Like many Carolina Panthers fans, I have always had a soft spot for Jake Delhomme.
In 2003, his first year as Carolina’s quarterback, Delhomme engineered the most magical season in Panthers’ history. The undrafted free agent had languished on the bench for years in New Orleans. But he directed a Super Bowl run that fell only a field goal short for a team nicknamed the “Cardiac Cats” because of its comeback ability.
Now 40, Delhomme lives in Louisiana with his wife and two daughters and is very active in the horse business. He plans to attend the Panthers’ game Sunday at New Orleans and visit Carolina’s sideline in the pregame. I spoke to Delhomme on the phone a few days ago.
Because Delhomme remains one of the best guys to interview that the Panthers have employed – honest and self-deprecating – I have expanded my normal “five questions” format this week so we can let Jake talk a little longer.
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You don’t mind, do you? You must use your imagination to conjure up his Cajun accent, though.
Q. So what are you up to these days?
A. I’ve got a basketball game to coach tonight. I coach my seventh-grade daughter and so of course I coach my 8-year-old too. My voice sounds raspy because yesterday I had two practices back-to-back. But it’s fun. I love it. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.
And there’s always the horses, of course. That’s not a hobby. That’s something we do constantly. I’m on the board here for our thoroughbred breeders association. I have two business partners. I have 6-10 horses in Louisiana running right now and we own about 8-10 more in Kentucky, although we run (races) strictly in Louisiana. It’s a never-ending cycle. You try to buy and to sell at the right time.
Q. I know you keep up with the Panthers on TV, but will this New Orleans game be the first Carolina game you have seen in person in 2015?
A.Yes, absolutely. I try to make it to Charlotte, I really do. But the kids play soccer almost every Saturday and/or Sunday. It’s always things like that. I will be rooting hard for the Panthers Sunday, though.
Q. Before the season began, how did you think this Carolina season would shake out?
A. I’m going to be perfectly honest. I really thought the Kelvin Benjamin injury was going to hamper the Panthers more than it has.
I did a local interview in Louisiana right after the preseason. I said I thought Tampa is going to struggle mightily with Jameis Winston. I said that I don’t think New Orleans is a good football team and that people might get upset with me saying that, but I just don’t. Defensively, I can’t name one player, really and truly. I wasn’t trying to be mean.
Atlanta scared me a little because of Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. ... And I said I thought Carolina was head and shoulders above the division except the Kelvin Benjamin injury worries me.
Q. Why are the Panthers 11-0?
A. Everybody forgets how stunted Cam Newton’s growth was last season because of all his injuries. Now the game has slowed down for him, that’s the biggest thing. He’s in total control, he doesn’t panic in the pocket, and his sheer strength and size enables him to make so many more plays because he can just stand in there with adversity coming around him and muscle in a throw.
In the night game against Indy, it was fourth-and-1. They hit Cam behind the line of scrimmage. He bounced through them, reached an arm out and got the first. That’s the part that is so demoralizing to a defense and so uplifting to an offense.
Q. What about the Panthers’ defense?
A. That is a track team. You have Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly demanding excellence out of everybody on the defense. And Josh Norman is doing the same thing as Cam is – he’s coming into his own, playing lights out.
As for Jared Allen, he died and went to heaven. The situation in Chicago wasn’t ideal for him, so now he’s a situational pass rusher in Carolina. ... It’s all a good mix. The Panthers are a dangerous team. And the biggest thing they have going for them is they are so confident. They believe in one another. They truly seem to enjoy one another.
Q. On offense, the popular theory now is that losing Benjamin may have made Cam a better QB this season because it forced him to spread the wealth. Do you buy that?
A. You do change as a quarterback when that happens. My best year statistically was the year I did not have Steve (Smith). He broke his ankle in ’04. So literally, we changed our offense (and Delhomme posted career highs with 29 TD passes and 3,886 yards). ... Keary Colbert had his best year, playing Steve’s position.
And we manufactured a lot of plays for Moose (Muhsin Muhammad) out of play-action and two tight-end sets. He led the league in TDs (16) and receiving yards (1,405) that year. Then Steve came back the next year, in 2005, and led the league in those two categories plus receptions, too. All of that meant me having to evolve and it made me a better quarterback.
Q. You had Muhammad, Smith and a running back in Stephen Davis that rushed for 1,444 yards during your Super Bowl year. What do you think of the Panthers’ current offensive weapons?
A. Greg Olsen seems to be drinking from the fountain of youth. He’s so much better than any tight end I’ve seen in the NFC right now. It’s not even close. He’s not a tight end. He’s basically a receiver. He’s so fast.
Jonathan Stewart – and I guess I have to find some wood to knock on – he has stayed healthy. He runs over people. Mike Tolbert is the same way – a bowling ball. The pieces are there.
Q. Can the Panthers go 19-0?
A. I don’t know who they are going to play that is better than they are. The Giants game (Dec. 20 on the road) maybe could have bad weather, but I think we are made for bad weather. And I say ‘we’ because I still consider myself a Panther.
There’s a chance to go 19-0. I’ve talked to a few people there inside the stadium and they say this team wants to work, that it wants to be great. So yeah, there’s a strong possibility.
I’m just hoping it doesn’t become too big on the outside, that it is too much ‘Undefeated, undefeated.’... You wonder if Kentucky’s basketball team would have been better off having a loss earlier last year before the NCAA tournament? I’m not saying that’s the case, but it seems likely.
Q. Who worries you the most in the NFC in terms of possible playoff opponents for Carolina?
A. I’m always worried about Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers. Seattle is going to be a dangerous wild-card team. But Arizona is the team that scares me the most – so many offensive weapons.
Q. Is this 2015 Panthers team better than your 2003 team?
A. Whew. That’s a tough question.
Look, we were never 11-0 (the 2003 Panthers finished the regular season 11-5). I think this 2015 team is really, really good. I don’t think people in our ’03 season or in 2015 looked at the Panthers as a Super Bowl contender.
Now we were a good team in 2003, good in all three phases. We had two young pups in me and Steve (Smith), both in our first year as starters. Cam has played a lot more games now than I had played then. That’s one advantage he has.
As far as our secondary, we didn’t have a shutdown corner like Norman. And Luke Kuechly is just so dominant. He really is. He makes every play, as does Thomas Davis. I don’t know, though. It would be a good game between us.
Q. OK, let me put it this way. What is the chance that the 2015 Panthers win the first Super Bowl in franchise history?
A. I think it’s greater than a 50 percent chance. There’s a strong shot to make a deep, deep run. I just hope Cam limits his hits. I know he is Superman but you want to limit the hits on him.
He can take a hit, though. I try to explain to people about the first time I ever saw Cam in the locker room a few years back. I said, ‘Oh my gosh. I can see why they can’t tackle him!’ That is a massive man.