will still make up for not having strength in other areas. Quarterbacks still drive this game. But what Delhomme is doing in getting his team to the Super Bowl is showing what a quarterback can do when he "manages" a game.
That's a buzzword these days around the NFL. Teams want to play good defense, run the ball on offense and just ask the quarterback to manage the game. It's a kind way of saying the passer can't win it with just his arm, but it also appears to be a secret to success.
"I really haven't seen a lot of him, but I would say the big thing is he is a winner," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He is making the plays that he needs to make for Carolina to win.
"That is what a quarterback's job is. It's not about stats. It's about wins."
Delhomme, in the Panthers' system, is a winner. Carolina went 11-5 during the regular season and is 3-0 in the playoffs, including a 14-3 victory over the Eagles last week in the NFC Championship Game.
That game was vintage Panthers offensive football. Delhomme threw just 14 passes, three in the second half. The game was won on the ground, with a ball-control offense, which seems to be perfectly suited to what Delhomme can do.
"He's not a guy that turns the ball over a lot," Panthers tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. "He a guy that works well in that offense, play-action pass, going up top to Steve and hitting Muhsin a couple of times with short passes. He's always been an efficient guy. Now the nation is getting a chance to see what he can do because of the playoffs."
This isn't to imply Delhomme can't make plays down the field when needed, because he can. In the past month, he has become much more effective as a passer, hitting big plays at key times in key games.
In the first two playoff games, Delhomme completed 34 of 55 passes for 563 yards, two touchdowns and one interception before reverting to the "manage" role against the Eagles. So, when given the chance, he can make the plays.
"I have to do what my offense dictates for me to do, both in my reads and my progressions, and not try to be the hero," Delhomme said. "If something is there, then I'm taking it. If it's not there, then I'm throwing it away or checking it. I try not to turn the ball over or make mistakes."
Don't make mistakes. Take care of the ball. Don't be stupid.
|Jake Delhomme has made a believer out of John Fox and throngs of Panthers fans.(AP)|
Could he whip it around 30 times a game and be a consistent winner? Probably not, because if he could, he wouldn't have waited this long to be starter. Heck, he wouldn't have opened the season on the bench behind Peete.
So, yeah, even the Panthers coaches had their doubts about Delhomme, even if word is they planned to have a quick trigger with Peete anyway.
It took a half for Delhomme to come off the bench in the opener against Jacksonville. Down 14-0, he rallied the Panthers to a 24-23 victory that day.
He has been the starter ever since, prompting the city of Charlotte to brush up on the pronunciation of his name. The playoff run has made the nation do so, too.
For the record, it's Del-Loam, as in home. His Louisiana roots -- his hometown bills itself as the "Crawfish Capital of the World" -- have prompted teammates to call him Bobby Boucher in honor of the character Adam Sandler played in the movie, The Waterboy. Delhomme still makes his home in Breaux Bridge, living a deep throw away from his parents.
They have been with him on every step of his journey to being a Super Bowl quarterback. They have been there from the time he was a high-school hero -- playing quarterback and earning all-state honors at safety -- to his days sitting on the bench in NFL Europe behind Warner, a time when even Delhomme admittedly wondered if he had what it takes to be an NFL-caliber quarterback.
"Sitting on the bench over there did make me wonder," he said.
Yet, he fought on. In 1999, he started for the Frankfurt Galaxy and led them to the World Bowl title. That was followed by two starts that year for the Saints, but then two years of sitting on the bench without as much as throwing a pass.
He did throw 10 in 2002, completing eight, which was enough for the Panthers to sign him to a two-year, $4 million contract. That's bargain money for a starting quarterback, and the Panthers already say they plan to extend it, but you can bet it won't be cheap this time around.
Carolina might want to look to their opposing quarterback in the Super Bowl to see what can happen when a guy comes from nowhere to that magical season. Brady did it two years ago for the Patriots, coming off the bench in the second game of the 2001 season to lead them to a Super Bowl victory.
There are those who already making comparisons between Delhomme and Brady, although it might be a little too soon for that.
"Watching him play and how he handles himself is pretty impressive," Delhomme said. "I was in New Orleans at the time and we played them in October or November during that run that they started to make. I was able to see first hand that he was good.
"He does what they want him to do, and he wins. I think that is the biggest compliment that you can ever give a quarterback, if he's known as a winner.
"It made me realize that if you do get an opportunity, take advantage of it. He took full advantage of it. Sometimes as a backup or third-string quarterback it will get long late in the season having to stay extra to watch film, but in the back of your mind, you have to wonder what if?
"What if it's this weekend? You better be ready, because when those opportunities come, you better take advantage of it."
Delhomme is living that credo. An avid horseman, who owns several race horses, his story could be the Seabiscuit of the NFL, the long shot who captures the hearts of a nation as he stuns the sports world.
Did some fool really call this guy Jake the Fake?