CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme suffered ligament damage late in the 2006 season, followed by an elbow injury last year. During that stretch, the Panthers went a miserable 9-12.
For a team that had been to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season, the NFC title game after 2005 and had a 6-5 record going into the game Delhomme was initially injured against Philadelphia, it was a disaster. There was no bright side. With no Delhomme, there was no chance.
"We did all right with what we had," linebacker Jon Beason offered as a defense.
It won't make much of a marketing slogan, but give Beason credit for trying. The struggles of the past can be laughed off at this point.
Here was Delhomme, back from Tommy John surgery pitching the ball all over Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. Here was Steve Smith (back from suspension) and Muhsin Muhammad (back from a stint with Chicago) torching the secondary. Here was a team having so much fun, Smith even gave a touchdown ball to Ken Lucas – the teammate he once punched out in training camp.
Here were the Panthers, 3-1 after a resounding 24-9 victory over Atlanta. Even better, lowly Kansas City arrives next week.
The Cats are back.
"It almost feels like we're picking up where we left off," Muhammed, a star on the Super Bowl team, said.
That applies to no one more so than Delhomme, who is playing better statistically than anytime in his 10 season career. He went 20-for-29 for 294 yards, two touchdown passes and had neither an interception nor a sack Sunday. His QB rating was an impressive 124.8.
He remains an emotional kind of winner, a fiery leader who's prone to horrible mistakes and heroic comebacks … often in the same game. He set the tone this season with a final second, game-winning touchdown pass in the opener against San Diego. Those are the kind of victories that made him famous.
These are the kind he's trying to deliver now, courtesy of sharp, smart play and minimal mistakes.
"I'll tell you what, these are the fun games," he said of watching the clock run down from the sideline, backup Josh McCown performing kneel-down duties. "You make enough plays to get a lead and then let the defense get after it. That's enjoyable. You'll take that any day of the week."
No one's talking about the Panthers in the NFC, and for good reason. The Giants are the defending champions. Dallas and Philadelphia have the star QBs.
Yet here are the Panthers, right there with another recent retro act, tied with 3-1 Tampa Bay atop the NFC South. It's five years ago all over again.
Mostly it has its quarterback and the swagger he brings with him back. Delhomme has never been the purest passer around. He can be an acquired taste. Just last week, Minnesota's Jared Allen, after a sack-happy victory over the Panthers, questioned whether Delhomme was too emotional to lead his team.
Around here, they wouldn't want it any other way. Not after the last season and a half of rotating question marks at quarterback.
"When things don't always go right, he's the guy always telling you, 'We'll get them next time,' " tight end Dante Rosario said.
"We've played together, we've had some good years together," said Muhammad, who finished with eight catches for 148 yards and a 36-yard touchdown catch. "There's a chemistry here. Chemistry is something people (undervalue). It's invaluable.
"You can't just throw a team together. That is one thing you didn't have to teach us."
Delhomme said almost a full season away from the game – he played just the first three games last season – helped him appreciate the opportunity to play and the fragile nature of opportunity. There isn't an endless parade of "next years."
As a result, he's returned perhaps more focused than ever. Even when the Panthers were winning, Delhomme's interceptions were high and his QB ratings low (in the 80s). His daring comebacks became the personality of the club.
Under the system of coordinator Jeff Davidson, he's been mostly excellent and the hope is he's a steadier hand now. If so, Carolina might actually be better.
"You break your season down into (four game) quarters," Delhomme said. "You love to go 3-1 in each quarter. You finish 12-4 and you know you've got your foot in the door."
While the playoffs are far off, the potential is clear. Carolina has its quarterback, its leader and its personality back. After everything stalled out here, it's soaring again. What was once a year-in, year-out contender has survived the storm.
"It was a lot of fun," Muhammed said.
It's just beginning.