In his first year as a starter, a little more than a decade ago, Louisiana native Jake Delhomme guided the Carolina Panthers to their first Super Bowl.
When the Panthers line up to play in their second Super Bowl on Sunday, Delhomme is planning to watch from the comfort of his home in Breaux Bridge. But he hasn’t lost his connection to the team that gave him an opportunity to be a starting NFL quarterback.
Delhomme recently spoke to The Advocate about the Panthers’ championship run, the generational talent that is Cam Newton and how Peyton Manning is poised to reach the game’s greatest height at nearly 40 years old.
The Advocate: The Panthers have really just been crushing people on the road to the Super Bowl. What’s it been like for you watching your old team dominate all the way there?
Jake Delhomme: It’s been fun. I’m still very close to that organization, very close to that owner (Jerry Richardson). There’s only five players on the team that were still playing when I was there in 2009, my last season (with the Panthers). So it’s few and far between with the players, but everyone in the organization — from the janitors, to the mail guy, to the locker room attendant, equipment managers, trainers, secretaries — that’s who you’re so proud of. It’s such a family-run organization and it’s run so well. I’m very happy for all those people, and I’ve gotten to know (Ron) Rivera and all the players and coaches from visiting the last few years.
They’re good. You’ve got to give them credit. They’re very good, and to be quite honest, they’re better than I thought. I knew they were a good team, obviously, but I went to that Seattle playoff game, and what I saw in the first half was really eye-opening. Gosh, this team, there’s not many flaws. You can say they don’t have the big-time receiver, but Cam gives so many problems to the defense that these receivers get open because everybody’s sitting on their heels waiting to see if he’s running it.
Advocate: What is it about the Panthers organization? They gave you a chance ...
JD: They did. I was lucky enough that I had two places that were going to sign me when I was a free agent to compete for a starting job: one was Dallas, one was Carolina. The other places, you’re going just as a backup. That’s just the way it goes to get an opportunity. When you see how many people they do miss on, pro scouts — Tom Brady goes, what, 199th overall? Kurt Warner undrafted? — you look at people like that. Aaron Rodgers, 20-some teams pass on him. I’m very happy that I got an opportunity in Carolina, it was the right place at the right time, and everything worked out.
The Advocate: What stands out in your memory about your own Super Bowl season?
JD: It was my first year starting. I was 28, turning 29 years of age. I had been in the NFL for a while, so I had seen the good and the bad — mostly the bad teams in New Orleans at that time. Obviously we had a couple decent seasons. We won the division and won the first playoff game in franchise history, so I saw some success being part of that team. But going there that season and being a part of it, it was almost like a blur, to be quite honest. But you just enjoyed it as it went along and you just truly realized the closeness that team had. All the good teams I’ve ever been on, there’s some kind of bond, a never-say-die attitude. I know it’s cliché, but that was the mentality of that team.
We had a lot of young guys. Stephen Davis was cast off from the Redskins; we had signed him. Ricky Proehl — people thought he was too old; we had signed him. Steve Smith was in his first year starting as a wide receiver; he was just known as a kick returner and a punt returner. We were a bunch of guys that were just full of confidence. We developed that along the way and kept winning games.
The Advocate: I’ve heard people say before that once you go to that first Super Bowl, especially as a relatively young guy, you kind of think that they’re going to come easy from then on.
JD: Absolutely. We had a fairly young team, for the most part. We knew we would lose guys, but we just knew we were going to be back. The following year after our Super Bowl, we started out the season 1-7. We had four new offensive linemen the following year at different positions. We lost player after player to injury, so you’re like, ‘My gosh, what’s going on?’ Then in 2005, two years after our Super Bowl season, we make it back to the NFC Championship Game, and you’re so close you can almost taste getting back, but we got beat by a better team in Seattle. You just die to get back to those winning seasons. There’s nothing like it.
That’s what players will tell you: There’s nothing like being part of a winning team and playing in those important games into December and January. Some of my fondest memories are going into New York and beating the Giants in a playoff game, going to Chicago and beating the No. 1 seed there, going to Philly and beating Philly, beating St. Louis, a No. 1 seed. Those are memories that you cherish for the rest of your life. There’s something about it.
Guys that have never played in a Super Bowl, let alone playoff games, they just don’t truly understand until they get there.
The Advocate: Have you ever seen a player do what Cam Newton is doing?
No. It’s not even close. You can’t compare him to anyone athletically. You look at athletic quarterbacks you’ve had the last 20 or 30 years, whatever it may be — Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Steve Young, we could name some others. But there’s nobody with his sheer size and strength. It’s not remotely close. Until you see him in person, you don’t realize how massive an individual he is. We haven’t seen that ever in the NFL, and teams are having trouble stopping it because he keeps everyone on their heels. You don’t know if it’s a handoff on the zone read and he can take off running with it, or make something happen in the pocket. His passing has progressed extremely well the last couple years. He stands in that pocket and he can take a hit and deliver a pass, whereas a lot of guys will take a hit and that ball will flutter. He’s so strong. He can stand in there and withstand some of those hits and make those throws.
The Advocate: I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play live. He’s playing LSU while he was at Auburn and a 6-foot-5, 250-pound guy was outrunning Patrick Peterson to the end zone. You knew he was special then.
JD: Yeah, the first time I ever saw him in person, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I was flabbergasted. You know he’s big, but you don’t know he’s that big. I was like, ‘I see why they can’t tackle him. I get it now.’
The Advocate: You were 29 when you guided the Panthers to the Super Bowl. Can you imagine doing what Peyton Manning is doing at 39?
JD: No, I couldn’t. It’s a great feat and it’s a testament to his part. That’s the reason he’s one of the greatest ever to lace them up, that’s for certain. If you look even just a little over a month ago, it didn’t look possible. Everybody said Peyton was done, it was Osweiler now, and who knows? Peyton might’ve felt the same way. But things have a way of working themselves out. He made enough plays for them last week, and their defense is one of the premier defenses in the NFL. That’s going to be an excellent matchup. Both defenses are so good. And all he needs to do is have one more good game, and he’s capable of doing that.
The Advocate: What’s it like for you seeing another Ragin’ Cajun go to the Super Bowl with the Panthers?
It’s great. It’s funny, we had a conversation before the Seattle playoff game, Charles Tillman and I on the field before the game. He had ACL surgery a few days earlier and he’s on the field in crutches. Charles, myself and Muhsin Muhammad were all talking, and Charles talked about this team, that there’s no doubt they were going to replace him. That’s the mentality of the team — it’s just next man up. He looked at Muhsin Muhammad and said, ‘Moose, our 2006 Bears team that went to the Super Bowl, we were just like that.’ Moose looked at me and said that’s how our ’03 team was. That’s when you get on those special teams.
I’m excited for Charles. We had lunch last March or late February, and he knew Chicago was going to be releasing him. I said, ‘Hey, you never know. Think about Carolina. You’ll enjoy yourself there.’ And I know he certainly has.