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Unfinished Business

Haunted by their Super Bowl loss of two seasons ago and eager to prove that last year's struggles were an injury-driven fluke, Jake Delhomme and the Panthers are intent on winning it all--now

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of that Super Bowl. The sounds, the smells, the emotion in Reliant Stadium. Greatest game I ever played in. You get that far, and you lose the biggest game of your life on a field goal on the last play.... To get back there, it drives me. It drives us."  --Carolina Quarterback Jake Delhomme on the Panthers' 32-29 loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII

It's not strange to hear passionate words after the loss of a big game, but Jake Delhomme and his teammates are still haunted by that Super Bowl. Remember what happened? The Cinderella Panthers, two years removed from a 1-15 season, trailed the Patriots 21-10 early in the fourth quarter in Houston. Suddenly Delhomme began mad-bombing New England. Eighty-one-yard drive. Touchdown. Ninety-yard drive. Touchdown. Eighty-yard drive. Touchdown. Tie ball game, 29-all. But then came Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard dagger.

As Delhomme sat in the cramped and humid visitors' locker room at Giants Stadium last Saturday night after a 27-21 preseason loss to the Giants, there was no mistaking how driven he and his teammates are to make amends for that devastating Super Bowl. And this may be the year they do it. The Panthers finished 7-9 last season, with four of their most valuable players limited by injuries to a combined nine starts. But this year, in a watered-down NFC--with Philadelphia distracted by off-field problems, Atlanta searching for weaponry to support Mike Vick and Green Bay severely challenged defensively--the door's open. Minnesota? Maybe, if five new defensive starters can improve an awful unit. Dallas? Probably a year away. Carolina? If the Panthers can find a consistent running back and overcome the loss of receiver Muhsin Muhammad to Chicago in free agency (after he had turned in one of the most productive years in NFL history), they're deep enough to turn the clock back to 2003.

Last week Carolina coach John Fox made a bold admission, which he almost never does. He said this was the most talented of the four Panthers teams he has coached. Fox is from the Andy Reid school of coaches, a group that believes that when speaking to the media, you should think of the most vanilla thing you can say, filter that, and say even less. "This is the most talented bunch we've had," he repeated on Saturday, "but it doesn't mean squat till we do something with it." Translation: I think we're really good, and unless we screw it up or turn into a MASH unit again, we should be playing deep into January.

With full first units on the field on Saturday for about 22 minutes against the improved Giants, Carolina was productive on offense and intimidating on defense, though the Panthers did make some dumb plays. Delhomme was involved in two blunders in four series. He and Ricky Proehl misread each other on a deep route, which New York took advantage of for an interception that led to a touchdown, and a catchable ball flew through backup back Rod Smart's hands for another Giants interception. Otherwise, Delhomme was excellent, completing 15 of 19 for 146 yards and one touchdown.

Considering the 30-year-old quarterback's strong performance over the past two seasons (.586 completion percentage, 7,105 passing yards, 48 TDs), it's startling to realize that Delhomme has spent more time in the league as a third-stringer than as a starter. It's surprising, too, to think that after six years languishing in New Orleans, he picked Carolina over Dallas in 2003, even though he had bonded with new Cowboys coach Bill Parcells over their mutual love of thoroughbreds. "Money was a pretty big factor," Delhomme says. When you're a bench guy and don't know how many more contracts you'll sign, a two-year, $4 million deal with the Panthers is better than two years and $3.2 million in Dallas. Imagine, though, how Delhomme would have helped the Cowboys over the past two years.

The Panthers are delighted to have him, even if not all of his passes are textbook-perfect. "Jake makes some throws that look unsound, but they get there," says wideout Steve Smith. "You always know the ball, somehow, is going to be there." Delhomme, in turn, is thrilled to again be throwing to Smith, who caught 88 passes for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns in 2003 but broke his left leg while being tackled in the '04 season opener and didn't play another game. Carolina is hoping that Smith and free-agent signee Rod Gardner, an underachieving former first-round pick of the Redskins, can make up for the loss of Muhammad, who had 93 catches for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.

Carolina's other offensive worry is at running back. Incumbents Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster both missed most of last year with injuries. The Panthers have no idea what they will get out of Davis after microfracture surgery on his right knee last November. Foster, back from a broken collarbone, carried the ball 11 times for 39 yards on Saturday but has a history of getting hurt; he has missed 30 games over the last three seasons. Though offensive coordinator Dan Henning likes to mash defenses with his running game, last year Carolina ran the ball 100 times fewer than in 2003 because of the injuries to Davis and Foster. Given the uncertainty about the durability of those two, Henning can't be happy that second-round pick Eric Shelton, a pounding runner out of Louisville, hasn't been as tough as expected. Every team has an Achilles' heel, and the running game might be the Panthers'.

It won't be the defensive front. Just ask Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who was chased into downtown Moonachie on Saturday night by the relentless Carolina rushers. He was sacked twice for 34 yards and victimized on a remarkable play by defensive end extraordinaire Julius Peppers. Steaming around $36 million right tackle Kareem McKenzie, Peppers kept McKenzie at bay with a right stiff-arm and with his outside arm pawed the ball out of Manning's hand. Peppers then picked up the bouncing fumble and ran 29 yards for a touchdown, capping the score by dunking the ball over the goalpost, a feat reminiscent of his days as a forward at North Carolina. "That's Pep," said linemate Mike Rucker. "He's changing the game at defensive end."

The starting front of Rucker, Peppers, All-Pro tackle Kris Jenkins (back from shoulder surgery) and Brentson Buckner collapsed the Giants line consistently. "We're not even peaking yet," Rucker said. "This year, we want to cause destruction and havoc every week."

Carolina had the same intentions last year but found itself at 1-7 before the leaves were off the trees. A Charlotte reporter told Fox that local fans thought the Panthers might be the worst team in football. And that week, against a San Francisco squad that was also 1-7, Carolina looked like it, falling behind 17-3 in the first half. "At halftime that day," Fox said, "I thought, Maybe that guy's right."

Delhomme remembers thinking, We've gone from the Super Bowl to maybe not winning another game the rest of the year. But Henning shifted to more of a passing game, putting the season in the hands of Delhomme, who threw for 17 touchdowns--three in the second half of a 37-27 win over the Niners--and four interceptions the rest of the way. The Panthers won six of their last eight but missed the playoffs by losing to the Saints the final week of the season.

Carolina has had to face heartrending challenges this year. Linebacker Mark Fields, who missed the 2003 season with Hodgkin's disease, is fighting a recurrence and will miss another season. Assistant coach and former linebacker Sam Mills, the emotional pillar of the team, died of intestinal cancer on April 18. "I think what Sam meant to us will still be with every player," general manager Marty Hurney says. "Do everything the right way. Overcome adversity. It's what he did every day, even when he was sick."

Delhomme has tried to embrace Mills's don't-waste-a-day attitude and has always shared the late linebacker's competitive spirit. On Saturday afternoon Delhomme sat glued to a TV in the ballroom reserved for the Panthers' brunch. The Little League World Series was on, featuring Lafayette, a team from his native Louisiana, against a squad from Maine. "Let's get something going here!" Delhomme said, exhorting his boys before they batted in the sixth. Then he had to leave for a quarterbacks meeting.

As fate would have it, Lafayette rallied for three in the bottom of the sixth to win. That night, after his own game, Delhomme, down from losing and throwing those two interceptions, brightened when told of the comeback. "I heard about it," he said. "That's something. Maybe that's a good sign for this Southern boy. We could use some good luck." He shouldn't worry too much: Good teams make their own luck.


Photograph by Bill Frakes


Since spurning Dallas in favor of Carolina in 2003, longtime third-stringer Delhomme has been first-rate.




The gifted Peppers (opposite) and the returning Smith (89) give Carolina gamebreakers on both sides of the ball.



[see caption above]



NOW HEAR THIS Carolina's defensive front of Peppers (90), Rucker (seated), Buckner (99) and Jenkins might be the NFL's best.